Interview: Rob Brydon

Simon Button

We chatted to Rob Brydon about travelling away from home, what he thinks of a Gavin And Stacy rebootand his upcoming film, Swimming With Men

He’s best known as genial Uncle Bryn in Gavin & Stacey as well as for his drolly funny trips around England and Europe with Steve Coogan and for his quick-witted hosting of Would I Lie To You? But it seems Rob Brydon can now add “sex symbol” to his CV thanks to Swimming With Men, the British comedy film where he spends much of his time in just a pair of trunks.

"It's a natural progression: Uncle Bryn, The Trip, Would I Lie To You?, then sex symbol"

Brydon with his co-stars of Gavin & Stacey

The genial-as-Bryn Welshman laughs at the very idea, then deadpans: “I think it’s the inevitable next phase of my career. It’s a natural progression: Uncle Bryn, The Trip, Would I Lie To You?, then sex symbol. You can’t stand in the way of progress.”

In the film he plays Eric, a bored accountant going though a mid-life crisis who joins a group of synchronised swimmers (played by the likes of Jim Carter, Daniel Mays and Rupert Graves) and finds himself en route to the world championship in Milan. It’s a first-ever leading-man role for Rob, who got his start in radio more than 30 years ago and has been acting since the mid-1990s, but he’s taking it in his stride.

“It’s pretty good,” says the 53-year-old, speaking down the phone from his home in Richmond and sounding as laid-back as the characters he specialises in playing. “I love my work and I’m so lucky to get to do what I do but it’s not my life. I’m aware this is the first time I’ve had top billing in a film and it pleases me, but that’s about it.” 

He is, however, genuinely pleased about how Swimming With Men has turned out. “It’s an unusual story,” Brydon feels. “At the very least you can’t go, ‘Oh God, not another film about middle-aged men’s synchronised swimming’. It’s interesting because women in particular seem to like the film. Maybe there’s something about seeing men being very vulnerable, real and honest.

Brydon alongside Steve Coogan in The Trip

“I know someone who saw it who said, ‘I expected to laugh but I didn’t expect to cry’. They didn’t expect it to be so touching and I think one of the reasons it’s so touching is that you see all these men who are all a bit adrift, they’ve all sort of come loose from their moorings.”

He chuckles. “That’s me keeping the maritime analogies going, but they have to lean on each other and support each other, literally as well as emotionally. They have to reach out and touch each other’s bodies and hold each other’s ankles or wrists. I think there’s something quite affecting about seeing that on screen. I mean, none of us look like we could be in The Avengers or something like that. We all look very normal.”

"I mean, I'd be a lunatic if I went around going, 'Hello! Welcome to day!' All the time"

When we first meet Eric he’s fed up with his job and is drifting apart from his wife (Jane Horrocks) whereas Rob, who has four children and is happily married to former TV producer Claire Holland, is in a much better place. “I have a very blessed life. I have everything I want. I have opportunities, I have a great family, I’m pretty content I must say. I think back to before I had my break when I couldn’t get arrested, I just couldn’t get anything going, but even then I knew what I wanted to do. I was never adrift like Eric.”

Laughing about dredging up more nautical metaphors, he adds: “I could see the harbour that I wanted to come into, I just couldn’t get there.”

With Ruth Jones in Gavin and Stacey

Brydon’s big break was the 2000 BBC comedy Marion & Geoff, prior to which he’d been a presenter for Radio Wales and the Home Shopping Network, did TV voice-overs and had only secured a few minor film and TV roles. I wonder aloud why he didn’t give up, to which he replies, “That’s an interesting question because when I wrote my autobiography and read it back I thought, My God, how on earth did you keep on going? But I think when you’re the one on the journey you’re just looking straight ahead.

I was always thinking, It’s round the next corner. When my dad read the book he said, ‘I had no idea how hard it had been for you’. It’s full of knock-back after knock-back after knock-back.”

The details, he adds, are in said autobiography Small Man In A Book, which was published in 2012. “And you can now find it in charity shops at a very reasonable price.”

The book also details Brydon’s childhood as the son of a school teacher mum and car dealer dad, his tenure at the Welsh College of Music & Drama, his radio and voice-over work and how he’s never looked back since Marion & Geoff. Gavin & Stacey, The Trip and Would I Lie To You? have since turned him into a household name. “But if I’m being entirely honest with you, more people probably see the adverts I do than anything else,” admits the current face of P&O Cruises. “That said, Gavin & Stacey seems to have a very special place in people’s hearts.”

The latter wrapped in 2010 and there’s been no talk of a new series, which Rob is happy about.

“I think it’s kind of perfect as it is and I’d much rather have people saying, ‘I wish there was more’ as opposed to ‘It’s such a shame they came back and did it again because it wasn’t the same’.”

"I love the trips with Steve—they're great fun but I'm always ready to come home"

Brydon married former TV producer Claire Holland in 2006

Given his quick wit, do fans expect him to be funny in person? “I think it’s more that they expect me to be happy. Usually when they see me on TV I’m either smiling and saying ‘Welcome to Would I Lie To You?’ or I’m playing a happy-go-lucky character like Bryn or I’m looking across the deck of a cruise ship seeming to be very happy with life. So if people see me in the street with a normal face they’ll say, ‘Cheer up’. I can’t tell you how annoying that is.” Putting on an exaggerated air of joie de vivre he adds, “I mean, I’d be a lunatic if I went around going ‘Hello! Welcome to today!’ all the time.”

We’re chatting on a landline, so I can’t see if Brydon is looking happy but he certainly sounds it. Being at home is his favourite thing, especially when it revolves around the kids. He has three grown-up children: Katie, Harry and Amy from his first marriage, and he and Claire have two sons, Tom, ten, and George, seven. “And I love it when we’re all together. I often have three or four fifths of the kids together and now and again it’s the whole pie, although it gets harder as they get older because they’re off doing their own thing.”

He’s hitting the road again in September for a stand-up tour. “And that’s not without its pleasures but mostly I like being at home and having a routine because usually my life doesn’t have one. I think the delights of gadding about are very much a young man’s game and it doesn’t work when you have young children because they need you around. I love the trips with Steve. They’re great fun but I’m always ready to come home.

“I really like being able to have a nice breakfast, walk the boys to school, have a chat with some of the other parents, go to the gym, meet friends, get out into the countryside or at the very least sit in the garden, then pick the boys up from school—pretty simple stuff.”

Swimming With Men is in cinemas now