Rob Brydon on podcasting, panel shows and Gavin & Stacey: "I'm just going to do whatever I like"
The entertainer reflects on 20 years of work as his brand new podcast launches on Spotify.
In the early days of the UK's first lockdown, which saw much of Britain's television industry suddenly shut down, Rob Brydon was pondering what to do with his newfound spare time. That is, until a call came through from an old friend and colleague, producer Russ Lindsay, with a rather unexpected suggestion.
"He said, 'Have you ever thought of a YouTube channel?' Of course I've not thought of a YouTube channel, I'm in my fifties. Are you mad?" recalls the actor and comedian, who became a household name as part of the BBC's beloved sitcom Gavin and Stacey. "He talked for about an hour, and I was humouring him in all honesty."
The idea was to build a safe virtual space where Brydon could interview some of the brightest talents in the industry about their lives and careers. After careful consideration and a few test runs with a makeshift home setup, the likes of which many of us will be familiar with by now, Brydon's initial scepticism wore away and he found that he'd developed a "taste for it".
In the nine months that followed, two series of 'Brydon &' were produced for YouTube, attracting huge stars including Stephen Merchant, Will Ferrell, Dawn French and Sir Kenneth Branagh – and more than 1.5 million views to boot. Clearly, this lockdown project was striking a chord and the conversation then became about how to take it even further.
Enter Spotify. In response to a number of fan comments demanding longer episodes, the streaming giant stepped in to be the exclusive home of extended editions of Brydon &, allowing Rob and his guests to delve deeper into a wide variety of topics. While new to the world of podcasting, it's a place where he feels quite comfortable as someone with roots in radio and an affection for the medium, naming Alec Baldwin's Here's The Thing as a personal favourite.
"I suppose I would love it if these podcasts had a similar feel to them in that it's just a wonderful conversation to be eavesdropping in on," he says. "You just feel like you're at a dinner table with some really interesting people... and you sort of lose yourself in them."
"What I like is just listening and letting the guest lead," Brydon continues. "A bugbear of mine is you often have an interview where they will stick so rigidly to their questions that the person could say 'And then of course, I buried the body under the patio'. And the next question is: 'And you enjoy classic cars, don't you?' Well, hang on a minute, what about the patio? It's a great tip for acting, it’s a great tip for life, which is listen to what the other person is saying. And then hopefully, you'll find things that you weren't expecting."
He continued to draw from his social circle while putting together the line-up for series three of Brydon &, with comedian Jason Manford, actress Sheridan Smith and Texas lead singer Sharleen Spiteri among the confirmed guests. He admits that he's yet to interview anyone that he hasn't already met, but "the day will come".
"The natural thing is you ask your friends, I've got a lot of friends who are some of the funniest people in the country, so I would automatically think of them," he tells RadioTimes.com. "It will be interesting to see if the tone changes at all if it's with someone that I don't know, but we're all people in the same business one way or another.
"People say, ‘Oh, you see these showbiz people, they've never met before and they're getting on like a house on fire, is it a bit false?’ I could only say that perhaps if you were in the estate agents business, and you went to a convention of estate agents, you'd probably have a shorthand with them because you have the same life experiences."
It's hardly surprising that Brydon's contact list runs so long given that he's never been far from our screens over the past two decades, but there was a time where he really struggled to get his foot in the door. As a result, when an opportunity finally came for him to prove himself with 2000's acclaimed cult hit Marion and Geoff, he was far from intimidated about being the only credited cast member.
"It was liberating," he says firmly. "You're talking about somebody, at that point, who couldn't get arrested, who was struggling to get tiny roles in sitcoms and dramas. It played very much to my strengths and to [co-creator] Hugo [Blick]'s strengths. And we found that just him and I in that car worked very well together."
The series took the form of intimate conversations between naive cab driver Keith Barret (Brydon) and his camcorder, as he gradually came to the realisation that his wife Marion was cheating on him with her colleague, the eponymous Geoff. Just two months later, Brydon returned to BBC Two for Human Remains, his first screen collaboration with Julia Davis – both projects had been championed by established star Steve Coogan and his production company, Baby Cow.
"When I first started working with Steve and Hugo and Julia, and Henry Normal at Baby Cow, I vividly remember thinking that this is where I should be," he says. "These are my people, I felt like one of them. And it really did feel like coming home in that sense. A very tangible feeling, that was."
Marion and Geoff ran for three series in total, followed by a talk show spin-off for lead character Keith Barret, by which point Brydon had built up a strong enough public persona that he could play with self-parody in BBC Three's Annually Retentive. The high-concept comedy saw him play an exaggerated and somewhat embittered version of himself, who reluctantly agrees to host a derivative panel show aimed at an ambiguously youthful demographic. The format interspersed footage of the strikingly realistic (but entirely fabricated) panel show with backstage bickering as Brydon ridiculed his guests and the genre as a whole. Ironically, his experience making the show influenced his decision to take a very real hosting gig on Would I Lie to You.
"I was quite proud of the panel show bits because I thought they were very authentic," he explains. "Sometimes when you see television doing television, to me, it's a little inauthentic but I thought the panel show was and I also really enjoyed them. I enjoyed being the host and it was a few years after that, I was just thinking about my career and what I was doing – because I'd been offered things like [Would I Lie to You] and avoided them – and I decided, you know what, I think I'd enjoy it."
Brydon added: "I sort of made a decision: I'm just going to do whatever I like, I'm not going to start thinking ‘Will I be seen this way? And what if someone thinks this?’ and I'm just going to do the jobs that I like. And I do think now there are so many platforms, so many outlets, that it's never been easier for a performer and entertainer to do all sorts of different things. Because frankly, the people that know you for one thing could be blissfully unaware you're also doing X, Y or Z, because there's just so much content."
Certainly, the cynicism of Annually Retentive is a far cry from the true working environment at Would I Lie to You, which Brydon describes as "a very cuddly show". He took the reins from original host Angus Deayton back in 2009 and hasn't looked back, even rising to the challenge of producing a full series around the constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic. The episodes, which aired earlier this year, featured a modified studio layout to allow for social distancing and a drastically reduced audience, but kept the spirit of the show intact.
"I think the three of us had to slightly up it a gear, you couldn't ride on the energy of the audience, which we often do. So once we made that adjustment it worked just fine and I thought we did some very strong episodes," Brydon says.
Would I Lie to You and Sky One special Roald and Beatrix served as his main contributions to last year's Christmas schedules, with Gavin and Stacey notable only by its absence as fans remain desperate for a follow-up to 2019's reunion. Creators Ruth Jones and James Corden have been non-committal when fielding questions about the future of their sitcom, with Brydon unable to clear up the uncertainty – but he hasn't ruled out the possibility of more.
"I have heard no update that I can share publicly," he teased. "I am in touch with them but I don't like to ask them. I’d seem a bit silly if I was going, ‘Hiya, what do you think?’ I think there's a chance they'll do another special, I don't think they'd ever do another series. But certainly, the way it was left with Nessa proposing to Smithy, I wouldn't be surprised. I certainly was surprised last time so they could whip out a script this morning and I would be none the wiser. The last time they wrote it, none of us had even the slightest inkling that they were doing it."
Of course, any future episodes of Gavin and Stacey would probably need to wait until the coronavirus crisis has abated, as cramming two large families into a little Welsh terrace house would surely fall short of current safety guidelines. It's an observation that Brydon admits hadn't occurred to him until our conversation, but immediately he snaps into character and delivers Uncle Bryn's response: "Ness, I'm going to ask you to stand at four metres and I'll tell you for why: I don't trust Mr. Hancock."
Given the astronomical success of the latest special, which drew a consolidated audience of more than 17 million, you might wonder if Brydon has considered bringing back his own long-dormant projects, such as Marion and Geoff or Human Remains. "Certainly with Human Remains, we've been tempted over the years and we've spent hours together improvising these characters, but I don't know that they'll ever see the light of day," he revealed. "It's just fun to spend time with Julia."
Brydon added: "And as for Keith, in my stand up there's a bit of that persona that comes across, it's sort of an alter ego for me. When I first went from doing Keith Barret on stage to doing Rob Brydon on stage, I tried to make it as far away from Keith as I could. I tried to be a little dry and detached and it didn't really work. And then I realised that Keith is a part of me, so I let a bit more of that sort of thing come back in, I didn't fight it and it's a useful component in my stand up act now.
"I'd be wary of going back and revisiting. With the notable exception of Gavin and Stacey, quite often when you go back after a long period it’s not as good as the memory of it."
Without a doubt, he has plenty of brand new endeavours to keep him busy, with 40 episodes of Brydon & on their way to Spotify and a live tour gearing up for the end of the year. A Night of Songs and Laughter first took to the stage in February 2020 but had to abruptly cancel its run halfway through as the government introduced a full-scale lockdown that saw every theatre in the country close its doors. As more vaccines are administered every day and the entertainment sector inches towards reopening, Brydon "cannot wait" to get back on the road.
"I was nervous to do it because it was with the band – I'm always slightly concerned when someone off the telly tells you they want to sing – but I put a lot of work into it, I took my time with it, started it small," he says. "We went out, we managed 12 dates [in 2020] and the response was wonderful. And I loved it because it's not just music, I'm not trying to be Alfie Boe, it's comedy and music. I hope that it’s just, as Barry Humphries would say, a nice night's entertainment."
Brydon & is a Spotify Exclusive Podcast with new episodes being released every Thursday. You can listen here. Have a browse through our TV Guide to find something to watch tonight. Find more interviews with the biggest stars via our Big RT Interview hub.