It’s rather unfortunate for Rob Brydon that his sparring partner from The Trip, Steve Coogan, released the magnificent Alan Partridge memoirs at the same time as his own autobiography. For the spoof echoes so strongly with Byrdon’s largely uneventful middle-class upbringing and early career on the lowest foothills of entertainment that it can’t help but undermine the Welshman’s anecdotes.
He always wanted to be like his boyhood heroes Ed Stewart and Noel Edmonds, and eventually rose to the dizzying heights of regional TV, where he fronted a quiz show called Invasion, in which contestants fought to win chunks of a giant flashing map. He shares with us such minutiae as the fact that that he writes his scripts on the Final Draft software, and when he lands a breakthrough role, he writes in celebration: ‘Cock-a-doodle-do!’
Byrdon, this is, not Partridge, though it’s telling that needs to be clarified. Brydon, of course, is far more self-aware, and self-deprecating than his colleague’s delusional creation, and therein lies the charm, as he cheerily acknowledges that this is no blockbuster life story.
Born in Swansea in 1965 and raised in a manor house near Port Talbot – where he recalls ‘a comforting glow of certainty in my surroundings’ – he watched TV and conformed in his private-school education (though was poor at both sports and chatting up girls). His biggest adventures involved falling out of a tree and hurting himself quite badly, and running out of petrol on a family boating holiday.
He was at school with Catherine Zeta Jones, and in an oft-told anecdote, Brydon once met Miss Jones’s mum in the street, who asked him to take her dinner money to her – but he plain forgot and ended up spending the loot on sweets. What a hard-edged criminal sonabitch, young Robert Jones (his real surname) was.
He was struck by the acting bug while at school, where he befriended Ruth Jones in drama class, and went on to the Royal Welsh College of Music And Drama, where contemporaries included Dougray Scott and Hugo Blick. He formed a band, described as ‘the worst I’ve ever seen’ by one patron of the Wyke Regis Working Men’s Club, before landing a job at BBC Wales that gave him his first regular income.
Eventually, a new boss came and said in a genuinely perplexing move, said that although his regular services would no longer be required, offer him the chance to make a documentary about lawns. He didn’t take her up on that.
By his own admission, he was never the strongest actor of his peers, but he did display an innate gift for vocal work. So while his early thespian achievements amounted to little more than overacting in the background the epic First Knight, he found a lucrative, but hardly artistically satisfying, career in voiceovers, continuity announcement – and even working on an early home shopping network.
Should you be expecting any cynicism about this time in his career ‘scaling new heights of insincere inanity’, think again. Brydon seemed to enjoy hawking these products and was genuinely enthused by the techniques imparted by an American sales guru. Being the voice of Toilet Duck certainly wasn’t a career nadir for him (‘It ran and ran for a long time and was very lucrative indeed’) but a corporate booking from pharma firm Bayer all about the perils of thrush.
This was clearly an odd time for Brydon, earning a decent living and although not unhappy, was slightly frustrated. He did some improv workshops, where he met Julia Davis, occasionally got booked as a (terrible) TV warm-up guy, and dabbled on the London stand-up circuit, relying heavily on his impressions and dying a couple of confidence-shaking deaths.
Small Man In A Book ends where his career picks up. He talks us through the genesis of his breakthrough shows Human Remains and Marion And Geoff, which both came out at the same time, and there’s a palpable relief that he’s finally made it.
In interviews, Brydon has said the reason the memoirs stop where they do is that success is not as interesting to read about as struggle, and he may have a point there, although in the introduction he also states that: ‘This book makes no mention of my divorce and its accompanying sadness,’ because he doesn’t want to embarrass his children.
Maybe Brydon’s putting a Uncle Bryn-style cheery spin on his life, but in truth, there’s not that much by the way of thrills and high drama that did make the book, especially in the early years. The minutiae of the showbiz netherworld he inhabited for so long is strangely compelling, though.
But Brydon the writer, like Brydon the entertainer, is endearing, chatty and unpretentious, which certainly makes the book more engaging than the content might suggest. Although it’s no classic, it’ll certainly serve well for some light Christmas reading.
- Small Man In A Book by Rob Brydon is published by Michael Joseph, priced £20. Click here to buy from Amazon for £8.30.