ALL’S fair in love and satire for motor-mouth Rory Bremner, but he admits Nicola Sturgeon is off-limits, and the state of the Union is beyond a joke, writes Janet Christie
President Obama, Louis Walsh, Nicola Sturgeon, Tony Benn, Nigel Farage and Kermit the Frog; they’re all on the other end of the phone. Ask impressionist and comedian Rory Bremner a question and someone entirely different answers. Interviewing the satirist is an entertaining, thought-provoking and at times downright head-spinning roller-coaster run-through of the personalities who have peopled our year.
Although he can’t do Nicola Sturgeon.
“Ha, ha. I have never been good at doing impressions of women. Which is understandable. There’s a gender issue. I did say to her, ‘This time next year it could be you, the Queen and Theresa May’. Then I would give it all up and go into something less stressful. Like farming!”
Bremner is talking about his review of the year show, to be aired on BBC1 Scotland on Tuesday, and you’ve got to be part Brian Taylor, part Lewis Hamilton, part Miss Piggy to keep up. Never mind answering your questions, he’ll pick them up and run with them, faster than Usain Bolt on his relay dash round Hampden.
Ask him how he is and the 53-year-old responds with the following: “I’ve just interviewed Nicola Sturgeon for the end of the review of the year show and I’ve been making a BBC special about the Coalition, meeting people like Matthew Parris; tonight I’m appearing in front of 1,200 business people at Grosvenor House, and I’m checking up on a best friend who is in and out of hospital, trying to get everything organised for the Scottish show, and last night was at an event for Great Ormond Street.” Pause for breath.
Then: “I run in too many different directions. I was up early today, and yesterday too. I have late onset ADHD. I take on too much and end up spinning plates but it’s entertaining and it helps you make quick connections if you’re a comedian, if you have a brain that can dance around too much.”
Born in Edinburgh in 1961, the son of a major, Bremner was educated at Wellington, where his first impressions were of his inspirational teacher Derek Thrift.
“He got us reading Voltaire’s Candide and it opened my eyes to ridicule, understatement, caricature and how he was able to demolish the pompous, using these devices. John Bird and John Fortune did it week in, week out.”
While a student at King’s College London, Bremner worked the cabaret circuit, and after having a hit with his parody of the anti-Vietnam war record 19, in which he imitated cricket commentators, contributed to And There’s More, Spitting Image and Week Ending. By 1987, he had his own show on BBC2, Now – Something Else, then made up the trio of Bremner, Bird And Fortune and starred in his award-winning Rory Bremner, Who Else? He’s been on Mock The Week, Face The Clock and Strictly Come Dancing.
The Rory Bremner Review is part stand-up, part documentary, with interviews, impressions and satire from Bremner and his writing team reflecting on the events of this year. We had the Commonwealth Games, the Ryder Cup, the anniversary of Bannockburn, the Homecoming. Oh, and the independence referendum.
“Congratulations. You’ve gone three-and-a-half minutes without mentioning the referendum,” he laughs. “The referendum was a once in a generation event and the programme is marking this extraordinary year where everything changed and nothing changed. We talk to politicians and comedians, both in some cases. Nigel Farage for example; his slogan should be: ‘I’m you, but you after you’ve had a few drinks!’
“And we’ve got the Great Tapestry of Scotland, one metre for 1,000 years, roughly the same as the progress with the trams. Scottish history, 2,000 years of nothing, then Archie Gemmill’s goal.”
Identity has been a big part of this year. Who are we and where do we belong? Whose team do we play for, as the competing flags of the home nations became a Rubik’s Cube of confused red, white and blue? Political questions and sporting events forced us to choose. It’s been a year of teams and tribes, from Team GB at the Sochi Winter Olympics to Team Scotland at the Commonwealth Games, then Teams Yes and No, and finally, Team Europe for the Ryder Cup. “It was the year we didn’t get divorced but we did get engaged,” says Bremner. “There were winners and losers. It’s just you can’t tell which was which.”
What has this year meant for Bremner personally? The comedian, who in 1999 married the sculptor Tessa Campbell Fraser with whom he has daughters Ava and Lila, divides his time between London and their house in the Borders.
“We’re back and forth a lot of the time. Crailing House near Jedburgh is the family home and that’s where we relax. Everywhere else we are in transit. This year there has been a fair amount of time in Scotland, a lot in Glasgow at the Comedy Unit, and time in Geneva and London,” he says.
What was happening in Geneva?
“I was doing an appearance where I said, if people earn a lot they should be taxed, and I thought there would be a round of applause. But there wasn’t. Then I remembered I was in Geneva, speaking to trust lawyers. But they need to hear that stuff. They live in ghettoes of rich people, just like the poor do.”
In the run-up to the referendum, Bremner did a one-off show for BBC Scotland called Rory Goes To Holyrood, after deciding he needed to find out more about Scottish politics.
“I don’t think independence was a solution. I think the answer is a broader union with more resources. And as far as the Union was concerned, that was throwing a large baby out with the bathwater. I have a different kind of perspective because I absolutely love both countries and felt problems like social justice and inequality go across the Union.
“I asked Nicola Sturgeon if she had been offered greater powers for the Scottish Parliament, if women had got into the Royal and Ancient and Andy Murray had got married, would you have settled for that instead? She wouldn’t say. But at the end of the year we went through a lot of pain to get a version of devo max that we could have had earlier.”
He feels there is plenty of debate still to be had. “I like to get on with people and that’s why I like unions – trade unions, UK or European Unions – there are dangers to thinking you can go it alone. But we didn’t expect that having won, the Union would proceed to lose every trick. Labour has collapsed and the SNP could win the seats that Labour would need to get a majority in the south.”
Bremner voted No, yet it wasn’t a clear-cut issue for him, having worked with both sides of the debate while putting together the referendum programme and the year review.
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“It’s difficult to decide if the review programme is Yes or No. I haven’t suddenly given up on seeing the absurdities on both sides. I’m 55/45 myself. I was working with the Yes campaigners and it made me think about that point of view. You can understand and respect the other side of the argument. We all want the best that we can possibly get for the country. I spent too much time with Yes people not to understand the point of their argument and the extent of their disappointment. I still think when the current storm passes, the UK is a terrific brand, and within that we need a strong Scottish Parliament and a strong SNP to take it forward.
“And to have teenagers queuing up to watch Nicola Sturgeon, that’s positive.” A switch is flicked and he becomes Louis Walsh, giving Sturgeon feedback after her X Factor-style arena performance.
“You made that party your own! You look a little Suzi Quatro, Nicola,” he says, aping Walsh’s unctuous delivery.
Then he switches back. “She’s an extraordinary figure in an extraordinarily difficult position. On the one hand there’s the SNP and her lode star of independence, and on the other she’s First Minister of a country that has just rejected independence. The way she handles that will be what decides whether she’s a stateswoman or a politician. She could move towards the centre and take the SNP with her.
“We interviewed her because she is First Minister. And she’s also the only senior Scottish politician who hasn’t resigned or announced her retirement in the last few weeks. We experienced a festival of democracy, but at the end the leaders of both sides have stepped down and we have ended up with our first Ukip MP. And you think, how did that happen?”
Next year we will see Bremner’s show on the Tory/Lib Dem government, Rory Bremner’s Coalition Derby, one of a host of programmes the BBC has commissioned to mark the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. The one-off special in front of a live audience will be aired in the spring and brings some new characters to life, alongside old favourites, to try to make sense of the Coalition and ask, “What is going on?”
“The problem is we want to blame someone and something. We have lost a lot of the institutions we used to orientate ourselves with. The church, press, parliament, BBC, all for various reasons are in a state of disrepair. The church because of women priests, banks are irredeemably in crisis, police in disrepair because of South Yorkshire, the press because of Leveson, and politics is in crisis because of expenses. This is where you get Ukip’s populism and nationalism. It tends to stir things up and it’s not a pretty picture, but it’s part of a blame culture. It’s a very volatile time, a very dangerous time, and we have to plot a path out of it, calmly.
“Seeing it from London, there’s the same sense of despair there, but when you see Ukip and the absence of credible leaders of any party, the yah boo atmosphere of Westminster, the country is going through a mid-life crisis. Instead of playing away, we’re thinking about leaving Europe, instead of buying a sports car, we’re HS2 high speed railing, instead of prostitutes and lap dancers, we’re flirting with Nigel Farage and Russell Brand. The signs of the apocalypse are there. Ukip winning seats, ravens leaving the Tower, Tony Blair being a peace envoy. You could hear a pin drop in Afghanistan when that was announced. Followed by a grenade.”
Then he surprised me by saying, of the referendum and his role in it: “I hated it. Being thought of as being on the side of the establishment was a first. The Yes vote managed to make themselves look like the anti-establishment.”
Does he consider himself left -wing?
“Traditionally that’s the way I’ve thought of myself, yes. Fairness is a big issue for me. I’ve voted for two or three parties. When I was a fresh-faced public school boy in 1979 that was my one and only Tory experience. By 1987 I thought one term was enough. It was 35 years ago! Which of us hasn’t done something silly in 35 years?
“There was humour to be found on both sides. It’s important we don’t lose our sense of perspective and humour. Anger and intolerance in politics have messy consequences and that’s why I prefer to use humour and debate. Humour brings something. You’re not laughing at people, its conciliatory.
“Satire plays a part in engaging people in the process. We have had a vacuum over the past five years. I know it’s self-serving of me to say it, but we have missed a comic interpretation of what’s going on.”
Did Alex Salmond find him funny?
“I can’t do Alex Salmond very well. There’s someone in Nicola Sturgeon’s office who can. They also do a very good William Hague. Someone in the SNP is missing a great career in mimicry. Alex Salmond has a good sense of humour. We got a message from him, about the Twitter abuse we were getting: ‘Don’t come back to Scotland, you’re not welcome, all that’. It was ‘Alex says it’s OK, everyone gets abuse’, like a mafia boss reassuring us. They’re aware sections of their support can be over the top. Like the councillors burning the Smith report. Anyone burning anything… come on.”
Not everyone has always found Bremner funny though. Blair wasn’t a great fan of the satirist who honed his every tic and grimace. “I didn’t think he was that funny either. He was like the girl with the curl. A valve went in Tony Blair in 2002/3 and he was in a different place and slightly delusional. I wish that the devil eyes poster had been true, that when he got in he’d said I have a big majority and we’re going to make changes and sacrifices and the next generation will benefit.”
Farage and Ukip are another target that don’t share Bremner’s sense of humour.
“Ukip can’t take it. They have a very thin skin and there are also elements of Yes that absolutely don’t like it. Humour is a way to make sense of what happens and also make a nonsense of it.”
Margaret Beckett, who he ambushed in a phone call on the election day in 2005 when she was environment secretary by pretending to be then Chancellor Gordon Brown, might not agree. Beckett fell for it and gave him the lowdown on their Cabinet colleagues.
“Yes, I was just messing around. I also rang up Prescott but he didn’t fall for it. We also ambushed Tony Blair in 2001 and Michael Howard in 2005. And I rang up The Bastards pretending to be John Major too. The government loves to find out things about you and hate it when you do it to them. They get a little bit hoity-toity about it. I quite like old Madge and she gave me a lift once, so I felt slightly bad. I owe her a drink. But all’s fair in love and satire,” he says, blithely.
With the referendum over, who else is he focusing on imitating at the moment?
“I’m having fun with Obama more recently. Have you noticed how he’s started to sound like Kermit the Frog?” He does Obama’s voice and launches in stentorian tones into: ‘Half way down the stair. Pause. Is the stair where I sit.’ That’s what his rhetoric is like.”
This year, as well as after-dinner speaking and broadcasting, he starred in a play in the West End, flexing his acting muscles. Relative Values by Noel Coward, alongside Caroline Quentin and Patricia Hodge, was the fulfilment of a personal ambition to do more serious drama.
“I spent every night in black tie. It’s the nearest I will ever get to George Osborne and David Cameron’s lives. Acting is definitely something I enjoy. I’m really lucky in my career. I’m a chameleon. I do comedy and sometimes I do wildlife documentaries, so I get to travel. And I get to meet people. I’m in my Palin years,” he says, Palin-style, then it’s back to himself. “I’d love to do a chat show. A serious one, not like Graham Norton or Jonathan Ross, but more like Parky, where he was interested in the people he was talking to.”
Living with ADHD
Another idea is to do a documentary about his ADHD and the use of Ritalin. He did a short Radio 4 programme about living with the condition in 2011. By this stage in the interview I’m thinking this might be a good idea – give people time to catch up.
“For the documentary I will take the Ritalin,” he says.
“Yes, you should definitely do that,” I suggest, meaning make the programme, but on second thoughts also try the Ritalin, only because I’m struggling to follow the rapid delivery from his mercurial mind.
“Yes, ADHD is my greatest friend and worst enemy. It means I have got a brain that makes stupid connections – which is very helpful in a comedy sense – and that I take on too much and am disorganised with time. And impulsive…”
Like getting engaged to Tessa after two months? “Yes, but that turned out to be a good thing. It means you’re constantly chasing your tail. You go to do A and end up doing B and on the way back do C and forget all about A. So medication is very helpful. The most important thing about ADHD is diagnosing children early before they have experiences at school that leave them depressed. Medication is like putting on a pair of glasses because the effect is instant and very effective in terms of how it helps you to focus and concentrate.
“I have developed coping methods. I wouldn’t be without it. You can work it to your advantage. It has been a defining feature of my life.”
With the clock ticking on our interview time allocation, he returns to the matter in hand, the review of the year. “Yes, no comedians were harmed in the making of this programme. I don’t know about politicians. It’s not partisan. Or even Parmesan. Although it definitely contains cheese…”
He’s still riffing when the PR tells him it’s time up.
• The Rory Bremner Review, BBC1 Scotland, Tuesday, 10.40pm
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