As his hit radio comedy makes the jump to TV, Rhys Thomas tells Jay Richardson about his quiet yet stellar rise
• Rhys Thomas as Gary Bellamy in Bellamy's People
WITH the upcoming election reportedly set to be fought along class divisions, who better to gauge Britain's mood than Gary Bellamy, the clueless oik whose breezily downmarket phone-in show Down The Line provoked such outrage and protests when it was first broadcast on Radio 4 in 2006?
"Most people were annoyed with my voice I think, because I'm working-class and that doesn't sound quite right on Radio 4," recalls Rhys Thomas, who played Bellamy on the spoof show by Paul Whitehouse and Charlie Higson, which ran to three series of improvised call-ins from eccentrics, racists and perverts voiced by the aforementioned Fast Show creators and character actors such as Simon Day, Felix Dexter and Amelia Bullmore.
Officially acknowledged as a send-up a fortnight after first going out, the series featured such lowlights as Bellamy trying and failing to interview a Holocaust denier and desperately soliciting contributions from black listeners, before berating a man from Barbuda as a hoaxer for crossing Barbados and Bermuda to create a fictional country.
Scooping the Broadcasting Press Guild Radio Programme of the Year Award in 2007 and a Sony Gold Award for Best Radio Comedy 12 months later, the show earned Thomas a tiny degree of notoriety. But its transformation into Bellamy's People on BBC2 tomorrow night should go some way towards making the Essex-born actor as familiar a face as his co-stars.
Understanding that the phone-in format wouldn't transfer to television, the cast chose instead to transplant Bellamy into the sort of roving, state-of-Britain documentary fronted by the likes of Dimbleby, Marr and Clunes in recent years. Driving the length and breadth of the nation, meeting characters like grossly overweight mummy's boy Graham Downes and ex-con Tony Beckton, Bellamy quizzes them for their views on religion, criminality and the Royal Family. Except now he can't cut them off when they reveal their bigotry and stupidity.
Having begun his career as a runner on The Fast Show some 13 years ago, Thomas impressed Higson and Bob Mortimer on the set of Shooting Stars by showing them sketches he'd performed in college. Taking supporting roles in The Fast Show, he quickly progressed to co-writing and appearing in the spinoff Swiss Toni, script-editing Shooting Stars and memorably voicing its gin-soaked authority Donald Cox, The Sweaty Fox.
By 20, he was starring in his own sitcom, Fun at the Funeral Parlour, on the early digital channel BBC Choice, which through Brian May's contribution to the soundtrack, led to Thomas, a Queen fan, touring with his heroes and producing five of their DVDs. The show also featured his Fast Show cohorts in guest appearances, alongside David Mitchell, Robert Webb, Matt Lucas and David Walliams in early roles.
Aware of how his peers have outstripped him, he nevertheless drew solace from his relative youth.
"I went to a wedding recently and David Mitchell asked, (adopts Mitchell's haughty, interrogative tone] 'How old are you now?' So I said 31 and he went, 'Thank God, he's finally over 30!'"
"You can work with these people and always be around but it's funny how slowly things are developed. I honestly don't think you're taken seriously until you're 30. Any ideas I've ever taken to the BBC, they've told me I wasn't ready for it. It's no coincidence that Mitchell and Webb were around 30 when they took off. Miranda Hart too has been around for ages."
Years before Down The Line, Thomas was a real DJ, for Xfm, sacked for swearing on air amid a cull of misbehaving comedians including Tom Binns and Iain Lee at the station in the late 1990s.
Reluctant to draw comparisons between Bellamy's cloddish insensitivity and Jonathan Ross's recently terminated relationship with the BBC, he does reveal though that there will be a spoof "making of" Bellamy's People documentary available via the red button in which "you get to see what Gary's really like behind the television faade".
"It's not anti the BBC," he says, "but there are ongoing comments about how they manipulate talent. In one scene we've got them saying, 'Why don't we dump Gary and get Adrian Chiles to host instead?'"
In reality, Thomas maintains they were afforded "just as much freedom" as they enjoyed on the radio, shooting hours and hours of footage of more than 160 characters in settings across the UK. And although the BBC won't substantiate his claim that there is sufficient footage "for the second series as well", this series' run has been extended by two episodes to eight already.
"It feels fresh because it was purely improvised," he enthuses. "I love The Thick of It and that's the way forward at the moment, when things move that fast and feel that real. Because we've known each other for so long, Charlie can happily tell me, 'That was shit' without leaving me too embarrassed to continue trying new things."
Describing Higson as "very quiet and quite shy" and the endlessly inventive Whitehouse as paternal, he nevertheless likens them to "the Jagger and Richards of sitcom".
"They have very different ideas about comedy, and it can get quite heated in the editing suite," he explains. "Yet they always give each other the freedom and space to make the right decisions."
Day is "probably the funniest person I've ever met, though he has no attention span whatsoever". And a fifth actor reprising her contribution from the radio is Lucy Montgomery, Thomas's wife. "We're lucky because we like working together, we're not running away at the first opportunity like a lot of married couples.
"She's a much more talented a performer than I am, I can't do loads of characters and accents, and I'd feel like I was holding her back if we were paired as romantic leads together. Besides, you don't want to become competitive do you?"
The last episode of Bellamy's People finishes with Gary sitting on Loch Lomond, "basically saying that after six weeks travelling around Britain, I truly hate the British," he laughs.
Nevertheless, Thomas returns to Scotland next month to promote his first movie role in Beyond The Pole at the Glasgow Film Festival. A low-budget, surprisingly affecting mockumentary and bromance, the film pairs him alongside Green Wing's Stephen Mangan as friends making the first carbon-neutral, organic, vegetarian expedition to the North Pole. The three-week shoot in Greenland regrettably turned him into a method actor, as like his character Brian, he soon found himself missing his wife and daughter and "at the end of my tether".
"I knew it was going to be cold, but it was really cold and we didn't have any days off because there was no point, there was absolutely nothing to do," he explains. "The novelty of how pretty it was soon wore off sleeping in a corrugated iron shed, sharing a binbag with a toilet seat. One girl on the shoot didn't go for two weeks!
"We had a chef who'd brought some terrible food from Iceland, bad processed meat and potatoes. And I'm really fussy about what I eat, so I ended up surviving on seeds and baby food!"
Still, he hopes to make more films, though he'll need to overcome his distaste for auditioning first. For one well-known action movie franchise, he says: "They didn't even give me a script, they just asked me to do (Monty Python's] parrot sketch in an American accent.
"I tried doing it a bit sinister but the woman was unmoved. I left with my head in my hands thinking, 'I haven't got a hope in f***ing hell of being in Mad Max IV. Why would I want to be the young Mad Max?"
• Bellamy's People begins tomorrow on BBC2, at 10pm