Interview: Face The Clock host Rory Bremner bemoans the death of his first love, political satire
“Quizzers are a different breed,” says the impressionist as he settles down for a chat about Channel 4’s Face The Clock, which he presents. “A lot of them have done quiz shows before, such as The Weakest Link or …Millionaire. And when you read their biogs, you see they’re very keen on time and they hate people being late. They’re competitive as a race, so right from the start they identify who their rivals are.”
In the show six contestants take it in turns to answer general knowledge questions and pass control of the game to a player of their choice, with only the viewers at home aware how long is left in each round.
Players win more money with each right answer, but if they’re in control when the time runs out, they’re knocked out of the game. The beauty of the show is its simplicity.
“It’s pass the parcel with questions. It’s got that random cruelty about when the clock will strike. They can all try to work out their tactics but ultimately it’s a combination of how they play it and whether they’ve survived the randomness. But by the time you get to the final it’s all about whether you know your stuff.”
He met lots of interesting characters making the programme, from general knowledge boffins to the total opposite. “There was one hilarious man who just didn’t know anything. I’d say, ‘Who won the World Cup in 1966?’ and he’d just reply, ‘Oh no, here we go…’ And it turned out he worked for counter-terrorism!
“There were some funny spats too. One woman had been married four times and the contestant next to her joked, ‘My God, some of these rounds have lasted longer than your marriages.’”
The show, filmed in a freezing “shed” outside Dumbarton, was a completely new experience for the 51-year-old comedian – and a very full-on one at that, with up to four episodes recorded per day and scores of contestants to get to know each week.
“I’ve never had days where I’ve had to concentrate so intensely from beginning to end before. If you mess up, there is a lot of disentangling to do and a lot of angry people. I don’t think it’s an easy gig. But I kind of enjoyed that responsibility.”
Bremner, who is perhaps best known for comedy sketch show Bremner, Bird and Fortune, found it refreshing to try his hand at being a quizmaster – his all-time favourites from the genre being Bob Monkhouse and Bruce Forsyth. “I’m at the stage where it’s liberating to do different things and to do them as myself.
“My first love is and always will be the comedy and the satire. That’s very intense and cerebral, and you spend a lot of time thinking about it, trying to make sense of what’s going on in the world and then making nonsense of it afterwards. It’s a very perfectionist exercise. But in television now there are so many companies making so many programmes in so many time slots that I’m very lucky to get different opportunities.”
One such opportunity came in 2011, when he had the “special experience” of being in Strictly Come Dancing. He was the third person to get the boot, but he enjoyed the adrenaline rush of each show, the loss of a stone in weight and the company of a “good bunch” of contestants. “Russell Grant used to sit on the sofa on a Saturday night in a red and gold outfit looking like a Fabergé egg,” he says, breaking into an impersonation of the astrologer.
Bremner says there is a gap now on television where political satire used to be. “There’s a problem in that quite a major link between the public and the politicians has eroded. We used to have That Was The Week That Was, and Spitting Image, and then there was Bremner, Bird and Fortune. “Week in, week out, politicians were on television in a comedy show being lampooned, but no matter what was being done to them, it meant people got to know who the politicians were.”
He says the problem stems from a lack of a forum for satire (“there isn’t a weekly show at the moment that is engaging in that way, and I think that’s a shame”) as well as a lack of distinctive characters in politics. “There are a few glowing exceptions like Boris Johnson – even cynical people have to recognise he has an extraordinary turn of phrase and charisma – but I’m not even sure David Cameron knows who half the people in the Cabinet are. I love doing satire and it would be great to be doing that now, particularly because we are in a very fascinating time. But my brain hasn’t been there for the last few months because I’ve been travelling round Britain.”
He has also been busy filming a new show for ITV. In Rory Bremner’s Great British Views he’ll visit locations with renowned vistas around the UK. “It involved going around the country meeting different types of people and that again is a totally different type of programme. There’s a good feeling about that show, so I’m excited about the year ahead.”
For every giant like Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, there are numerous game shows that sink without a trace, and Bremner says it’s hard to know which formats will take off. But he is hopeful Face The Clock, which started early this month, has the elements required for a successful formula.
“Ultimately, it’s about the tension, it’s about the jeopardy and about playing against the clock. And if there is some good humour in there then that would be a perfect show.”
• Face the Clock is on Channel 4 today at 3:30pm