These are testing times for Rob Brydon fans. On Friday night's he's reminding us why we love him – sparring with Steve Coogan in midlife-crisis sitcom The Trip to Italy. But then on Saturday's he's hosting BBC1's The Guess List, a low-grade photocopy of Blankety Blank. Why, Rob, why?
In theory, the show’s format should suit him. It involves joking around with a panel of celebrities (arranged in rows, just like Blankety Blank), making full use of that slightly fawning, slightly bullying style of banter Brydon has perfected.
The idea is that the celebrities are asked to guess the answers to semi-risqué questions, then a non-celeb contestant chooses one of the answers. About the only things missing from Blankety Blank are that microphone that looked like a fencing foil – and Terry Wogan’s charm.
Where Wogan was almost eerily relaxed, Brydon is in perpetual motion, prodding his star guests for set-up lines. He does it slickly enough, but he rather-too-obviously has a series of quips prepared for each star, and works through them as the rounds progress. “Wonderful news about the Spice Girls reunion...” he joshes Mel C, “it’s not going to happen!” Or introducing Tess Daly: “It’s sexy Tess Daly – STD for short!”
In terms of style, he’s not a scurrying puppy like Michael McIntyre, more a comedy terrier, biting the ankles of a joke until it works. Barry Cryer talks about how some old-school comedians had the effect that when they came on stage you thought, “We’re all right here,” and sat back, knowing you were in for a good time. Brydon’s not quite like that: you always feel he’s pedalling hard, proving a point.
In The Trip to Italy, Brydon plays on the try-hard side of himself, rattling through comedy voices over dinner with Steve Coogan, flawlessly “doing” Roger Moore or Al Pacino to impress his (more) famous mate. It's an exaggerated impression of himself, but so some extent Brydon is always doing his impressions. His turn on The Guest List feels like a spot-on impersonation of a game-show host. If you saw it as part of a film, you'd think, "That's well observed – that's exactly what those cheesy Saturday-night shows are like.” Except, this is the real thing.
Brydon has always been a bit of a puzzle. Over the years, he has hosted both a chat show and a spoof chat show, which may be a unique achievement. The one where he was notionally himself didn’t feel much less arch than the one where he was playing a character (in The Keith Barret Show). Similarly, he’s hosted panel shows as well as a sitcom-parody of panel shows, BBC3’s Annually Retentive, with him playing, you guessed it, an extreme version of Rob Brydon.
I just wish he would hold out for projects worthy of his talents. Brydon is underrated as an actor: his performance as a wounded soldier in Paralympic drama The Best of Men was superb. In Gavin & Stacey his Uncle Bryn stole every scene he was in. He played Kenneth Tynan to critical acclaim in a BBC2 biopic. You feel if he could get away from playing himself, in various forms, and falling back on the finest Ronnie Corbett voice outside of Ronnie Corbett, he could produce something truly special. Failing that, Would I Lie to You? is back soon on BBC1. And for the peerless job he does hosting that, we’ll forgive him almost anything.