Ben Bailey Smith: Don’t call me cool…I’m a bookish geek

The star of ITV drama Brief Encounters and the new Ricky Gervais film Life on the Road talks to Ben Dowell about being a rapper who doesn’t like to be labelled

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Ben Bailey Smith – AKA rapper Doc Brown – is an actor, musician, brother of Zadie Smith, former youth worker and stand up comedian.

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He’s also about to feature as the love interest, copper-with-a-heart Johnny, in ITV’s engaging new comedy drama Brief Encounters (about a group of women who decide to sell Ann Summers underwear to make ends meet). And in August he will co-star alongside Ricky Gervais in the David Brent movie Life on the Road as Brent’s sidekick Dom Johnson.

Pretty cool, huh? Well yes, of course it is. But it’s not a word I would use if I were you (and I didn’t) – as the 37 year old hates it.

“I get that all the time. It’s a weird kind of reverse racism we don’t really complain about. It happens all the time and people say, ‘Oh, you don’t have to worry about that because you’re so cool. Like, oh my god, bow down, you’re cool’.”

The word is often fired in his direction in the Dave comedy gameshow Taskmaster in which Greg Davies’ eponymous master of tasks sets comedians various ridiculous tasks (series two has just started).

“If you watch this other new show, Taskmaster, there’s a constant reference to how cool I am and I just think, ‘look at me doing the task. I’m just me’. I’m uncomfortable with it, I have to say. Because it’s like, well, no, I’ve never stated that. I don’t think I’ve ever tried to do that.

“It’s almost like it comes from kind of liberal guilt or something, I don’t know. It always makes me unsettled. I used to have a bit in my stand up act where I’d act out this argument with another dude who’s like, ‘oh, you’re so cool.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m not cool’. And it gets really fraught to the point where we’re both shouting. I say, “look, I wave back at boats, okay? Happy now?’”

But Bailey Smith says this part of his act doesn’t usually make the edit on the small screen.

“They always just cut it on TV and use one of my raps! So it was like they were trying to make me look cool. I’m like, ‘Aren’t you listening to the bit?’ That gives you balance of who I am. I do a lot of cool shit, there’s no question about it, and I grew up wanting to be cool. Why else would I have got into rap? But I never fit well into the rap world. I still see myself as one of the best rappers in the UK but it’s a difficult skill to balance – rap and who you really are. And who I really am is…I’m a bookish geek. I’m the younger brother of one of the best writers in the world, there’s no denying that. But then at the same time, I’ve got part of the back story of the cool rapper or whatever but I’ve never sort of dined out on it.

“But you can’t get angry about it. It’s a weird one. You can and I do, but what I mean is, you know, if you do get angry about it then all of a sudden it’s like, ‘dude, what is your problem?; You have a chip on your shoulder. So that’s what I mean when I say you can’t. I do, but it’s not accepted.”

Being seen as the cool mixed race dude is central to the joke of his new Ricky Gervais film Life on The Road which is due for an August release and sees the return of Slough’s favourite (and most ghastly) paper merchant David Brent.

The joke is an expansion of the one in the Comic Relief record Equality Street that Bailey Smith made with Gervais; Brent is ecstatic at having a black friend – Bailey Smith’s Dom Johnson – because he thinks it makes him look great.

“In Life on the Road I’m me playing Dom Johnson, a sort of nice but dim bloke. He’s not the sharpest tool in the box. At all. In fact he’s a bit of an idiot. But a lovable idiot. And that is emphasised by how much time he spends with this massive idiot, David Brent.”

In the film they meet by chance at an open mic event and David has offered to pay for Dom’s studio time and manage him. Dom’s desperate to get a record deal and be a successful rapper. What’s the worst that can happen, Dom Johnson thinks?

“And obviously the worst that happens is that David tries to take over his career completely and there’s a very sort of passive aggressive, almost bitter father-son type relationship where David is constantly muscling in on him, constantly giving him ultimatums, forcing him to be part of these awful songs that he’s written…rock songs with rap sections. It’s awful stuff.”

You’ll be glad to hear that Brent never raps in the movie – but he does choose to feature Johnson in a song called Native American.

“It’s a heartfelt ode to the troubles of the Native American and he wants Don to come on stage dressed as a Native American. He’s like, ‘well look, that’s fine, but we’ve got one, so…’ and of course I’m not Native American.” He’s like, ‘Come on’.”

Bailey Smith’s working relationship with Gervais began, he says, by chance, like a lot of his career developments (he was a youth worker long before he was an entertainer). He was sitting in his garden in Islington, north London in 2012 when he got a call from a friend who said he wanted to put Ricky Gervais on the phone.

Gervais opened the call with the line “What’s up Doc?” – a joke Bailey Smith hears often and says he “hates” – and he refused to believe it was him, even when he delivered one of what he calls those “really annoying high-pitched laughs” of his.

“And I was like, ‘dude seriously, whoever this is I’ve got work to do so do you want to wrap it up;” And he starts laughing again and he passes the phone to this guy that I actually know and the guy says, ‘Hey Ben, it really is Ricky Gervais’.”

Gervais had seen some of his YouTube videos and invited him on a tour he was taking to Scandinavia and then asked him to appear on the Channel 4 comedy Derek where Bailey Smith played the paranoid community service worker Deon.

“I suppose the element of fortune was that I knew this guy who was a comedy promoter, a live promoter who I’d worked with a bit. And he knew the guy who promoted Ricky’s gigs. So that was my in, but it wasn’t something I was looking for, it sort of just fell in my lap.

“There a lot of elements of my career where I look back and think, ‘that is actually mad. Who does that happen to?’ Like, I’ve got so much sort of pride, sort of self-made man pride. I’ve never ridden my sister’s coat tails, I’ve never asked for anything from her.”

His sister, of course, is the award-winning writer of books like White Teeth and On Beauty. Bailey Smith happens to be sitting in the shed in his back garden at a desk with the word Zadie painted on in Tipp-Ex (remember Tipp-Ex?) on the side.

He beams when he says she wrote some of White Teeth at that desk and is, he says, “very very close” to his sister – someone he proudly describes as “massively influential”.

Both siblings are now parents and they made a pact with each other that, even though Zadie now lives (and teaches) in New York, their children would be close cousins.

“We’re going over in a few weeks as soon as school’s out. So we go back and forth, both of us, trying to make it equal. But she told me from the start to not get gassed up by this whole deal because it’s smoke and mirrors. It’s not real. If you play the fame game it will chew you up and spit you out and all of a sudden you’re that really famous guy who’s never on TV any more and it all looks a bit tragic.

“She always advises me well and I watch what she does closely. She never does any bulls**t. She very rarely gives interviews, and when she does they’re about something. She writes incredibly intelligent, thoughtful essays, in great publications. I’m hugely privileged in that I’ve got an advanced copy of her new novel and I can tell you it is amazing. It is so strong. It just comes flying out of the gates.”

With Brief Encounters and Life on the Road it seems like Zadie’s kid brother is about to follow in her footsteps. Not that he wants any of it to go to his head.

“I know with this movie it will get a bit more intense, but I think if I keep being myself, which I’m pretty certain I will because my family and my friends are all the same people I’ve been with my whole life. They’re the first ones who, if I take one of them to an awards show and have a little too much champagne, they’re the first ones to go, ‘dude, dial it in a bit. You’re being a bit of a dick’.”

Not that it would be easy to imagine him ever being that, well, uncool.

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Brief Encounters begins on ITV on July 4. Life on the Road is due for nationwide release on August 19