As he takes to the stage in the site-specific production of The Railway Children, Marcus Brigstocke talks to Caroline Bishop about reemploying the original string to his bow.
“The plan,” says stand-up comedian, satirist, radio scriptwriter, quiz show contestant, eco-warrior, TV presenter and festival founder Marcus Brigstocke, “was always to be an actor.”
It could appear that Brigstocke, who studied Drama at Bristol University, has gotten a little lost along the way. Though he does boast selected television roles and small parts in films including Beyond The Sea, Love Actually and Telstar, his thespian leanings have played, to date, a minor part in a large and varied career that seems to know no bounds. Whether it be writing and performing his own award-winning stand-up shows at the Edinburgh Fringe and on national tour, appearing on television panel shows Have I Got News For You and QI, writing for Radio 4’s Giles Wemmbley-Hogg Goes Off, presenting BBC4 topical comedy show The Late Edition, creating a comedy and music festival in the French Alps or travelling on climate change research trips to the Arctic, Brigstocke is willing and able to channel his talents through a multitude of different outlets.
Yet acting was the aim. “The only reason I started doing stand-up, apart from the obvious appeal of it being good fun, was that if you’re an actor you have to wait to be cast in a thing, and then wait for them to find the right elements to bring a production together. Even the best actors spend long, long periods not performing. And I never have, since 1996. If there’s any sort of lull I just go and do stand-up or I write a sketch and go and do that.”
His proactive approach gained results. “I wrote in order to perform and then I became good at writing and people started asking me to do it more often and now obviously I write so much stuff it’s ridiculous.”
“Stand-up is putting all your money on red and hoping it will pay off”
The downside of this – if there can be a downside to such prolific and successful output – is that these self-filled lulls became his career and it wasn’t until last year, when he joined the cast of Monty Python’s Spamalot on national tour, that Brigstocke bagged his first major professional theatrical engagement, as King Arthur no less.
With all this in mind, it is clear that his latest stage appearance as Station Master Perks in the Olivier-winning adaptation of E Nesbit’s novel The Railway Children is no case of celebrity casting. “I think for some people who are used to me being a gobby eco-bore leftie stand-up it probably is a bit of a leap, but I hope they don’t mind,” he says cheerily.
We are speaking on the phone during rehearsals for the role, which he tells me he actively pursued after seeing the Olivier-winning show during its first run at the Waterloo Station theatre last summer. “I thought it was a really extraordinary, ambitious, sweet, well-told story,” he says of the tale of three children who move with their mother to the countryside after their father is mysteriously taken away. “When I heard they were doing it again I unleashed my agent and said ‘go, go, go, please get me seen for this’.”
It has, he says, sometimes been hard for casting directors to perceive him as an actor. “I’ve been for many castings where they sort of go ‘Really? Are you sure?’ and I’m like yeah, this is what I want to do.”
But I doubt they’ve been disappointed in their choice. Whether it comes from cocky confidence or old fashioned British pluck, Brigstocke has a willingness to throw himself into new things that is admirable. When I ask if joining a show that won an Olivier Award earlier this year comes with a certain pressure he replies: “I don’t really think of it in terms of that. I just think ‘bloody hell, lucky me to be involved in a thing that has had that honour bestowed upon it’. I’ve always felt like that about performance and I very rarely – perhaps I should – think ‘oh dear I’ll probably mess this up’, I’m much more like ‘wahey, come on everyone, let’s have a go!’ I mean, learning to sing for Spamalot was terrifying for me, but I did it.”
Brigstocke is used to taking risks. As a stand-up he has braved crowds at the Edinburgh Fringe, on national tour, on prominent TV showcase Live At The Apollo and in major West End theatres. “It’s a bigger bet, you know,” he says of stand-up versus theatre. “You’re in a lottery syndicate when you’re in a big production and you’re all in it together and you all hope that it works out. Stand-up is putting all your money on red and hoping it will pay off. If it falls down it’s me that’s screwed it up. But I like that. I really like that.”
“Even the best actors spend long, long periods not performing. And I never have, since 1996”
Has he ever died on stage? “Oh God yeah. They’re really important. If you’ve never died on your arse as a comic, you might be good but you’re probably not very interesting. I think you have to try things that run the risk of falling flat. All of the people whose comedy I admire the most are pushing it, sometimes just on the edge of not being funny at all.”
Of those, he credits Stewart Lee for finding “a really interesting voice for what he does. And then there are other comics who shall remain nameless who are very dependable, very reliable, and every utterance that comes out of their mouth is funny and about one in 50 is interesting or says anything. And for me that’s a bit boring really.”
Brigstocke certainly has a few things to say. His first national tour, 2007’s Planet Corduroy, was part comedy routine, part – in his own words – “rally/lecture” as he expounded his middle-class, liberal opinions on contemporary preoccupations such as the congestion charge, commuting, global warming, China’s human rights record and London 2012. Last year he explored his views on faith and atheism in God Collar, which played at the West End’s Vaudeville theatre, while his next show, which he plans to start touring in 2012, will either be about the longevity of human life – “I find the obsession with the preservation of life at all costs a very peculiar human instinct” – or city bankers and his theory – which, he adds, “needs a great deal more research” – that “essentially most bankers don’t do anything.” By which he means they don’t contribute much to the fundamentals of human existence in the way that doctors, teachers and farmers do. It is surprising, then, to hear that his father is a banker. “It wouldn’t be a swipe at my dad, who is a fundamentally good man, as are most bankers. They have just seen a way of doing a thing that is made available by the way we all live our lives, and thought ‘yeah, I can do that’. Why? Well because it’s not really very bloody difficult.”
It’s clear he isn’t afraid of making waves. “I hope that everybody that comes – atheist, religious, agnostic – is offended by it,” he said of God Collar on The Wright Stuff in 2010. “Offence is important. That’s how you know you care about things.” But on the other hand, he isn’t trying to offend just for the sake of it; his views are genuine and he takes care to express them properly. Rather than releasing God Collar as a DVD, for example, he has written it up into a book, published earlier this month. “It needs to be explained very carefully and I don’t want any of it taken out of context,” he says.
There are some topics he avoids in his comedy, such as the ecological interest which has seen him spend £100,000 making the Wandsworth home he shares with his wife and two children eco-friendly, including adding solar panels and a chimney balloon. Though he has written on the subject in the national press and expressed his views on radio, he is reluctant to create a dedicated stand-up show around it. “I know that if I write that show the only people who will come to it will be the people who already agree with me. So I sort of feel there’s no point.”
“I don’t want to be that bloke, I don’t want to be the eating disorders guy”
The second avoidance is his own personal struggle with addiction – to drink, drugs and food – that he has successfully managed over the past two decades. When in the full grip of his compulsive eating disorder, aged 17, Brigstocke weighed 24 stone; he subsequently lost 11 stone in four months after finally attending a treatment centre following many years struggling with his addiction at boarding school. It is something he now deals with – successfully – on a daily basis. “It doesn’t go away. But that’s fine. I mean, I wear glasses as well. I don’t wake up thinking ‘oh why me? Why do I have to put my glasses on?’ There are clever and simple ways of dealing with addictive tendencies that people came up with that work, and they take more effort than putting on a pair of glasses, but not a great deal more.”
While the buzz he gets from stand-up has helped satisfy his addictive tendencies in a healthy way – “it definitely scratched the addictive itch that I have” – he hasn’t used the subject during his shows, even though, he knows, addiction has been a rich topic for comedians through the years. “It’s a very important part of who I am but I don’t want to be that bloke, I don’t want to be the eating disorders guy,” says Brigstocke. He has been asked to write it as a book. “Maybe I will someday. But I feel like the slightly navel-gazing thing, I don’t know whether it’s the most interesting story I have.” Then he laughs. “It might be! I hope not. Maybe that’s it. Maybe on a deep psychological level I’m scared of telling it because once I have I’ll have nothing else to say.”
He is half-joking. I’m pretty sure Brigstocke will always have something to say, and whether it be through acting, writing or comedy, he has a multitude of methods at his disposal through which to say it. Acting may have been his original game plan, but in getting there he’s discovered he can do a lot more besides and he doesn’t plan to let any of it go now. “I really hope that people in casting and tour booking still want me to do the things that I’m doing because I bloody love them,” he says. “If I’m a jack of all trades and master of none I don’t care as long as people want to employ Jack.”