Rob Beckett: ‘I’ve lost a lot of friends to suicide. I’ve got to tell the truth of how I’m feeling’

The stand-up is successful beyond his wildest dreams. But dread can overwhelm him

Rob Beckett: the comedian can hold his own on Dara Ó Briain’s Mock the Week. Photograph: Nicky Johnston/Getty

Rob Beckett: the comedian can hold his own on Dara Ó Briain’s Mock the Week. Photograph: Nicky Johnston/Getty

 

Rob Beckett is one of those comedians without whom many TV formats would collapse. He is an accomplished standup who made his debut in 2009, at 23, performing anywhere in the UK that would have him, often not even for petrol money. He has a rare combination of warmth and edge. He can present Wedding Day Winners with the breakfast-TV presenter Lorraine Kelly without making her seem square; do a pitch-perfect double-act with Romesh Ranganathan that makes the audience feel as though they are included in the friendship; pack out the Hammersmith Apollo, in London, with a solo show for which his notes amount to 10 words; and hold his own on Dara Ó Briain’s Mock the Week, famous for its bear-pit atmosphere and comic-eat-comic sensibility.

We meet in a cafe in southeast London, a greasy spoon that the owner says has been there since 1932. (They dated it from the fly-posted film billboards in an old photo.) Strangers open up with Beckett in the room; I have never had a conversation so intently eavesdropped. It is partly that he has natural charisma, partly because he has a celebrity gloss – slightly exaggerated features, not classically handsome so much as screen-ready – and partly because what he is saying is novel and his delivery is vivacious and so incredibly fast.

I do need to put this out. I’ve lost a lot of friends to suicide. A lot of working-class men struggle with mental health, and I think I can’t go out there and be Mr Jack the Lad, constantly on the telly, and not tell the truth of how I’m feeling

He has written a book, A Class Act: Life As a Working-Class Man in a Middle-Class World. Lockdown was the catalyst, although he had wanted to write it since before the pandemic. Like his act, it is pacy, witty and affectionate, a fish-out-of-water story of arriving at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, for instance, “a desperate full-kit w**ker wanting to be a comedian, but with no guidance or advice on how to go about it”. He mocks himself and lampoons his mum, his dad and his four brothers. Didn’t they mind? “Oh no, they’ve got off lightly. There is another book knocking about, and they won’t be happy.” He holds up a mirror to the middle classes, their stupid foods (“I don’t trust couscous. It’s fat sand”) and weird conventions.

Early on in his life story, he gets under the skin of the class divide, the bit that isn’t funny. In 2010, despite feeling like an outsider in Edinburgh, baffled by the mindless whimsy of the sketch improv that seemed to bring down the house, he won a newcomer award that included a return trip to Adelaide, plus accommodation, for its month-long comedy festival.

Rob Beckett: ‘Everyone was funny, growing up: my brothers, my mum, my dad, my cousin, everyone... So I never felt like I was particularly funny’
Rob Beckett: ‘Everyone was funny, growing up: my brothers, my mum, my dad, my cousin, everyone. So I never felt like I was particularly funny’

The problem was, he didn’t have any money: not enough to get to and from the venue, not enough to eat anything except cereal, not enough for sunscreen; definitely not enough to socialise, or explore, or go to the doctor when he got a chest infection (and sunburn). “I am talking proper skint. Zero pounds in the bank skint,” he writes. The story zigzags between the knockabout comradeship of kind strangers and the desolation and panic of being penniless.

“I was writing that in tears,” he says now. “It was almost like opening a door that I’d locked. Everything else is just Bulletproof Beckett: boom, do that, bang, bang, bang. Funny, funny, funny. Write a book now. And then I felt a little door creaking open.”

He says that, in many ways, he is at a peak now – he is as healthy as he has ever been, he is happily married to Lou, a teacher, and he has two daughters at primary school. (They are also about to get a whippet.) Even so, he is sometimes overwhelmed by dread, the feeling that he may have surpassed his “wildest dreams”. The book “goes a bit darker”, he says, “because I thought: I do need to put this out. I’ve lost a lot of friends to suicide. A lot of working-class men struggle with mental health, and I think I can’t go out there and be Mr Jack the Lad, constantly on the telly, and not tell the truth of how I’m feeling.”

His default mode remains puckish exuberance – even when he describes the pervasive snobbery he has had to dodge like a Mario character throughout his career. We talk about the photoshoot for the cover image of his book, which features him in a pie-and-mash shop, wearing a suit and drinking a martini. “I’m not saying working-class people don’t wear suits, but you would never wear that outfit in that environment,” he says. The day of the shoot, people were spitballing ideas. Someone said to him: “Do you wanna pose in that outfit by a bin?”

Rob Beckett in his unlikely suit
Rob Beckett on the cover of A Class Act in his unlikely pie-and-mash-shop outfit

He says: “That’s when that working-class rage comes out, where you want to go: ‘You f**king … you f**king what?’ The person wasn’t being mean, they were just thinking, Working class equals poor, working class equals bins. Like I’m trash. But if you don’t suppress that rage, you can’t operate in my industry.”

Beckett segues into an anecdote about why working-class rage is funny while middle-class microaggression is poisonous. One day in his youth, Beckett and his then girlfriend were fined by a train ticket inspector. When his dad, whom he calls Super Dave, came to pick them up from the station, his dad said, “Do you want me to go and hit him?”

Beckett’s dad has worked behind the wheel for most of his life: as a van driver, then an oil-tanker driver, then a black-cab driver. He was a doting father; he used to pick Beckett up from comedy gigs if he finished late (although he would happily kick him out of his cab if a big-money airport job came along). His mother, whom he calls Big Suze, looked after him and his brothers until they left school, then worked in a shop.

Beckett speaks about his academic struggles at school in a way I have rarely heard in middle-class conversations. “My GCSEs” – the equivalent of the Junior Cert – “were shit. I worked so hard. I’d go to after-school clubs, I’d get up at 8am on a Sunday. I was obsessed; this constant perfectionism. Even then, I got all Ds and Es.”

Later, we talk about what made him want to be a comedian in the first place. The book is vivid with detail about what it took to make the leap from an office job to the standup circuit, and from there to stardom, but details of his early life are scant. “Everyone was funny, growing up: my brothers, my mum, my dad, my cousin, everyone,” he says. “My parents are like that with their friends: if they’re not funny, why would you invite them round? So I never felt like I was particularly funny.”

Beckett struggles with self-doubt, which he locates in very early childhood, when teachers looked at him and saw ‘a stupid little fat kid from a working-class family in southeast London’

Ever since Little Britain, Matt Lucas and David Walliams’s series, British TV viewers have been more likely to encounter a sketch about the working classes and what is wrong with them than a working-class comedian. It makes me wonder why Beckett isn’t more political.

He answers carefully. “When you’re in the storm of it all … ‘victim’ is a strong word, but when you’re part of that mess – I was near the top of that mess, I was never in poverty – you’re oblivious that you’re in the shit. It is only when you get out that you realise you’re covered in shit. It is such a relief when you’re out, you don’t really want to go back through it. That’s why there aren’t many working-class voices in politics.”

Beckett wrote his book for a couple of reasons. One was an act of resolution for himself: his daughters are growing up in a very different environment from the one in which he grew up, and he wants to express that – to them, to himself – in a lasting way. The second was for “the bloke that works at Sainsbury’s or the flower market and they go, ‘I don’t read books.’ I want to say, ‘Well, read this one.’”

He goes into great detail about why he didn’t enlist a ghostwriter. “All my heroes, sports stars mainly, would get ghostwriters, and normally it’s a very middle-class voice, imagining what a working-class person’s life is. Or, when a working-class person does write the book, they’ve been under so much pressure to fit in, academically, it’s almost like a peacocking exercise: ‘I am intelligent, I am clever in the academic way that you believe is intelligence, look at all these big words.’”

Rob Beckett: trying out shotput in Rob & Romesh Vs..., his Sky series with Romesh Ranganathan
Rob Beckett: trying out shotput in Rob & Romesh Vs..., his Sky series with Romesh Ranganathan

Beckett struggles with self-doubt, which he locates in very early childhood, when teachers looked at him and saw “a stupid little fat kid from a working-class family in southeast London”. Then he shows me his notes for 90 minutes of live material: a single sheet of paper with six bullet points (Tiger King, Phillip Schofield, sanitiser, Wembley, Mary Poppins, elbow-spit). “I hate the bumping elbows instead of shaking hands,” he elaborates. “I’d rather someone just spat in my mouth. If that gets a laugh, I’ll just carry on talking.”

He talks in the book about “loose neck” and “stiff neck” comedians, the freeform, unscripted show versus a tightly plotted and memorised routine. He is a loose-neck – never writes down anything more detailed than “elbow-spit” – but clearly has a photographic memory, pin-sharp recall not just for that evening’s show but for every show he has done.

“Well, if you made 500 people laugh, you’d remember what you said,” he argues. I don’t think I ever have, I say. “Okay, what’s the most embarrassing thing you’ve ever done, in front of a lot of people?” He is not going to drop it until he has made me admit that I, too, have a photographic memory. But I really don’t – and I have no recall for my own mortification. I wonder if this is another point of class divide.

We had Jessie Ware on, and she was talking about singing to her kids. I realised that she would just beautifully sing to her kids. I’ve only ever sung to mine for laughs. And I thought, God, some people’s first thought isn’t trying to be funny

Since the nascent days of the pandemic, Beckett has hosted a podcast called Lockdown Parenting Hell, with the comedian Josh Widdicombe. It is a sweet and exceptionally timely exploration of the trauma of being at home, all the time, with kids under the age of 10. Sometimes, they have a guest on to confirm that, yes, it is a nightmare for everyone.

You wouldn’t think he would be a radio natural, because so much of what makes him funny is the way emotions erupt across his face. But he is a compelling interviewer; his curiosity is audible and he is surprised by the weirdest things. “We had Jessie Ware on, and she was talking about singing to her kids. I realised that she would just beautifully sing to her kids. I’ve only ever sung to mine for laughs. And I thought, God, some people’s first thought isn’t trying to be funny. That’s a different way to go about it, wandering about being pleasant and nice. What a waste of your life.”

He says he felt liberated by Covid, from the constant pressure he was putting on himself to say yes to everything, to always be playing a bigger venue. But his ambition is palpable. It is no surprise at all to hear that, when he was starting out, he was “an animal. I’d read every comedian’s page on Wikipedia and I would judge myself against them. So, Russell Howard won that competition at the age of 25, after three years; I would think, Brilliant, I am 24 and I won that after two years. Honestly, it was a complete obsession.”

At 35, he is finally prepared to admit that comedy isn’t “just a hobby that got out of hand. That was true at the beginning, but I carried on saying it to sound humble and normal. As soon as I knew I was good at it, I was laser-focused.” – Guardian

Samaritans’ free helpline is at 116123, or you can email jo@samaritans.ie or jo@samaritans.org; Pieta’s free helpline is at 1800-247247, or text help to 51444

A Class Act, by Rob Beckett, is published by HarperCollins today

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