In person, Rob Brydon is much more handsome than he looks on television, but every bit as entertaining. He’s very funny, as is his contribution to the shelf of celebrity memoirs, Small Man in a Book, which I heartily recommend. His speaking voice is richly musical, and he brings a cast of others to the party, so that over the course of our conversation, Tom Jones, Alan Bennett, Al Pacino, Ronnie Corbett and others are all summoned from that versatile voicebox.
Brydon is also a sensuous man, and before your mind goes where it ought not to, what I mean is that sight, smell, sound – they’re all deeply felt, and tremendously evocative for him. His recollections about growing up in Baglan, near Port Talbot, in South Wales, are richer for their descriptions of the scents marking out his childhood – a beloved leather satchel, newsprint inhaled on a frosty morning, and the stench of the cigarettes his parents smoked, which put him off nicotine for life.
“It is vision, as well,” he tells me. “My current release is reading to my kids. I will sometimes look at the page and it’s almost like I’m learning to read. I see the shape of the word in a way that I haven’t seen for years. My wife, Claire, has all these old Ladybird books, and that’ll take me back. Even a shade of a colour will do that.”
At 46, Brydon has five children – two girls and a boy from his first marriage, and two more boys from his second. He is a household name known not only for creating Marion and Geoff, acting in Gavin & Stacey, and The Trip, but also as a light entertainment stalwart fronting game shows such as Would I Lie to You?, and a Saturday night chat show.
But he ends the memoir in 2000, with his win in the Best Newcomer category at the British Comedy Awards, for the poignant Marion and Geoff. He says the earlier stories seemed more interesting, because once you start saying, “And then Paul McCartney said to me”, you tend to lose people’s attention. “I think people can relate more to the years of struggle – and I’ve had many years of struggle.”
Ending the book where he does also means that his divorce and subsequent remarriage don’t feature. When I mention that they’re conspicuous by their absence, he reads from a file on his laptop containing new paragraphs that didn’t make it into my early version of the manuscript. Pretty please, will you read in the voice of Alan Bennett, I ask? I’ve heard it’s your best impression.
He smiles. “I’ve got to find it first.” Strange rumblings occur deep inside his throat. Then, sounding as if he hails from Yorkshire, he reads: “So here is the story of some of my life. I start from the day I was born, and stop 35 years later, at the point at which I finally arrived at the first sniff of the “success” I’d been so doggedly searching for.
“By [that time] I had married and had three beautiful children. As I write these words in June of 2011, I find I am the proud father of five children and married again, to my second wife, Claire. This book makes no mention of my divorce and its accompanying sadness. My children are of an age when reading about the intimate details of their parents’ lives holds little appeal and great potential for social embarrassment. Coupled with this, their mother, Martina, shares none of my desire for attention or willingness to parade around for the amusement of strangers. It is for this reason alone that she features less in these pages than her major role in my life should warrant.
“In not meeting me until 2002, Claire has ensured that she features even less, making a grand total of zero appearances in the autobiography of her husband, something that feels very wrong, but having structured the book in the way that I have it is, I’m afraid, inevitable.”
His children range from Kate, who is 17, to George, who was born earlier this year. In between are 15-year-old Harry, Amy who’s 12 and Tommy, three. I’ve heard that he’s a devoted family man. With a big sigh – he sighs often – Brydon replies, “I try to be, it’s not easy when you don’t live with the older children. It’s challenging. But I love being a father.” There’s a point when he’s describing his lucrative career as a voice-over artist. From the mid-1990s onwards, his clients included Sainsbury’s, Somerfield, Bhs, Tesco, McDonald’s, Tango, Toilet Duck, Nivea, Domino’s, Nationwide, British Gas, Sky, ITV, Wild Bean Cafe, Kit Kat, Hula Hoops, Subway, The Train Line, Bounty, Renault, Ford, Fairy, Crunchy Nut, Philadelphia and Pot Noodle. He was, he writes, “a voice-over machine.”
The money was good, but the work frustrated him. He wanted to be seen, not just heard. He writes: “It sated the hunger I had for performance that wasn’t being satisfied by any decent roles on television or film ... After a while, though, it was as if I was outgrowing it and I began to have a tangible feeling – not unlike the one I’d experienced when I first knew that I wanted children – of needing to go to the next level.”
“I remember not wanting to have kids, when I was younger. Then I do remember it becoming a physical feeling, that I wanted children. Martina was a nanny, so I was around children a lot with her, and I was always good with younger relatives and stuff. If the family she worked for went away, a couple of times we stayed in their lovely house and looked after the kids. I was in my twenties and that’s what I was doing when I should have been in Shoreditch mainlining whatever.”
As if! Brydon’s never been a bad boy, not even as a kid. At his birth, both the midwife and his father passed out, which has to be some kind of record, and certainly bodes well for a future comedian, that here is a life with no shortage of material. The Jones family (the surname Brydon comes from his mother) lived in a big house surrounded by fields. Childhood was safe and secure. He was happy and doted upon and sent to private schools where he quickly claimed the role of class jester.
In 1973 his brother Peter was born, two years after another son, Jeremy, was lost to sudden infant death syndrome. Brydon was only six at the time, and his brother’s death didn’t affect him, though now, a parent himself, he finds it unbearable to contemplate how the tragedy affected his parents. He was obsessed with magazines and TV, and like most kids, enjoyed making dens. He speaks so often about hiding that I have to ask what it was he was hiding from?
“I used to build dens all the time. I used to dream about this submarine being on the lawn at our house, and I would be inside it and able to look out at everybody else. How Freudian. It might be to do with observing people. I like to observe. Even now, if I’m being driven somewhere – how my life has changed! Not if I’m driving, if I’m being driven – and I’m getting bored, and we’re in a city, I remind myself, ‘Hang on, you love this. Just look out the window at the people’.”
It’s about luxuriating in his imagination, then? “I’ve always liked comfort and I am not one to hide from luxury. I would be quite happy never to leave my house again. So I don’t know if I was hiding from anything, back then, but I liked having these little spaces, and climbing rhododendron bushes and building things.”
He’s so specific about everything, down to the way he’d cut up socks to make suits for his Action Man. Would he say he’s more connected to his childhood than most? “There’s loads I’ve forgotten. I was like a detective, doing this book. It was quite fun meeting friends, asking what they remembered. For the e-book version we’ve done a lot of interviews. For example, my childhood best friend David Williams and I went down to Swansea and sat in Joe’s Ice-Cream Parlour, not far from our school.”
There’s also an interview with his father, and a visit to his old drama teacher, plus contributions from Steve Coogan and Richard Curtis. Brydon invites me on to his sofa to peer at photos on his laptop that he’s planning to include in the book. There he is in his “James Dean” phase, there’s his first girlfriend, Jaq, and Rhian “the girl I was mad about”. There’s Brydon meeting Bruce Springsteen. Wait, where are the snapshots of Ruth Jones, his Gavin & Stacey co-star and the show’s co-writer, as well as Brydon’s school pal? And what kind of teenager was she?
“Ruth? She’s brilliant. As a teenager? She was Ruth. She was into drama, we did all the shows together.”
It must have been exciting to realise that he could imitate people. “You can either sing or you can’t. I am lucky. I have always imitated people and it’s always something I was drawn to doing. As a kid I used to do Kermit the Frog and Bert & Ernie. I was always keen to entertain. And I only impersonate people I like.”
As a child he was made to feel prized and talented, and never had to fight for attention, being eight years older than his brother. “Because I’ve never experienced sibling rivalry, I found it interesting seeing it with my own children. I think it’s good for you. You are learning to fight your corner, and I missed that a little bit. People say I am nice, but you know, people were always nice to me, and I grew up in a very civilised way.”
Very civilised. He didn’t start drinking until he was in his thirties. There’s a wonderful story in the book about coming to the Edinburgh Fringe with the cast of BBC Radio 5’s The Treatment. They were billeted in a small flat where the arrangement was “crash where you find a space”. The first night there was a party, and substances were consumed by everyone except Brydon, who stuck to soft drinks. When he awoke the next morning he was appalled to see “assorted corpses” asleep on the sofas, chairs, tables and floors. Curtains had been pulled from their rails. “It looked as though a friendly genocide had occurred while I slept.”
Without further ado he checked into the Balmoral for the duration of the trip. Seriously? “Those flats are horrible,” he says. “By then I was making money as a voice artist. Why not go to the Balmoral? What can I say? I am a young fogey.”
He’s past disguising it. “That’s what I am. I didn’t drink. And the only time I ever had a cigarette in my life was a herbal cigarette, when I played Kenneth Tynan in a BBC film. Luckily Tynan smoked in a very dramatic way, and it was mostly held at arm’s length. I’m a bit of a fiend for the Night Nurse, but other than that, I’ve never done any drugs. I sometimes think maybe I ought to have, for the experience, but I’m a little bit scared of it now.”
Why start drinking, then? He exhales dramatically before saying, “ Well, it was wanting something to help me relax. Getting into responsibility and parenthood, and never having had that switching-off mechanism, that thing I know very well now, at the end of the day, a glass of wine. I mean, my alcohol intake is one glass and I’m standing up entertaining people at the table – it’s embarrassing.
“When I was a kid, I tried beer and hated the taste. I had a very limited palate with food and drinks. When I started drinking as an adult,” he is laughing now, “it isn’t in the book because, well, I am embarrassed to admit it, it was those alco-pops, because I have a sweet tooth. After that, I suppose vodka with lots of tonic, and then, this sounds silly, but when I met Coogan, and I’d go to nightclubs with him, he’d order champagne.”
So he never went through a dickhead phase? “That would be someone else’s opinion, of course. Briefly between marriages I got a bit lost. But that was by my standards – it was hardly John Lennon and Harry Nilsson. I like home comforts and found that for a while I was living a life where it wasn’t unusual to text and be texted at 1am.”
1am? We’re both giggling now.
Throughout Small Man in a Book Brydon is grafting away, learning his trade on local radio and television, doing all those voice-overs, and auditioning for small acting roles. The future often seemed promising, only for circumstances to change overnight, leaving him scrambling for the rent money. His success is a testament to his tenacity and ambition – though he says the latter’s in short supply these days.
“Of course that’s easy to say because things are going well right now. But you get far more joy and satisfaction from your children than from any job or any award. Far more. I feel I’ve done enough already to make my mark. I still want to do good work, of course, but it’s not the thing that defines me. Not anymore. Nothing makes me happier or more complete than having all my children with me, ideally around a meal table. I love it when we’re all together, laughing. Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do, and as I say, easy to say that when the money’s coming. That might change if suddenly nobody wants to give me work. I am famous enough. I don’t need to be more. I don’t want to be less!
“Because my first wife and I separated around the time of [my career] coming together, it’s very strong in my mind that commercial success does not equal personal success or happiness. It’s very important to me to protect that happiness and that calmness. Claire and I have been together ten years, and I work hard to create security and a strong, solid, safe home.”
He may not be rock and roll, but as I leave, it strikes me that Rob Brydon is rock solid. No wonder his looks likely to be a career that endures.
Small Man in a Book by Rob Brydon is published in hardback at £20 and enhanced e-book at £14.99 by Michael Joseph.