This was the year when Daniel Rigby’s acting and comedy ambitions came together in one glorious bundle of success. He just hopes he hasn’t used up all his luck at once, finds Caroline Bishop.
This time last year, the name Daniel Rigby wouldn’t muster many murmurings of recognition among the general public. But now, at the tail end of a stellar year that has seen him win a BAFTA and appear in a hugely successful stage play, his name should at least raise an eyebrow or two. Or so you’d think. “I think you’re supposed to be really cool about it and put it in a wardrobe or put it in the toilet,” he says of his Leading Actor BAFTA. “But no, mine’s out on a shelf in the bedroom. Nobody recognises me whatsoever from the job and nobody believes me when I say I am who I am, so at least I have a BAFTA to prove it!”
The job was Eric & Ernie, a BBC drama about the early days of partnership between British comedy legends Eric Morecambe – played by Rigby – and Ernie Wise. The outsider of the nominees, Rigby beat household names Matt Smith, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jim Broadbent to win the BAFTA. Just two days later his stage show, Richard Bean’s farce One Man, Two Guvnors, opened at the National Theatre to a clutch of rave reviews, with Rigby’s performance as a preening wannabe actor deemed “hilarious” (Evening Standard), “deliciously pretentious” (Telegraph) and “a brilliant compendium of old-school theatrical mannerisms” (Guardian).
Six months later, the show has finished its sold-out run at the National and taken itself around the UK on tour. It returns to London this month for a stint at the Adelphi – giving Rigby his West End debut – before the cast heads to Broadway next spring to see if they can make New Yorkers laugh as much as British audiences have.
“I will never ever stop doing comedy, ever”
“I think the success that it’s had has been a really lovely surprise to all of us,” says Rigby when I catch up with him on the phone one morning at the end of the tour. “It’s been interesting to see the different reactions that we’ve had in different areas. We had an amazing response in Plymouth and Manchester.”
He’s in Edinburgh when we speak, finding it “weird” to be in the city when the festival isn’t on; as a stand-up comedian, he’s performed at four fringes. But this time, rather than spending “a month being hungover” and performing at one of the fringe venues, he’s taking in the sights by day – “A group of us went up Arthur’s Seat and we all went out afterwards and had haggis” – and spending the evenings on stage at the King’s Theatre. He almost feels “legitimate”.
So he should. One Man, Two Guvnors is a case study in sheer entertainment, and the cast gives a masterclass in how to make people laugh. Based on an 18th century commedia dell’arte piece by Goldoni, Bean’s adaptation updates the action to 1960s Brighton, where the food-loving chancer Francis Henshall (James Corden) winds up becoming minder to two different ‘guvnors’, just so he can have double the meal ticket. While his attempts to prevent each guv finding out about the other provide plenty of belly laughs, the comedy ante is upped by memorable characters including a doddery butler, a spectacularly unintelligent mobster’s daughter and Rigby’s faux-existentialist actor, all floppy hair and black polo neck. Did he base his performance on any actors he knows? “Alan’s basically based on a combination of all my friends,” he retorts with a grin in his voice. It’s one instance of many during our conversation when I wish I could see his face to check if he’s joking or not.
In one scene, Alan Dangle, as he is called, contributes to the skiffle band’s score by indulging in a spot of body percussion – slapping his chest to music – resulting in some unusual consequences for Rigby: “My hands have now coarsened and my torso is a bit like an old leather chair.”
But the laughs it garners are surely worth the leathery chest. “I think the reason it’s [the play] had that sort of success is because I think it’s a relief a lot of the time for audiences to go and see something which is almost like a variety show in that it will entertain you and you don’t have to think about it too much,” he says. “It makes no bones about the fact that it’s just a pure comedy.”
Given large sections of the show rely on direct interaction between Corden and the audience, it’s the response of that audience that makes the show what it is, to the point, says Rigby, that in rehearsals, “it wasn’t actually easy for us to keep sight of why the play was funny”.
“Let me be honest,” he says with a laugh. “I think we’ve done it 126 times and we’re about half way through the amount of shows that we’re going to do. You hear any joke 126 times and it’s going to wear thin. But the audience’s response and the audience’s newness, coming to it with fresh eyes and ears, that really can refresh the material, it gives it life again.”
“My hands have now coarsened and my torso is a bit like an old leather chair”
Rigby couldn’t have known, when in rehearsal, that after 126 performances he’d only be half way through his time with Alan Dangle. But then came the week that changed his career. “The BAFTA happened and that in itself was massively surreal – to even be nominated for that was very, very weird – and then the reviews came out a few days after for One Man, Two Guvnors and it kind of felt like… it was very out-of-body, like all my luck coming in at once. I kind of expected to be in some sort of industrial accident the day after because I just thought I’ve used up all my luck, all the good stuff’s happened, so I’m either going to get run over or be in some sort of horrific accident.”
Thankfully he wasn’t, and his fear of bad karma belies the fact that his week of glory was fully deserved, being the culmination of hard work and ambition, even if fortune had a hand in making the BAFTA Award and the play’s opening night coincide.
A “pathological show-off” as a child, Rigby has wanted to be a comedian for as long as he can remember. Growing up in Stockport, he was “fixated” on comedy heroes such as Vic Reeves – who played his dad in Eric & Ernie – and Bob Mortimer, Chris Morris, The Simpsons and even (is he joking?) Jimmy Cricket. “I always wanted to be a comedian just because I put massive currency on making people laugh in my life, and I thought it would be good to extend that into making money. But the acting stuff happened as a by-product of that really.”
As he says, there’s no school for stand-ups, so on finishing A Levels he applied for drama school instead, winning a place at RADA. On graduating in 2004 he combined acting jobs with pursuing his comedy ambitions, making his stand-up debut two years later and beating 660 other hopefuls to be crowned Laughing Horse New Act of the Year in 2007. He’s since performed in London and Edinburgh in The Mothwokfantastic – with comedy partner Julian Stolzenburg – and his solo show musing on Christianity, Afterbirth. So when Eric & Ernie came along, he had both the comedy background and the necessary acting skills to play one of the UK’s best loved comedians. “What happened with Eric & Ernie was that it was a combination of the two worlds coming together,” he says. “Eric & Ernie has absolutely been the lynchpin job in terms of my career, it’s kind of changed everything. That wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t have started doing comedy, so it’s come together in that respect.”
“I kind of expected to be in some sort of industrial accident the day after because I just thought I’ve used up all my luck”
It gave him a new admiration for the late comedian, too. Of a generation too young to have known Morecambe & Wise when the duo were entertaining the nation with their Christmas specials, Rigby didn’t have much interest in what he thought of as “traditional comedy” when growing up. “I dismissed it as too traditional for my tastes and not alternative enough, not really pushing any boundaries, but actually there’s much more that connects comedy than separates it,” he says. “I actually think that now, having done it [the programme], it’s all part of the same thing.”
“When I got the job,” he adds, “ you couldn’t help but be aware that they were the comedy double act of Britain and that half the population watched their Christmas specials. It was the most terrifying job I’ve ever done.”
Though the acting side of his career has taken up much of 2011, he won’t be neglecting stand-up for long. “I will never ever stop doing comedy, ever,” he says decisively, and there’s no doubting his seriousness, this time.
But for the moment he is otherwise occupied with a show that has more longevity than most actors dream of. For Rigby, it’s still something of a surprise. “I’m in for the long haul with the job, so I think we’ll be doing it for another year which…” he pauses, incredulous, “is extraordinary. I’ve never done anything this amount of time, I don’t think I’ve eaten 126 times. It’s crazy.”
He’s still slotting in the stand-up when he can, between shows. Maybe he can practise on his cast mates, I wonder. Does he make them laugh? “No, they’re all miserable b*****ds,” he retorts, and promptly guffaws loudly down the phone line. I can only imagine the cheeky glint in his eye.