In the second series of The Trip, Michael Winterbottom’s elegiac buddy comedy, Rob Brydon has a fling. The day after the episode aired, his young son’s teacher spotted his wife at the school gates – she tentatively approached, put a hand on her shoulder, and offered condolences during this “difficult time”.
The Trip is, of course, a mockumentary, and his on-screen wife is no more real than his wife in the P&O ferry adverts. But it says a lot about the emotional connection people feel with Winterbottom’s series. It was fine when Steve Coogan had an affair in the first season – that’s what people expect. But not Rob Brydon – he’s supposed to be the nice one.
“None of the people you see in the show are real, including us,” he says. “When Michael came to us with the idea, we didn’t want to play ourselves, we thought it would come across as horribly self-indulgent. We said, ‘Can’t we just be characters?’ And he said ‘No’. But it’s a construct, a fiction made up by Michael from a little grain of truth. It’s unthinkable that Steve and I would sit there doing impersonations to each other in real life.”
When I met Brydon ahead of the new season, however, that’s exactly what he was doing. During our photo-shoot he bounded gamely around the garden of the hotel, doing impersonations of Arnold Schwarzenegger, wrestling our photographer for his light reflector. The weather was miserable and he jokingly lamented having ruined the sleeve of the suede jacket he was wearing.
“Pretend you’re in Ibiza,” instructed the photographer. “I’m always off to Ibiza, me” he replied in his bouncy Welsh accent. “I go with Mr David Guetta.”
When the crew dispersed and the cameras were off, however, Brydon is more taciturn; not rude, but thoughtful and ponderous. He is not a man who forms an opinion lightly, nor articulates it at speed. He appears to second guess himself at every juncture, his answers beginning with clauses such as “This might end up getting me in [Private Eye column] Pseud’s Corner, but…”
When I ask him why there are more left-wing than right-wing comedians he thinks about it for a while before saying, “Well, I don’t know really. What do you think?” (In contrast, when Steve Coogan was asked the same question in a recent interview, he immediately reeled off a long answer about comedy being fundamentally about empathy and therefore favouring more empathetic left-wingers). Brydon chuckles at the absurdity of his answer, adding, “I’ve always had trouble forming an opinion. You came here expecting the oracle and you got me!”
He does himself a disservice. He may have made it big relatively late – he was a presenter on a shopping channel and a regional radio DJ into his 30s – but after the success of 2000’s Marion and Geoff, closely followed by Human Remains, both co-written by Brydon and backed by Coogan’s production company, he’s been a near-constant presence on both stage and screen.
Gavin and Stacey became one of the most iconic shows of its generation. He’s starred in critically acclaimed theatre productions of The Painkillers (alongside Kenneth Branagh) and Future Conditional at the Old Vic. Film credits include A Cock and Bull Story (also starring Coogan), and he hosts the successful panel show Would I Lie to You?
Even in this context, The Trip feels special. On the face of it, it’s about Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon driving around doing Michael Caine impressions, but it’s also a dissection of male friendship, a meditation on the comforts and sorrows of middle age, a grand tapestry of middle-class insecurities played out against a backdrop of rolling countryside and Abba’s greatest hits. The final episode of the first season sees the pair competing to sing the high notes in The Winner Takes It All, and it’s heartbreaking.
“All men will end up having regrets to different degrees,” he sighs. “I’m 51, with five kids, and things start to change: the way you look at things, you appreciate them more, try to savour them. As you get older one of the best compliments you can pay a friend is: ‘You look really well’.
“But I must admit, I was surprised by the degree of melancholy in the first season. At the end of each week of filming I’d go home and say how fun it was, how great the impressions were. I wasn’t privy to the Michael Wyman music and the lingering shots of the scenery.”
The first season of The Trip was set in the north of England, with the second moving the action, such as it is, to Italy. Next on the menu is Spain. So what’s new? “Spain is new,” he says after a pause. “Everything else is the same, really.” He’s right, of course, it is the same: tonally similar restaurants, a soupçon of mild drama, the same dozen or so impressions shuffled in a slightly different order.
But despite this – or perhaps because of it – the show doesn’t feel a day older than when it first aired seven years ago. It feels timeless, comforting, the kind of programme you can imagine watching re-runs of in 20 or 30 years and laughing at the same jokes. I wonder if there was ever a temptation to throw some more of-the-moment impressions in there? Maybe a certain President of the United States?
“I only impersonate people I have affection for,” he says, apparently relieved to have a solid opinion about something. “I could do Trump so well. So well. But I don’t want to. Like any rational person I abhor Donald Trump. We’re not thinking ‘Who can we do that’s really current’. We’re doing a bunch of people who a certain age and demographic have no idea about. In this season we do a lot of McCartney and Mick Jagger and David Bowie. McCartney is a real joy [he says, lapsing into an uncannily accurate Paul McCartney impression]. But we’ll never learn Justin Bieber or Simon Cowell – those people just aren’t in our orbit.”
Brydon does, however, have over 2m followers on Twitter, a number you might more readily associate with sports stars or boy band members (he has double the followers of Russell Howard, for instance, and four times that of David Baddiel). With the best will in the world, however, his Twitter feed is hardly laugh-a-minute, oscillating between ‘sort-of interesting’ and ‘combatively banal’.
“I don’t know what to do with all these followers!” he says. “I’ve asked them to wait outside while I have a think about it. Some people tweet all the time and I think ‘What are you doing?’ I’m trying to spend less time looking at my phone. Part of me thinks ‘This is my livelihood, I should make more effort’, but most of the time I just retweet clips of Bruce Springsteen or Barbara Streisand. It’s ultimately time-wasting.”
As the nice guy of comedy – the guy so nice people got upset when a fictional version of him had an affair – surely he’s at least immune to Twitter trolls?
“Oh no, I get abuse. It’s like being in a lovely country pub and having a great time when someone comes over, spills their pint all over you and tries to start a fight. As a comedian and actor who is in the public eye, you inevitably develop a thick skin, but it can still touch a nerve. Once or twice I have replied but I’ve always regretted it, because you never know who it is, and then my followers get involved… I don’t understand the mentality of someone who would write abuse on Twitter – it’s so far beyond the universe of my thoughts, experience and attitudes that it’s mind-boggling.”
I wonder what Brydon, who now surely qualifies as an elder statesman of British comedy, makes of the industry today. “Oh, I don’t really have my finger on the pulse,” he says apologetically. “My comedy tastes tend to be people who are dead or are making plans for their death. I’m not in a position to make some pronouncement about the state of comedy. I’ve seen Catastrophe and it’s great. I have heard of Fleabag but not seen it. I’m a father of five, I’m not time-rich. There’s so much out there! I purposefully have several careers at once so I’m not beholden to the way the wind is blowing.”
Perhaps tellingly, however, he’s just finished his first stand-up tour in years. Does that feel like going home?
“Well, the purity of being on stage with your own audience is hard to beat. It’s you and them, and you’re in total control. There’s a science to it. Jokes are equations. I still get nervous, sometimes horribly nervous, all kinds of anxieties, wishing I’d never booked the stupid tour in the first place, thinking, ‘I can’t do this, I’m rubbish’. There’s still the threat of getting up on stage and dying. I had a corporate job for some accountants the other day and I struggled hugely to get a laugh out of them. It happens. Nine times out of 10 it goes well, but you can’t rely on people laughing.”
That might be true, but The Trip is a pretty sure bet. It’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you cry. It might just be the best British comedy of the last decade.
First published in City A.M.