I have two versions of Marcus Brigstocke in mind before I talk to him.
One is Brigstocke the stand-up, acerbic regular on numerous panel shows from QI to Have I Got News for You, opinionated host of The Late Edition. The other Marcus is his enduringly popular comedy creation Giles Wemmbley Hogg, the upper-middle-class backpacker who bumbles good-naturedly around the world, trying to work out what it’s all about but somehow always missing the point.
I want to find out more about Giles Wemmbley Hogg Goes Off, which returns to BBC Radio 4 today for a fifth series, and when we finally get to chat, the off-air Marcus is something else again – friendly, easy-going and humorously self-deprecating.
Where did the idea of Giles come from?
“I used to be him – I’d like to say I’m not him any more but I probably am. I went travelling in South East Asia in my gap year and when I came back I wandered around London in a sarong espousing bits of Buddhist wisdom.”
I comment that it’s quite strong to be able to turn your younger self into an object of public ridicule. He laughs: “It’s become important for me as a writing method to be a dick for a while and then I’ll think, ‘Ahhh! This is useful.’”
Was Marcus a typical backpacker?
“When I went travelling it was a shock to me. It felt like the biggest adventure in the entire world. I really got a lot from it – apart from coming up with Giles.”
Posh puppy dog
So, how did Marcus the novice traveller scale up to the buffoonish caricature that is Giles?
“I did Giles as part of a one-man sketch show at Edinburgh and as soon as I did him, people just went mad. I think he really struck a chord because anyone who’s been to university has met, or been in a hall of residence with, a sort of posh, quite keen, puppy-doggish kind of person who is in many ways a bit contemptible but for the most part is very difficult to dislike.”
Has Giles changed over the years?
“I think when I started writing him I thought he was more stupid. Now I like him. It’s funny – sometimes in meetings, the guys suggest things and I get a bit defensive, a bit like, ‘No, Giles wouldn’t do that.'”
Are there a lot of laughs in the script meetings?
“Absolutely. It’s really nice if you’ve torn your hair out over the scripts and thought, ‘we’ll never get to the end’, or more often, ‘we’ll never get this down to 6,000 words from the 11,000 I’ve just written’ – and then we turn up on the day and the actors find it hard to get through the scenes because everyone’s giggling. That’s very gratifying.”
Do you ever have problems cutting the scripts?
“David Tyler, the producer, is for me the best comedy producer I’ve ever worked with. But there are times when he says, ‘We’re probably going to have to lose that’ and I’ll say, ‘No way!’ and then he wins.”
It’s clear Marcus really enjoys the experience of making Wemmbley Hogg, but what of his other, political satirist self, the author of some strongly opinionated blogs?
“Most of that stuff has come from doing Radio 4 comedy, to be honest. On The Now Show, where I had a topical slot, I had seven minutes to deliver a relatively impassioned rant. That was brilliant, and very good fun and challenging, and then after a while I became rent-a-rant – you know, just put me on the radio, give me seven minutes and you’d get a furious hurricane of opinion, which is fine but actually it stopped being sincere, I think.
“So I’ve slightly withdrawn from being that very opinionated person on the radio for the last 18 months or so and gone back to doing what I did to begin with, which was being a comedian.”
How does he cope with people who disagree with his views?
“It’s a bit scary sometimes when I do stuff because on the internet people can let you know how much they hate you if they want, and people are sometimes very unpleasant.
“I try in what I write to engage with the story and expose where people have been dishonest much more than if they’ve been stupid. Sometimes people are stupid, but if you’re stupid you can’t help it, if you’re dishonest that’s a different thing.”
It sounds like Marcus has softened a little. He periodically tweets affectionate thoughts about his two children. Has being a father changed his view of the world?
“Yes. It changes absolutely everything. It changes the way you respond to big news events and it definitely raises the ‘what sort of world have I brought my children into?’ question. But, outside of the fears you have, it also gives you a very joyful view of the world, if you watch your children in the way they respond to it.”
Do his children find him funny?
“Mostly, but they’re young – that will change!”
Finally, would Marcus like to see Giles on television again?
“Yes and no. The absolute joy with radio comedy, and especially with Giles, is that in one episode, if we want, he can visit four continents and the listener absolutely buys it. If you try to do it on telly, the logistics of just taking it to France are a nightmare.”
So what would be the advantages of TV?
“Well, more money! And, I suppose, it would reach a new audience. But the number of listeners on Radio 4 is in the millions, and they get it, and it’s a lovely place to work.”
Discover what happens when Giles Wemmbley Hogg Goes Off today, 11:30am, BBC Radio 4.