Marcus Brigstocke Interview: 'It's like walking around with no skin on in a world made of salt, that's how it feels'

Comedian draws on his dad's love of wine and his own addiction in his first play, finds Katie Copstick

Marcus Brigstocke makes his directorial debut at Fringe 2019.  Picture:Karla Gowlett
Marcus Brigstocke makes his directorial debut at Fringe 2019. Picture:Karla Gowlett

‘I’ll precis that for you so you’ve got notes,” says Marcus Brigstocke, helpfully. “Drink, drugs, compulsive eating, rehab at 17, 24 stone down to 11 stone in three months.”

Posh, supremely witty, urbane, intelligent, compassionate and thoroughly decent, Brigstocke is looking back on a childhood and adolescence throughout which he, by his own account, made Damien look like Pollyanna. Arson, shoplifting, vandalism, ABH and living in the grip of multiple addictions starting from the age of eight, he ended up in the kind of rehabilitation centre where they lock the doors and you stay three years. About which he is unequivocally grateful.

“Even though my parents and I were at war from when I was about 15 till when I got sober, they were there for me. I was basically a nice posh boy with plenty of resources. I was probably always going to get help,” he says.

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Just as well he did. For all of us. “There are all sorts of theories about addiction,” he says. “The only one that really makes sense to me is that most addicts act out or use their thing not because a terrible thing happened to them when they were a child but because they did terrible things yesterday. So an alcoholic steals money from a loved one and hides the booze and promises that person that this won’t happen again. Then they go to bed, promise themselves, ‘That’s it. It’s over’ and then they wake up the next day and they are still wearing the same skin, still mad in all the same ways, and it is that that makes them drink again. Deep, internalised shame.”

I ask what he thinks about Russell Brand’s theory that addicts are people with a hole inside them.

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“I think that’s true … and most people fill it with everything. Some, they fill it so hard with recovery they become f***ing tedious and a pain to be with, smug and judgmental.” He sips mint tea and frowns. “But there’s too much tragedy for me in the idea. ‘Born with a hole in the heart that needs to be filled’ … too much self-pity in there.” He sits up. “It is more just … What did you do all that time? How many people did you lie to, how many people did you f*** over? How many times did you lie to yourself ?”

Lots, apparently, in his case. “As soon as you cross certain lines … you cross them forever. Like the first time you nosh someone off for a bit of speed, the first time you steal from a family member, the first time you steal something big. And once they’re crossed the first time, they are so easy to cross again and nigh on impossible to uncross.” He owns it all. Being Marcus Brigstocke, he also puts it into words in ways that will speak to the heart of anyone who has battled addiction in any form.

“The most damaging experience I have had is going to bed at night and saying to myself, ‘Jesus Christ, that was bad today. Still at least that’s the end of it now, at least I am done. From tomorrow.’” There is a tiny silence. “You go to bed with all this hope and you wake up ...” And the silence resumes.“It’s like walking around with no skin on in a world made of salt. That’s how it feels.”

He has been sober since 5 December 1990. “Me being sober has dramatically changed my relationship with my dad,” he says. “Dad drinks loads, he really knows about wine and I love that and everything that goes with it. Dad genuinely has got an amazing wine cellar which is beautiful … it has terracotta wine bins and you can just sit and look at it … it is beautiful. And there was a conversation one night with a friend of the family, about whether Dad could theoretically finish off the wine before he dies.” He grins. “We’ve done the maths. No way. Even if he really goes for it. So we were talking about what might happen with the wine and the question of where might it get left came up and that’s what started this.”

‘This’ being his play. His first. The Red. “I really, really did it on my own,” he assures me. “I am really proud of this.”It is a two-hander – a father and a son. “I was really terrified of my dad hearing it,” he frowns. “I thought, ‘This might sting.’ Heaven knows, I have dragged the poor f***er through my work many times. And I know it has caused him pain.

“But they both really loved the play and I think they’re proud of it and they’re proud of … they know I have to work at it, my sobriety. Dad has never once tried to tempt me into drinking. But I am as sure as I can be, having never asked him, that if he had had the opportunity to share a beautiful bottle of wine with me sitting outside on a warm evening in the South of France somewhere with a bottle of wine that is from that field over there … he’d have f***ing loved that. Not for the wine but for ... you know … that.”

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Brigstocke is writer, director and is funding the entire production through the proceeds of his seminal work with Experian. “That year I’d done a TV series, two radio series, a national tour of about 70-odd dates and around 20 corporates (and corporates pay well) and I got more for the six days with Experion than I had from that entire lot put together,” he says. “So I am doing it properly, because if you did the Experian advert and you do not pay your actors properly – Equity rates and rehearsal rates and your designer and your technician and put everybody up then you’re then you’re a bit of a c***, I think. And I am not a c***, I don’t think.” Neither do I.

The Red, Pleasance Dome, 4pm, until 26 August