The Guess List
Regular airtime: Saturdays, 9.30pm
US: 12 Apr 2014
Sometimes it seems like Rob Brydon is everywhere in the comedy world. And that’s a good thing.
When Robert Llewellyn introduced Rob Brydon as a guest on his show, he said, “Here’s a man who seems to have every corner of comedy covered: he’s a stand up comedian, an impressionist, a comedy actor, a writer, a TV chat show host, and what’s really sickening is he’s brilliant at all of them” (Carpool , 17 Feb. 2011). And while this sounds like the normal tosh showbiz types say about each other, the fact is, this time, it’s absolutely true.
Which is why it was strange to read TV editor David Butcher argue that Brydon “tries too hard.” Butcher’s piece focused on Brydon’s recent turn as host of the celebrity game show The Guess List, a sort of modern day Blankety Blank/Match Game. On it, Brydon engages in light (and by light, yes, I do mean cheesy and clearly pre-arranged) banter with the celebrity and non-celebrity guests.
Butcher writes, “I just wish he would hold out for projects worthy of his talents” (“Why Does Rob Brydon Keep Trying Too Hard?”, Radio Times, 3 May 2014). He contrasts the show with The Trip to Italy, also broadcast this spring. That was the follow up to the 2010 series The Trip, which featured Brydon and Steve Coogan playing versions of themselves (as they also did in the 2005 film Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story). Butcher clearly favours this to Brydon’s hosting of The Guess List.
As do I. In fact, I’d argue that The Trip series might be the best television made in recent years. However, in some ways, that’s neither here nor there, because hosting a Saturday night, light entertainment show in and of itself takes talent, like Brydon has. Brydon is a good performer, and to be a good performer, one must know who the audience is and what they want, and then give it to them. The target audience of The Guess List is not necessarily the same as The Trip‘s; Brydon knows this and therefore plays each differently.
This seems to be a skill that Brydon has perfected over his long career. He is often described as someone who struggled to make it: he was in radio for a long time and then became a voice over artist, while all the while longing for more. Even so, he was good at radio presenting and good at voice overs (which he still does).
Brydon is also a writer and, dammit, if he isn’t just great at that as well. His breakthrough works were Marion and Geoff (written with Hugo Blick) and Human Remains (written with Julia Davis). Both were British Comedy Awards winners: the former won Brydon the Best Comedy Newcomer in 2000 and the latter earned him the Best TV Comedy Actor in 2001.
Marion and Geoff was a series of short monologues starring Brydon as taxi driver Keith Barret, a rather sweet but sad figure, whose wife left him for another man. Human Remains featured six individual stories of couples (all of whom were played by Brydon and Davis). Both shows blended comedy with tragedy, light with dark.
The Keith Barret character went on to host a chat show from 2004-2005, and Brydon himself got his own chat show in 2010. This is another one of Brydon’s skills: he’s as good at spoof as he is at the real thing. This includes his multiple roles as ‘Rob Brydon’, the character, in things like The Trip. In both Trip series, Brydon and Coogan play Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan, who have been asked by the Observer to do a “foodie travelogue” (in the first series they went to the Lake District and in the second, Italy). As Holly Williams wrote in the Independent:
The Trip’s joy lies in wondering how much the on-screen “Rob” and “Steve” are like the real-life Brydon and Coogan. It works because we believe their relationship – all natural comic riffs, but also prickly, rivalrous and egotistical. It plays on their public personas. (“Rob Brydon on Comedy Politics and Dining with his co-star Steve Coogan for The Trip to Italy”, 6 Apr. 2014)
Apparently, Brydon and Coogan’s friendship—which seems so real with its complexity and nuance—was somewhat invented for the first series (though they did have a longstanding professional relationship). But I don’t even care because the show is about the friendship between the characters, not the actors, and it’s just so painfully and beautifully portrayed by Brydon and Coogan (no doubt with help from the director Michael Winterbottom, who also directed them in A Cock and Bull Story).
Another arena in which Brydon excels (and which he has parodied) is the panel show. As a guest on QI, he is always fun (as he is on Radio 4’s I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, which he also chaired for some episodes). Since 2009, he’s been the host of Would I Lie to You?. Being a panel show guest is not the same as being a panel show host; Brydon does each well. On Would I Lie to You?, he serves as the show’s base, letting captains David Mitchell and Lee Mack compete for attention (and he’s often the butt of their jokes, usually referencing his insistence on working in his various impressions, yet another one of Brydon’s talents).
Rob Brydon’s Annually Retentive (2006-2007) took the piss out of the types of panel shows on which Brydon himself succeeds. It was based around a fictional series, hosted by the character ‘Rob Brydon’, and focused on the biting and bitter behind-the-scenes preparations. It was insightful and funny (though, as a huge fan of panel shows, I still insist on believing that my favourites are nothing but unscripted hilarity between a group of good mates).
Brydon’s a skilled actor, even when he’s not playing a warped or exaggerated version of himself. He was, of course, top notch as Uncle Bryn in the excellent Gavin & Stacey, a part written specifically for him. He’s also appeared on stage with Kenneth Branagh in The Painkiller, and he made his West End debut in Alan Ayckbourn’s A Chorus of Disapproval.
For god’s sake, when Brydon and Gavin & Stacey co-star Ruth Jones released the Comic Relief song “(Barry) Islands in the Stream”, it went straight to #1 on the charts. There’s nothing this guy can’t do.
However, I agree with Butcher that The Guess List is nowhere near as good as The Trip. Or Marion and Geoff or Human Remains or much of Brydon’s other work. It’s just not really my cup of tea. But I cannot say Brydon’s not good on it.
In a 2011 “Meet the Author” interview Brydon did while promoting his autobiography A Small Man in a Book, he explained, “I kind of do a bit of everything. So there’s the danger of being a Jack of All Trades, but who cares because I’m enjoying it. I made a conscious decision about four years ago actually that I would do everything that I liked that I had an opportunity to do, rather than holding back and just saying I’m going to be an ‘Actor’ because I thought, I enjoy it all.”
So it appears Brydon’s choices of gigs at least satisfy him. Whether he’s doing an advert or a corporate stand up performance, engaging with celebrities on a panel or chat show, or starring in a gorgeously moving television series, Brydon’s talents really do provide something for everyone, including himself. And ultimately, there’s something really quite beautiful about that.