"I feel very paternal with James Corden. He has certainly not turned into an arse." Interview by Charlotte Edwardes.
Rob Brydon says he "welled up" during the filming of this year's Gavin & Stacey Christmas Day special, a decade since the show last aired. It was the bit in the pub, on Christmas Eve. He plays Bryn, Stacey's Welsh uncle, with the Brylcreemed side-parting and padded zip-up cardie. Bryn has had too many Archers and lemonades, and is getting steadily tipsy. James Corden, who Brydon is "very paternal" towards, is in the scene. As is Alison Steadman — "Alison, I'm particularly fond of Alison" — and, of course, Ruth Jones, who Brydon says is "the closest thing I have to a sister".
One of Brydon's daughters had also "come down to visit the set and she's there being an extra in the background. I look across this crowded festive bar and there's one of my children, and there's Ruth, who I've known since I was 15, and — there's a danger of the word 'journey' popping in here, so we will resist that word — but I started to fill up then. It was lovely, just lovely."
He has a way of looking misty-eyed, and shaking his head as if in reverie, and also of taking a touching moment and upending it. So the next thing he tells me is that, although on screen it looks romantic and fairy-lit, it was actually filmed during the summer heatwave in Barry, and he boiled alive in Bryn's polyester shirt and trousers, "sweating and sweating", with the sun blazing outside and the production crew shouting over their heads, "Don't forget now everybody, it's Christmas!"
All the original reasons for Gavin & Stacey's monster success are on display in the 10-year reunion: the warmth, the genius sense of the absurd, the tight script written by James Corden and Ruth Jones, and all their catchphrases — "Lush", "Tidy", "What's occurring". It's a show — an institution, even, with its Baftas and household names — that crosses all demographics in its light weaving of the everyday. "It's kind of whimsical, but it's not as easy as it looks," Brydon says. "What Ruth and James write still has a bite."
It was huge too for Corden, now one of the biggest British stars in the States, with his own talk show on CBS and its phenomenally popular Carpool Karaoke segment. Brydon takes a tiny bit of credit: "I met him in 2001, I think, and we did this thing called Cruise of the Gods. We were at a taverna in Greece one night, and he said to me," he mimics Corden's Essex accent, "'What I really want to do is write.' And I'd done Marion & Geoff and Human Remains, and I said, 'Well, you've just got to get on and do it.' It was simple advice, 'Stop talking about it. Do it.' So I've always had a vested interest."
Brydon's success may not be so full-volume — like some of his best-known characters, he's quite reticent, unassuming. He likes to say that he was a late-blossomer, but he's certainly packed in the successes. As well as Marion & Geoff and Gavin & Stacey, there's The Rob Brydon Show, Would I Lie to You?, Swimming with Men. There are scattered parts in Alan Partridge and Little Britain (he plays Bubbles DeVere's ex-husband and once snogged David Walliams), and he's on the carousel of panel shows and various "Big Fat" quizzes. He has a long arm of Bafta nominations, comedy awards and an MBE. And, of course, there's The Trip with Steve Coogan, "our stab at a Peter Cook and Dudley Moore thing, with Steve as Peter and me in the very much Dudley role".
He says that for all his and Coogan's machismo on screen, off screen their friendship is intense. During the Italy series, they were having dinner in the sultry heat when the conversation took a "quite emotional turn" and ended up with "both of us being in tears. Just the two of us in some beautiful place. Talking about our lives and things. Both of us very open, very sharing, very empathic."
What were they talking about? "Relationships. Not specifically his — although he's had a more dramatic life — but regrets and things. Where things didn't work." He pauses. "I was going to soften that with a humorous comment. I was going to say, 'That armed robbery that went wrong.' And I thought, no, don't do that. Don't be afraid of the honest emotion. No need to make a joke." He leaves a beat. "But there was that armed robbery that went wrong." He grins. He can't help it.
We are in an empty pub in Twickenham — he likes to be interviewed in locations near the home he shares with his second wife, Clare, and their two boys. Brydon is next to a roaring fire, relaxed in his button-back armchair, his shirt riding up, a triangle of tummy on show. He has three more kids with his ex-wife, Martina Fitchie, and his children range in age from "25 to eight — which is when I go to bed as well. Ha!" He bangs the table. "That's funny, isn't it? Come oarrnn! That's bloody brilliant. I'm going to use that in my cabaret show." He rehearses it under his breath: "… which is, ironically, when I go to bed now!"
He is in the middle of a run of London cabaret shows when we meet. He's juggling those with publicity for Gavin & Stacey and, also on Christmas Day, there's The Snail and the Whale, the animated short film based on Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler's children's book, in which he voices the whale.
So what's the 54-year-old really like? "Only ever been charming," come back the texts from those he's worked with. "Hugely loved in the business"; "No side to him"; "He's so nice". So nice, and nice looking, if a little blunted, like Hugh Grant crossed with an Easter Island head. And he's polite and practiced, and even poetic at times — and whenever he makes a revelation, he's kind enough to point out whether or not he's revealed it in a previous interview. (Therapy: "I've talked about it before — between marriages, when I was adrift"; divorce: "I skirt around it"; virginity: "I lost it late. It's in the book.")
There are flashes of irritation, too. Each time he seems close to expressing a controversial view, he backs away. "I've had it a few times where I meant something and it's been …" Twisted? He agonises through an exchange we have on the dying art of flirting. He wants to make a point, but fears he's "not qualified", that he'll cause offence. To whom? Millennials? His wife? This is where we end up: "I notice it with young comedians," he says. "There is a different vibe, they are incredibly respectful. And flirting, there doesn't seem to be any of that. And I don't blame them, because …" he stalls. Because of what, #MeToo? Is flirting dead? He lifts his palms, exasperated. "That's your headline — flirting is outlawed!"
What he's trying to say, we establish, is that flirting and teasing have suffered because of people's fears and sensitivities around #MeToo, but also because of the proliferation of dating apps. "It seems to me that you have these two extremes. On the one hand you have this great concern about being respectful of one another, and on the other it's never been more brutal. Everything is polarised now — extreme politeness or no messing about."
He contrasts this with a story about how he cycled around in the rain for hours, humming Cliff Richard and trying to pluck up the courage to knock on the door of the girl he fancied. Has this fear infected comedy too? "It must have. Some things I watch and they seem to be very polite." In his own stand-up routines he doesn't say anything contentious any more (he's dropped his answer to where he'd take a girl on a date in Wales: "from behind"). But he makes a point of supporting Barry Humphries, who has been accused of transphobia, calling him "a dear, dear friend and hero, who has offended as many people who would fit in this room".
Teasing, he argues, is part of life. "I do see a lot of that as a celebration." He was recently shown a TV clip of The Goodies, the 1970s comedy trio, mocking the Welsh. "It was all 'Yaki da', and I was asked, 'Don't you find this offensive?' And I said, 'Not in the slightest. They are making fun.' I won't find it offensive if they did a sketch of Etonians, speaking like this, 'Fnar, har har.' No! We'll end up in a society where," he does a robot voice, "We. Are. All. Just. People."
He poses the question: "Cultural appropriation? Or cultural celebration?" And then anticipating a minefield, he says, "I mean, I don't really want to go down that road." He flaps his hands. "It's pathetic that I am being so reticent to say certain words, but I have no appetite for controversy. There is no part of me that wants to poke the hornets' nest. I'm a classic centrist, woolly, wants-everybody-to-be-happy kind of a person."
This is one area in which he clashes with Steve Coogan, with whom he has collaborated for 20 years. He recalls Coogan once saying to him: "'Why don't you put your head above the parapet and say what you believe in?' And I said, 'Cos I don't really know. I believe whatever the last person said.'"
Brydon has been asked to appear on Question Time, but won't. "Not in a million years. I'd just agree with everyone. Everybody sounds plausible." He says when he listens to the Today programme, he wishes people would stop arguing and say, "'Well, do you know what, I hadn't thought of it that way …' I'd love a bit of that. Instead of where we are. And dear God alive, where are we?"
It is the week before the general election and it's the least surprising thing in the world when he says, "I'll vote Lib Dem. I don't think Jo Swinson should be prime minister, but she's not going to be so I needn't worry." He describes his fear of coming down on a side as almost like an affliction: "I did a line on it in Marion and Geoff. Keith [his character] says, 'If Michael Owen scores a goal, I'd be delighted, but I'll always spare a thought for the goalkeeper,' which is the kind of thing I do. And it makes you a bit wishy-washy."
He and Coogan have recently finished recording The Trip to Greece. If you've not seen it, The Trip is a critically acclaimed unscripted comedy series with a loose narrative arc around two worn, middle-aged, competitive comedians, Brydon and Coogan, reviewing restaurants for a newspaper. They eat, they drink, they do impressions, the humour has the sting of a knuckle-graze. Occasionally the jousting goes on after the snap of the clapperboard. "When you are poking each other with sticks all day, now and again you will touch a nerve. You'll think, 'Did he really mean that?' We've both had moments where we've gone, 'Whoa, hang on a minute, I'm not having that.' " In one episode "that hasn't come out yet, [Coogan] got quite cross." What about? "I forget." He raises an eyebrow. "Or do I?"
He makes a big deal of how much he admires Coogan, but when I mention I know one of his exes, he flashes, "That doesn't narrow it down. Which one?"
Often they've both been "pretty drunk" filming, he says, though in Greece they drank little, much to director Michael Winterbottom's chagrin. "A few times Michael has, in a half-joking way, said, 'I wish you were drinking.' Because we are less guarded. Drinking, you might be prepared to take more fantastical leaps of logic. And it's more risky, there is something distinct about those scenes."
Given their characters are supposed to be "exaggerated versions" of themselves, I ask Brydon about the scenes in which he has phone sex with his onscreen wife. "No, no, no," he says. "That's not me, that's Michael's idea. I hate those scenes." He says that's not the only thing about his marriage that's fictionalised. "Rebecca, [the actress] who plays my wife, laughs at every utterance I make. This is not how it is at home."
Of the two of them, Coogan is possibly more emotional. "I've seen him cry several times. He has the courage of his convictions, so he will follow through. He can be the most annoying arse, but there is much to admire." Coogan has an opinion on everything. "He would have an opinion now about that mantelpiece." We turn quietly to look at the mantelpiece.
While Brydon may fear holding a controversial view, he never cared about "being cool" growing up. Unlike Coogan, who refused to see the film Grease when it came out "because it was for the masses", Brydon fully embraced the mainstream and was "blissfully unaware of politics", despite living in Port Talbot. "I liked the Bay City Rollers. I liked Cliff Richard, the Police and Elvis Costello. I remember telling Steve that I loved Shakin' Stevens, and he said, 'If a boy in my class had told me that, I'd have assumed he had learning difficulties.' "
Brydon was an "easy" child. "Quite polite. Quite nice." His first memory is the smell of Weetabix and warm milk, and being snuggled between his parents, a teacher and a car salesman. "Snug as a bug in a rug, as Dad would say."
His parents never shouted. A regret is that he doesn't remember his baby brother Jeremy, born in 1971 when he was six, who died of sudden infant death syndrome. "I can't imagine how this affected my parents; it's unbearable to try," he wrote in his autobiography. What he does remember is "the comforting glow of certainty".
"I liked school. I liked my parents. I never rebelled." I think he might have been an odd child, voices rattling around his head, practising accents. "I liked making people smile," he says. His parents were open. "We are Welsh. We are dramatic and emotional. We're verbose. Can we generalise like that? Are we allowed? Or am I being too nation-specific?"
He went to private school until 14, when his parents moved from Port Talbot to Porthcawl, where he went to the local comp. "And that was where I found my place. You know, they say with kids it's important to find your thing, and that was mine — drama."
I'm surprised to learn that his teens weren't totally blighted by the "chronic acne" he suffered. "Not really. I'm a bit of a 'just-get-on-with-it person'. I do worry that we are living in an age of extreme sensitivity to emotions. And I'm not sure that is necessarily …" he pauses, "… the best way to go." His mantra: "Crack on. Crack on. Crack on."
That said, "I see kids in the street, and I want to go up to them and say, 'Can I give you some advice? Don't squeeze your spots. Because it really affects your skin long-term." If he could change one thing about his life now, "it would be the acne scarring. I'm vain enough to say I would lose those, in an ideal world."
In his teens, it wasn't the end of the world, "because I was very confident to talk to girls. I am not going to be mock modest. I knew I had a way with words and that I was funny." Of parenting his own kids, he fears not being "as good a father as I'd like to be", of having only "funny voices to offer". "I've less patience as I have got older," he says. "One of the reasons I look after myself and have a trainer and eat well is for more energy for the kids. You can't get home and flop. My contemporaries can because their kids, like my first kids, are grown-up."
The worst thing is the ticking clock. "Spike Milligan was at the extreme end of that. He found it very hard to see his children grow up, by all accounts. Yes, the ticking clocks … They are a reminder at once of your mortality and your immortality, because you will live on through them."
I ask, finally, about James Corden. Does he feel that British stars like, say, Corden and Ricky Gervais, get to the States and turn into, well, arses? Brydon raises himself in his chair. "Oh no, no, no," he says. "I don't see Ricky, but James has certainly not turned into an arse. I would say the opposite. When we were shooting Gavin & Stacey, I thought, this is going to be interesting. It's 10 years since we did the show. And James, could he be any more successful? I don't think he could. And I'm not just saying this because he's a friend, I thought he was a fantastic example of how to behave when you have that status and position. I came home and said to Clare, 'James was just …' I thought he was just text book."
Over half-term, Brydon and his wife visited Corden in California. As they drove into Los Angeles, taking in the Hollywood sign, the towering billboards and the names in lights, he was struck by the fierce competition. "Dog eat dog does not do it justice. It's velociraptor eats velociraptor. As we were driving in, my stomach went 'Foooaaaaaa', like that. I thought, I am so glad I am not out here trying to make a name. And then we got to CBS, where James's face is 50-hundred-foot big on the side of the building.
"I don't think he gets enough credit for what he's done. He can write, sing, dance, act, present. Did you see him when he hosted the Tonys? I couldn't learn that if you gave me a year. Well, maybe a year. People don't stop and think how terrifying that must be. I'm possibly his biggest fan. When we left, Clare said to me, 'Golly, you really are very paternal with James, aren't you?' And I feel that way. I'm so proud of him."
The Gavin and Stacey Christmas Special will air at 7pm on December 26, on TVNZ 2.
Written by: Charlotte Edwardes
© The Times of London