“I was in WH Smith’s, and this young girl she got her phone out,” starts Uncle Bryn.
“Well, blow me, she took a photo on it! Can you believe it? Wait ‘til I tell Gav about this.” In giving an impromptu performance for a young girl at his Meadowhall book signing, Rob Brydon demonstrates his dedication to pleasing his fans. Described as the man who ‘very slowly became an overnight success’, his amiable personality (“everyone always bangs on about me being nice”) comes as a result of a long struggle to get his big break.
Hosting his own show on the BBC, and having an array of successful television roles on his CV, is a far cry from being the voice of Toilet Duck - and his early struggles have helped him “definitely appreciate” his achievements a lot more.
Currently touring his new autobiography Small Man in a Book with a series of signings and theatre talks around the country, he accepts that some attendees may be confused as to what to expect. “The theatre shows really are ‘an audience with…’ or ‘an evening with…’ where I have a presenter there to interview me,” he explains. “I’ve had people tweeting me saying ‘hey, I’m coming to see you and I might heckle you’ and they think it’s a stand-up show, but it’s not that sort of show.” Does he therefore still feel under pressure to perform? “I do feel that I need to do some of my stuff and get people laughing.”
It’s refreshing to see a celebrity prioritising what his fans want, and the talks give them an opportunity to ask Rob questions at the end of the night. With no control over what they could come out with, does he worry about this part of the night as it approaches? “No, no, not at all.” So you trust your public? “Oh yes; people generally want to know the same things, you know? ‘Will there be more Gavin and Stacey?’, ‘will I do my small man in a box voice?’ those sort of things,” he says. “It’s not like when I started out in clubs where you can get very hostile audiences. With something like this they’re fans and they’re always very friendly and happy to see you.”
Brydon’s good nature and humility make Small Man in a Book a refreshing change from other celebrity writes - where there can quite often be a big ego on show. The man himself, however, disagrees with the latter point, “I’d say that I have got a bit of an ego,” he protests, “but you have to have that in order to get up on stage, in order to come to a shopping centre and say, ‘hey, I’m here, come and meet me.’” Not many people under such public scrutiny would be so honest, but Brydon emphasises that “an ego in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, depending how you exercise it, and I always try and be pleasant to people.” That in mind, have there been any Rob Brydon ‘diva’ moments? “I do lose my rag sometimes,” he admits. “But I always regret it afterwards.”
Honest admissions such as this show us that, beneath the sound-bite obsessed, airbrushed celebrity culture that afflicts the 21st century, there are people such as Rob Brydon who don’t let the attention go to their head – he’s too intelligent and just too much of a thoroughly decent human being to fall into that narcissistic trap. Sometimes, however, people can just get you all wrong – “I used to do a joke about my second marriage, saying how when I became famous I got a younger, blonder wife,” he says, speaking of his stand up performances. “Now, I thought that the joke was very much against me, perhaps portraying me as the shallow idiot. I could feel people in the audience maybe seeing it as me doing the dirty on my first wife, so you have to be careful about how you’re perceived,” he muses.
This was around the time of his first stand up tour as Rob Brydon which, surprisingly for someone who’s been making us laugh for around a decade now, was only in 2009 – he’d previously done two tours as Keith Barret. Despite being happy at the opportunity to break away from playing a character, he confesses that taking away all elements of Keith from the performance made it “all too cynical,” so he started to reintroduce Keith to his shows. So, does he prefer being in character? “No. I used to, but in a way now the on-stage persona is to some degree a character anyway – it’s rather like a Venn diagram, in that they do overlap,” he explains. And just like when a band plays their hit song, Brydon acknowledges that he is “quite lucky” to have a repertoire of well-known characters and impressions to fall back on: “It’s nice for me, because when I’m on stage I find I can get away with most things by just slipping in a bit of Keith - it’s quite a nice get out of jail card!”
Small Man in a Book ends just before Rob becomes successful. You sense its part for dramatic effect but also partly because he’d be uncomfortable writing about how great it is to be famous – this isn’t a book aimed exclusively at the population of Essex, after all. Whilst being aware that writing an autobiography involves divulging a rather large amount of personal information to the public, there were always going to be things that Rob felt uncomfortable about. “You make choices – you don’t just put everything in there - that would be very unseemly. I have four children and I had to consider how much detail I wanted to go into about their lives. At the end of the day, we live a normal life, they still go to school - so it would be odd if they or their friends were to be reading intimate things. That would be a little peculiar.” Ever the caring family man, it’s unsurprising that he would want to protect the Brydon brood from the lime-light, though he stops short of criticising those who may choose otherwise, saying: “there’ll be some writers that are much happier to have that sort of stuff out there, whilst some people perhaps wouldn’t say as much as I do. You have to use your judgement.”
So often it becomes obvious that Rob Brydon doesn’t want to play the fame game, he just feels privileged for the opportunities he’s had. His face lights up when he confesses that he was a “a big bit star-struck” when meeting his hero, Tom Jones, and when speaking of his hometown, Baglan in South Wales, he seems in genuine awe of the area’s impressive pool of talent (Michael Sheen, Katherine Jenkins and Catherine Zeta Jones to name but three local impresarios). “It’s the Beverly Hills of South Wales!” he declares proudly. Aside from everything else, however, there’s one important question that I personally answering before we conclude: Baglan is home to the world’s one and only ‘Baked Bean Museum of Excellence’. Has he ever visited? “No…” he laughs, unaware that it even existed. “But you know what? I’ve always felt there was something missing in my life and I could never quite put my finger on what it was – I think I know now!”
He’d be annoyed about me banging on about it, but… Rob Brydon: what a nice man.
Small Man in a Book is available now RRP £20.