Comedian Rhod Gilbert on his earliest memories

Rhod Gilbert. Picture: Jane Barlow
Rhod Gilbert. Picture: Jane Barlow
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RHOD Gilbert is hilarious and contrary. No-one ever doubted the first quality but, true to his nature, he’s always denied the other – until now, writes Lee Randall

RHOD GILBERT has made an art form – and a living – from his least attractive personality trait, contrariness. To audiences’ delight, he’s demonstrated how easily he can pick a fight with a washing machine or a down-filled duvet, and
 as for his fellow humans, well, that goes without saying. The poster boy for Wales has even used his time on stage to lambast The Scotsman, slagging off a reviewer who called him “unremittingly trivial”, by retorting, “Trivial!? I’m not the one devoting 48 pages to Scotland!” He admits to me now that it was probably a five-star review – but it’s in his nature to torture himself by focusing on what’s negative.

After years of denial, Gilbert’s ready to concede that this isn’t an invented stage persona. “I am getting to know myself, and starting to accept myself better through my stand up. It’s been a fascinating experience. Until a year or two ago, I would have told you that what I do on stage is a character developed for the stage. But it’s not at all! Finally, I’m admitting and realising that all my life I have been this contrary argumentative little sod. My youngest memories are of arguing with people, disagreeing with them, having to disagree with everything everyone said, regardless of whether I agreed with them or not. I’ve always denied that, because it’s a very unpleasant characteristic. All my life, people accused me of being like that, and I’d always get into an argument with them about it. It’s only now, that I’m starting to realise this is what I’m like. So I put it out there. It has a positive side to it, in that it can make people laugh and make me money, and [so] I don’t feel quite so bad about myself.”

Self-examination is the jumping off point for his current touring show, The Man with the Flaming Battenberg Tattoo, which comes out today on DVD. In it, he describes how he addressed the problem by attending anger management classes, prompted by difficulties he and his girlfriend were having staying together – a problem exacerbated by her Christmas gift to him of an expensive electric toothbrush. In another set piece, he chronicles his epistolary pissing match with the makers of Imperial Leather shower gels, before describing his near arrest at a Tesco Metro in Cardiff, which melts into a riff about jacket potatoes that comes back to zing us at the close of the DVD. As you’d expect, the show is full of Gilbert’s trademark eloquent bluster – and it’s cramp-inducingly hilarious.

It doesn’t take a genius, Gilbert tells me, to work out how he got this way. He grew up in Carmarthen, in Wales, as the youngest of three children. He’s definitely the odd one out. His parents are teachers, his older brother’s an English tutor based in Spain, and his sister a lecturer at Cambridge.

“I’m the first one in my family who hasn’t gone anywhere near academia. My family are all boffins. My dad speaks about eight languages. He’ll be sitting there right now reading some Russian text in the Russian, and my mother will be reading Proust in the French. It’s all very, very academic, except for me. I would be sat in the middle of it all trying to watch Grange Hill or EastEnders. I rebelled and never went anywhere near academia. I went to uni, but only because they wanted me to. I didn’t go any lectures or do any work or take any interest in anything whatsoever.

“I think it’s fairly obvious that when I was growing up, arguments in my house would be along academic lines. They would be arguing about caesuras, or the classic Alexandrian line or the provenance and inspiration for a classical painting. I would just be sat there with nothing, nothing whatsoever. So I guess all I could do, growing up, was disagree with what everyone said, to try and get a word in, to try and get something. That is the communication method I’ve learned, contrariness. There’s nothing to add, all it can do is destroy, knock down what somebody else is saying, because it’s got nothing positive to say for itself. And that’s very much who I am and what I’m like. It’s very depressing. But at least I’ve found some positive outlet for it.”

That being the case, is he worried that anger management classes will, like Samson’s haircut, destroy his source of comedic strength? “No, I don’t think it will, because it’ll take more than a few months of anger management to truly change me on the inside. Those spots run pretty deep.”

Though it’s not on the DVD – “trying to film at the exact optimum moment when the show is at its best is a problem when something is constantly shifting and evolving” – he now tells audiences that he would give up his career in a heartbeat to not have had 44 years of arguing and bickering and contrariness. “That has been the worst aspect of my life. It upsets people. It upsets me. This career has sugared the pill, but I’d give it up.”

Well, it’s not as if he hasn’t experimented with alternatives, via three series of Rhod Gilbert’s Work Experience. He’s assayed zookeeping, policing, farming, hairdressing, and tattooing. The worst job, he tells me was performing as a drag act. “Because believe it or not I’m very shy and self conscious. I have a massive fear of failure and of looking stupid. I can’t sing. I can’t dance. As a drag artist I felt hugely self-conscious. I guess I could have tried to do a comedy version, but this series is about really trying to do something, and giving it a go, not just doing a comedy version. So it was just awful from start to finish.”

To his great surprise, the job he loved best was – wait for it – teaching. Laughing, he admits, “Maybe it’s in my blood. I absolutely fell in love with it, head over heels. I think it’s so depressing that it’s such a put-upon industry, and there’s so much politics involved. The simple job of imparting information to kids in an inspiring way will probably be the highlight of my life, when I go down.

“It’s a wonderful thing. I just think we don’t. . . oh, I don’t want to get into the politics of it, but every teacher I know, while they all love their jobs, that is very, very strongly despite everything. They’re all massively stressed, massively over-stretched and don’t feel well-regarded and respected. It’s such a shame, because just in a couple of days in a school, I could see that you’re as important as parents in shaping our world, the next generation. Oh, it’s such a shame that they’re exhausted and stressed and in tears.”

Hearing this repeated refusal to get embroiled in the politics of education, I realise that his act, while it takes aim at the absurdity of consumer culture with both barrels, really isn’t very political. He laughs again. “Do you know why? If you came to my previews, they are quite often politicised, but by the time the show comes through that process and ends up on the big stage, only the funnies are left in. I could send you the notes from when I was developing the show and there was loads more politics, but that’s not where the jokes are. I think I’ve just got to let what I’m doing speak for itself, and let the politics be implied and inferred. I’m pretty stoically left wing, but I haven’t found a way of successfully making the politics of what I think funny. So it always ends up, bit by bit, that the politics come out.”

And making people laugh is the other pillar of Gilbert’s personality. “My two things that pretty much sum me up throughout my life are that I’m contrary and quite funny. I never had any interest in school other than making people laugh. I didn’t give a shit what the teachers were talking about. I was just trying to make those people around me laugh. I was never a class clown, never a get-out-in-front-and-do-things type, just whispering asides and sarky little remarks or running commentaries. So those are the only two defining things, and the ex-girlfriend who nagged me [to take the comedy workshop that launched his career], I think she quite simply thought I was funny. I’ve always been very afraid of the world, and had no idea what to do with myself, and she wasn’t; she was a go-getting, ambitious person, and had vicarious ambition for me, and spotted that I could do something with that, which would never in a million years have occurred to me to do. That was for other people. But she wouldn’t rest with that.”

He was, he says, pretty contented with his career in market research, and weeks away from buying the firm he worked for, with two of his colleagues, when he jacked it in. “I was at the decent end of it, doing very interesting stuff in a small, private agency. The government was our main client, so we would get really interesting work trying to inform government communications and policy on illegal drug use, things like that. Or work for the British board of film classification looking at the effects of televised wrestling on kids. Really interesting psychology, observation-based. You’d watch kids for hours, try and interpret what’s happening, talk to them about it. So it wasn’t which do you prefer, Mars or Twix? I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I don’t miss it in the least. Giving it up was the best thing I ever did!”

Not just for you, Rhod, not just for you.

• The Man with the Flaming Battenberg Tattoo 
available to own on DVD from today; RRP:£19.99