Interview: Rory Bremner, Comedian

A conversation with Rory Bremner is exhilarating. In the first few moments we cover age, global warming, young comedians, Strictly Come Dancing (“a life-changing experience, but we’ll come back to that”) the perils of tweeting, Who Do You Think You Are? and the glories of a Scottish June evening.

It was on that June evening that Bremner decided he wanted to bring his family back to Scotland. He was in the process of making a documentary about Scottish soldiers. “I found myself at an oyster bar just short of Oban, looking due west at six in the evening,” he says. “It was so beautiful. The gorse was out, and it brought back memories of travelling around Scotland in my childhood. I want my children to have that. I want them to feel Scottish.”

He frowns, and quickly adds: “But not in an Alex Salmond, independence kind of way…”

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

And then we are off at a gallop through Scottish politics – which fascinates him, albeit he says, despite never having “got to grips” with it.

“I love the idea of being a separate entity within the whole,” he says. “I think independence is an idea whose time has come…” He sips his coffee. “…and gone.”

Jostling for position on the crowded raft of ideas he is currently floating to TV is Rory Goes To Holyrood, in which he, “an ingénue” in Scottish politics, tries to make sense of it all using what he calls the “instincts we used down south”. “We might even get the Holy Grail,” he murmurs, the glint of his inner satirist firing his eyes for a moment, “and get enough material for a comedy show as well.”

Bremner worries that he has “some sort of ADHD” and refers to himself at one point as “a stand up-chameleon” but, talking to him, what comes across is an intelligent, thoughtful and passionate man. So it is understandable that he might need a bit more from his creative life than standing up and doing funny voices.

And there has always been more. Bremner has translated Brecht and Weill from the German and Offenbach’s Orpheus In The Underworld and Bizet’s Carmen from the French. He is a walking sports encyclopaedia and when he references the comedy he admires the most it is not just John Dowie, Mark Steel and Jeremy Hardy, The ‘Two Johns’ (Bird and Fortune) and Chris Morris, but Voltaire.

He was never the kind of impressionist who simply disappeared behind his impressions. He winces as I mention the “and this is me” moment from the end of each Mike Yarwood Show. But it is an easy trap for the impressionist, he says.

“I was watching some tapes of the early television shows,” he says, “and I used to begin every show as Sandy Gall.” He slips into the voice, hunching slightly over our coffee cups: “This is me, Sandy Gall, at ten o’clock, looking like it’s much later….” He sits up. “And then I was looking at a tape of one of the tours and I was still doing it! I thought, ‘Rory, you didn’t even say hello to the audience!’ ”

Does he ever feel like ditching the voices? He started a long while ago to do more “material” and fewer voices, partly as a result of what he calls “the fragmentation of the audience” in a multi-channel world, which means we no longer have so many common points of reference. As he says, “there is no guarantee that someone who knows who Russell Howard is will know who David Starkey is.”

He sighs. It is difficult for a performer who fundamentally just wants to be loved, he says, to ditch surefire crowd-pleasers. Having said that, those surefire crowd-pleasers are becoming harder to find. “When I am in front of an audience, I know that I can still get them to fall about with laughter at Michael Howard,” he says. “But do someone like George Osborne and you can hear people thinking, ‘Who is that? Is that what he sounds like?’ It’s like showing a dog a card trick.”

It is, Bremner notes, not just the fact that our politicians seem to have all the individuality of a self-assembly MDF bookcase in Ikea that makes his job harder, but that current events are almost beyond satire.

“I’ve been asked to write a piece for the Financial Times,” he says, “and they want me to do something about Leveson and the Rebekah Brooks thing. And people say, ‘Ooh, that must be giving you loads of material!’ But when you’ve got a senior police officer allowing the Sun’s crime writer to type up copy on his computer…” Bremner’s eyebrows attempt lift-off, “Where do you go from there?”

Perhaps the allegedly Chinese curse “may you live in an interesting age” was meant for satirists – who are getting fewer and further between. “Maybe it is just about getting older,” he says, “but the issues are so much more complicated today… the World Bank, the Eurozone, Leveson, even Scottish independence is elusive. With Thatcher and Blair there were big issues but there was a sort of simplicity.”

And it is not just today’s issues that Bremner finds it tricky to get to grips with. He finds the new “breed” of comic mildly intimidating. “They are so young and so confident,” he says. “They are like comedy businessmen, doing a PowerPoint demonstration rather than an act.” He likes and enjoys many of the new acts but “there is a powerful sense of ‘brand’, of having a comedy ‘business plan’ and that plan is to do a few bits of telly and then a massive arena tour. Maybe the fun has gone out of it.”

He certainly found little fun in doing Mock The Week. “I just ended up thinking, ‘Get out of the way, Rory, these guys are coming through!’ I do worry, but then I get to the point where I am writing jokes and doing shows I absolutely love it. I wish I could do more. I really have no business doubting myself, but I do.”

At this point we are joined by the comedian Arnold Brown. Talk turns back to the joy of people who have a distinctive voice. The two duet in an impression of John Dowie – entirely wordless, simply rehearsing the cadences of his performance. As we discuss the role of writers in comedy, Arnold fixes Rory with a laser stare from under beetling brows. Was it, he wonders gently, John Langdon who had written Brown’s catchphrase “and why not?” into a sketch in which Rory played Barry Norman. “I really didn’t mind,” says Brown, pouring tea. “It was just when he used it for his autobiography…”

Rory is horrified. Barry Norman did use the phrase, he says. And the two deliveries of the same phrase were so different… here, Bremner demonstrates with a back-to-back delivery of “and why not ?” as, first, Barry Norman and then as Arnold Brown. Brown is impressed by Bremner’s impression, if not by the argument. “I would never have used it if I thought it would have damaged someone I admire,” says Bremner. Brown calms his distress. These things, we agree, happen. And their mutual admiration remains wholly unscathed.

Bremner now has to go and address a British Council meeting. And he is “starting to get nervous”. But, he concedes, in a good way.

This seems to be a good time in The Life of Bremner. What he describes as a “shortage of work” has coincided with him “getting my life in some sort of shape”. Over the past ten years, he says, he has come to realise that “I am never happier than when I am in Scotland” and he wants his children to experience that happiness.

Standing on Blackford Hill in Edinburgh makes him feel like king of the world, he says And for my money, on a stage he is at least a prince amongst comedians. «

• Rory Bremner plays the Citizens’ Theatre on 30 March for the Glasgow International Comedy Festival. click here to visit