Days before I meet Rob Brydon, the affable "None-More-Welsh" comedian and actor pops up on Graham Norton's couch to compare sporting achievements with Usain Bolt. The fastest man on earth collapsed with laughter as the star of The Trip talked him through the tragic photograph of six-year-old Brydon finishing dead last in a sack race at school. That memory share perfectly summarises Brydon, a performer whose bonhomie is matched only his capacity for self-deprecation.
“I don’t mind certainly being the butt of the joke,” says the 53-year-old. “But that was pretty easy. I think there’s a distinction to be made about being the butt of the joke. I don’t think anyone minds being the butt of the joke as long as they are controlling the joke, as long as you’re the butt of your own joke. Like putting up a picture of Usain Bolt literally becoming the fastest man on earth and putting up a picture of yourself as a boy of six coming last in a sack race. Knowing it will get laughs. No great effort required.”
There’s a strange art to being Rob Brydon. His delivery and timing is so good that he can make ordinary speech sound downright hilarious. When I playback his chatter – “People always want to tell me where they visited in Wales” or “I think I’m more of a follower than a leader” or “Oh God, let’s not go there: what have I said about Brexit before?” – I develop a new appreciation for his dry intonation.
It's hard to think of a better man to head up the cast of Swimming with Men, a new comedy about an all-male synchronised swimming team, comprising Brydon, Rogue One's Daniel Mays, Four Lions' Adeel Akhtar, Downton Abbey's Jim Carter, Sherlock's Rupert Graves and This is England's Thomas Turgoose. "We're just a bunch of middle-aged men who want to meet up in trunks that are too small for us, and make funny little patterns in a pool," explains Mays's character, one of many, bumbling, muddled souls.
“No one can say: ‘Oh, not another film about middle-aged men taking up synchronised swimming.’ “I really liked that and I loved the script. It ticked all the right boxes for me,” says Brydon. “I think it fits with a lot of stuff I’ve done. I want to do material with heart and feeling.”
Remarkably, Swimming with Men is based on the true story of a Welsh man named Dylan Williams, who emigrated from Cardiff to Sweden in 2000 to be with his partner, Anna. Friendless and struggling to acclimatise to his adopted country, Williams joined the Stockholm Art Swim Gents, Sweden's only all-male ornamental swimming team, and went on to compete in the men's synchronised swimming world championships.
The actors were joined by two champion synchronised swimmers, Chris Jepson and Ronan Daly, to add a veneer of professionalism and to bring the team up to the regulation eight members.
“I liked learning a new skill,” says Brydon. “We had boot-camp for a few weeks and it was so tiring. You’re treading water all day. At our age if you take up a new thing, you train for an hour a week, and you progress like a tortoise. With this we were really focused for hours every day. But we did get to a standard that I didn’t expect.”
I think that's really touching to see these unreconstructed men grabbing each other by the wrist or arm. A few people have said they've actually shed a tear
The film, which brings together various characters having various life crises, shares obvious DNA with The Full Monty and is powered along by group bromance.
“They’re all a little bit adrift,” says Brydon. “And yet really support each other. And they have to support each other physically in the water as well. I think that’s really touching to see these unreconstructed men grabbing each other by the wrist or arm. A few people have said they’ve actually shed a tear.”
Brydon's latest tour – I Am Standing Up – featuring his lighthearted repertoire of chat, jokes, music, audience interaction and impressions, comes to Dublin in September. An old school performer from the same lineage as Tommy Cooper, Brydon ought to have been perfecting his live banter for decades. But touring is a relatively recent development in Brydon's chequered career history.
Brydon’s father was a car salesman, his mother a teacher. His parents were funny, he says, but no one in the family ever dreamed of performing.
“I think I must be some sort of genetic mutation,” he says. “Because this was all I was ever going to do. I’m not one of those people who worked in an office and who thought to hell with this. When I was at school, I was doing this.”
Perhaps there was something in the water around Port Talbot, where Brydon grew up. He was a pupil at St John's School in Porthcawl, which Eddie Izzard also attended. Later, at Dumbarton House School in Swansea, as he admitted on his long-running BBC series Would I Lie to You?, he once stole Catherine Zeta Jones's lunch money. At school, he was part of a theatre group with future collaborators Ruth Jones and Julia Davis. His father, too, lived just down the road from Anthony Hopkins.
"Where I come from is famously the birthplace of Burton and Hopkins and Sheen," says Brydon. "So we have a high percentage of actors and performers. Catherine Zeta Jones is from up the road in Swansea. Tom Jones is from down the road in Pontypridd."
Brydon was rejected by Rada, but accepted by the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff but left after just a year to work as a DJ on Radio Wales. For much of his career, he remained behind a microphone, providing voiceovers for commercials for Pot Noodle, Tango, Toilet Duck, McDonald's, and Domino's Pizza. He worked as a presenter for the Home Shopping Network and landed small roles in films including First Knight and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.
“I’d achieved some financial success because I’d become quite successful as a voiceover artist,” recalls Brydon. “But I was a bit frustrated. I just assumed as a young man that things would happen for me eventually. I had that cast-iron faith. I kept going forward. But I was beginning to doubt that it would ever happen for me when those two shows came along in 2000 and everything changed.”
Those two shows were Marion and Geoff, which he co-wrote with Hugo Blick, and Human Remains, which he co-wrote with Julia Davis.
In Marion and Geoff, Brydon monologues as Keith Barret, a naive, cheery taxi driver going through a messy divorce from his wife, Marion, who, though he fails to realise it, has had a long-standing affair with her work colleague, Geoff.
I was 35 and I think there are loads of advantages to not getting your big break until then. The primary one is that you appreciate things much more
It was a perfect showcase for the performer's glass-half-full comedy, a shtick that has subsequently landed him a starring role alongside Kenneth Branagh in the West End, regular appearances on QI, chairing the BBC Radio 4 comedy panel game I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, recording a Comic Relief single with Tom Jones, and working on Hollywood movies, including Show White: Huntsman's War and Disney's Cinderella.
“I was 35 and I think there are loads of advantages to not getting your big break until then,” he says. “The primary one is that you appreciate things much more. I get bored reading interviews with me that say: he’s very content with his work. But it’s true. I’ve never been the man of the moment. I’ve never burned fantastically brightly. But I like that. I was schlepping around for years. And I appreciate what I have because it took me so long. I can only see it as a fantastic career.”
Steve Coogan served as an executive producer on both Marion and Geoff and Human Remains. That would prove the start of a beautiful friendship. In 2010, Coogan and Brydon debuted as fictionalised versions of themselves in The Trip. The Michael Winterbottom-directed sitcom was edited into a feature film for the US and has spawned two follow-up series, The Trip to Italy (2014) and The Trip to Spain (2016).
“I remember watching Steve picking up comedy awards and thinking that’s what I’d love to be doing,” recalls Brydon. “I was trying to get parts in things. Little roles in sitcoms. I couldn’t get in the door. And then suddenly I did. The first comedy award I won was presented by Steve. And I went from there to picking up awards with him.”
The low-level point-scoring that defines The Trip has seen Coogan and Brydon debating who knows Anthony Hopkins the best – neither has met him – and which one of them is loved more by Ian McKellen. They never corpse, says Brydon, it's just "not the headspace we work in". And it isn't always as much fun as it looks.
“We’re always niggling away at each other, which can be quite wearisome at times,” he says. “We arrive on set and we’re at lovely locations and we sigh and go: ugh, here we go, we have to start poking each other again. At times it’s very enjoyable. But there are plenty of days when we think: not this again.”
Selling out: three actors who stared in ads
Tom Selleck: The Blue Bloods star had a couple of failed turns on The Dating Game before becoming the face of Pepsi and Close Up Toothpaste. He was the veteran of some six pilot episodes before Magnum PI made him famous.
Bryan Cranston: Before Malcolm in the Middle and Breaking Bad, Cranston was on TV urging Americans to buy soap, bug spray, Carnation Coffeemate, and popular haemorrhoid treatment, Preparation H.
Lindsay Lohan: As a child, Lindsay popped up in advertisements for Jello and the board-game Payday. As an unfairly maligned adult, Lindsay has popped up in advertisements for lawyer.com and Italian fashion company Fornarina.
Swimming with Men is on release.