Simon Bird on Friday Night Dinner, and why his awkward persona isn’t all an act

Simon Bird, star of The Inbetweeners and Friday Night Dinner. Pic: PA
Simon Bird, star of The Inbetweeners and Friday Night Dinner. Pic: PA
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SIMON Bird doesn’t particularly like being interviewed. If he hadn’t already told me this, I’d know by his body language.

Sitting in the corner of the London private members’ club where we meet, he looks rather uncomfortable, tugging awkwardly at his forelock, making little eye contact. He is well-mannered, friendly, good-humoured but his slightly strained tone implies he is tholing my questions politely.

“I had never planned on putting myself out there,” he offers by way of explanation. “Then The Inbetweeners happened.” The Inbetweeners, for anyone over the age of 25, is the sitcom that catapulted Bird to fame and ensured that the nickname “briefcase wanker” would continue to follow him around long after the show came off the air in 2010.

It tracked four teenage boys as they navigated life, love and high school in suburban England, with Bird, 28, playing the central character and narrator, nerdy Will McKenzie, whose decision to carry a briefcase on his first day of school earned him his unsavoury nickname.

The show led to him collecting the award for Best Male Comedy Newcomer at the 2008 British Comedy Awards (in his acceptance speech he thanked the judges for recognising the “technical mastery and personal upheaval it took for me to play a bookish teenage virgin”) and Best Television Comedy Actor the 
following year.

Explicit, raucous and oftentimes offensive, The Inbetweeners became E4’s most successful show ever, picked up a Bafta and is still endlessly quoted by every teenager in Britain. It was so popular that last year The Inbetweeners Movie was released.

The film set a new record for the most successful opening weekend ever for a comedy film in the UK and spent four weeks at number one in the box office chart. It also made even bigger stars of its four leads and, whether Bird likes it or not, put them “out there” for public consumption.

In the two years since The Inbetweeners story ended, Bird’s star has continued to rise. He hosted his own panel show, The King is Dead, on BBC 3, is currently co-writing a sitcom, Chickens, set during the First World War, and is starring in the second series of the acclaimed Friday Night Dinner opposite Tamsin Greig and Paul Ritter.

The Channel 4 sitcom revolves around the Jewish Goodman family’s weekly get-together, with Bird playing Adam, the (relatively) straight man to the rest of his eccentric relatives. It’s written by Robert Popper, inspired by his own family dinners – Adam is the character who most closely resembles the show’s creator, just as Will is based on Iain Morris, one of the writers on The Inbetweeners.

“Both of those characters are slightly removed from the action and are sort of wryly commenting on the madness that’s unfolding around them,” Bird says.

Perhaps he’s a little too cartoonishly nerdy-looking to be a true Everyman, but there’s something about the characters Bird plays that evokes sympathy from the viewing public, whether it’s Will losing control of his bodily functions in an exam or Adam having his brother repeatedly attempt to mutilate his childhood teddy in the first episode of the second series of Friday Night Dinner.

When I ask Robert Popper about casting Bird in Friday Night Dinner, he points out that “he plays ‘put-upon’ very well,” which seems pretty spot-on. Does Bird agree? “Yeah... erm, well certainly the characters in the two shows are famous for being very put-upon so I guess the people who cast those must have seen that in me. I hope I can do other things. But I’ll have to wait and see, I suppose.”

He’s not giving me much, but then he doesn’t particularly like doing interviews. Or rather, “I understand that it’s all part of the job but it’s just not a part of the job that I necessarily enjoy.” Taking part in Celebrity Weakest Link in 2008 which he won (“not that I like to blow my own trumpet...” he adds wryly) falls firmly into the same category.

Born in Guildford, Bird didn’t grow up in a thespy family. His father is an ecomomics professor and his siblings are doctors. When did he realise that he was funny? “I hope I was always funny with my friends, but that connected with the idea of doing it on a stage when, during my sixth form, we did an assembly ‘making fun of the teachers’,” he says with a good-natured roll of the eyes. “We got really professional about it, stopped doing homework for a few weeks and really focused and it went very well. That was the moment I knew I could see myself doing it again.”

He studied English at Cambridge and joined the famous Footlights sketch troupe in Freshers’ Week, becoming president in 2006. “After that first meeting,” he says, “I knew I really didn’t want to do anything but comedy.”

It was there that he met Joe Thomas, fellow Inbetweener and now his co-writer, alongside Jonny Sweet, for Chickens, in which the trio star as three young men opting to stay at home rather than go and fight in the war, each for his own reasons.

The alumni of the Footlights reads like a Who’s Who of British comedy (Fry, Laurie, Cleese etc) but Bird insists that it’s not always viewed entirely favourably by potential employers: “People wrongfully assume that you think you’re just going to walk into a job. That might have been true in the Fifties and Sixties but it’s just not the case now and definitely everyone I know who has been in it in the last ten years goes out of their way not to mention it in meetings, interviews or castings, because there is a sort of anti-snobbery about it.”

That may be so, but it was via the Footlights that he got his big break on The Inbetweeners. The writers were in the audience at the troupe’s annual Edinburgh show (he describes the Fringe as “the best possible training ground” for comedy) and spotted him there.

After graduating, he embarked on a masters degree in London, essentially so that he could pursue a comedy career in the English capital while trying to convince his parents that he was doing something useful with his life. Have they accepted his career choice now that he’s something of a comedy darling?

“Friday Night Dinner has helped a lot because it’s much more their cup of tea than The Inbetweeners,” he says. That’s unsurprising; the earlier show appealed to the filthiest corners of the minds of teenage boys, and famously coined the word “clunge” as a slang term for female genitalia.

“They will be upset with me if I say they’ve been anything other than supportive so, um, I’ll just say they’re supportive and leave it at that,” he adds. “Actually that makes it sound very fishy. They are very supportive! I think they just wanted me to have something to fall back on. Which is just good, solid parenting...” The success of The Inbetweeners gave him an enviable platform and the opportunity to try new things. He’d already done stand-up as a student, and in 2010 created The King is Dead, a panel show for BBC 3 wherein a well-known figure (the president, Santa Claus, the king of the jungle) is hypothetically killed off and three celebrities are interviewed for the job. It was funny, and he enjoyed it, but it also helped him to realise that his future lay in sitcoms.

“Yeah, fictional comedy as opposed to me being a ‘personality’ on my own terms. I enjoy watching sitcoms where the team behind it have successfully created a whole alternate reality that you can enter into for half an hour every week. That’s the stuff that I love; The Office, Arrested Development, Seinfeld. I like that more than I like panel shows I suppose. And I just like to have a private life. I don’t like to be totally on show and it’s difficult to do that if you’re putting yourself out there. If you claim to be an actor then you at least have a reason, an excuse to retain a certain amount of distance and hopefully mystique.”

He is married now, to Lisa Owens, whom he met during their second year of university. The ring on his finger helps to deflect the endless questions about whether he’s as hopeless in love as Will is, but he does concede that his teenage years were not dissimilar to those of his Inbetweeners character.

“They’re a bit wilder than me and my friends were,” he says with a smile. “If The Inbetweeners are a ten my friends were sort of a seven. But the pervasive sense you get from the series is that they’re just bored and waiting for things to happen. They sit around waiting for the night to start, waiting to try and get into a club, waiting to get picked up by their dads. I definitely remember that feeling of ‘is this it? When are we going to have all these crazy experiences that we’re talking about?’ I remember that slightly stultifying suburban environment. It definitely rang true.”

Speaking of slightly stultifying suburban environments, Friday Night Dinner is set almost entirely in the kind of faceless suburban home that’s scattered the length of the country. The format is simple; the family of four have a weekly meal on the Jewish Sabbath and hi-jinks inevitably ensue.

The programme is shot in a real home rather than on a set, resulting in pretty close quarters, with the cast searching for ways to amuse themselves on their downtime: “We played a lot of Boggle. Tamsin Greig’s an absolute fiend, as it turns out.”

Bird’s passion for tennis made him “a pre-tournament favourite” in the cast and crew table tennis tournament but things soon unravelled for him. “I looked good in the qualifiers but I had an absolute nightmare in the semis,” he says in a faux-serious tone. “I was 18-11 up and I lost 21-19. It was my mental strength. I needed an Ivan Lendl.”

The King is Dead and Friday Night Dinner have followed close on the heels of The Inbetweeners. Next year Chickens will be his first chance to publicly prove his worth at the writing game. “l feel like a bit of a cheat and a fraud at the moment in that I’ve been in two quite successful sitcoms but still haven’t written anything yet,” he says. “I always felt that my way into comedy would be through my writing rather than my acting. I still feel like I’ve got a lot to prove so I’m very hungry to do that at the moment.” Does he prefer acting or writing? “Acting is definitely more fun. It’s only six weeks to do a series and somebody just presents you with lots of funny jokes to say and make people laugh. But ultimately writing is more satisfying and is probably in the long run what you’ll look back at and be more proud of.”

He adds: “The process of writing is absolutely horrible. It takes so long. Yeah it’s sort of hellish. But hopefully the long term gains are worth the short term pains. Oh that’s quite good isn’t it? I just made that up. I should make a t-shirt...”

Our time is running out, I’ve got one last question. OK, just how often do people ask him just how often he gets ‘briefcase wanker’ shouted at him in the street? He laughs openly. “Probably more than people actually shout ‘briefcase wanker’ at me. It does come up a lot.”

Time for him to go. He gives me a sincere “nice to meet you” but looks relieved that the interview is over and he doesn’t have to answer any more questions about himself. He might never have planned on putting himself “out there”, on being a personality in his own right, but then The Inbetweeners and Friday Night Dinner “happened”. And as a result, like it or not, Simon Bird has happened.

Friday Night Dinner returns to Channel 4 tomorrow at 10.05pm.