“It would be quite nice if we were doing this in a shed somewhere.” Rory Bremner, the UK’s foremost satirical impressionist, has lofty ambitions as he prepares to make his West End debut in Rory Bremner With John Bird And John Fortune at the Albery Theatre. Tom Bowtell caught up with the multi-voiced maestro in the backseat of his car…
“Audiences come to The West End to be entertained. And that is what our live show tries to do” says Rory Bremner in what I assume to be his own voice. “The show will be less didactic than some of the stuff we do for TV, and based more on stand-up comedy – we won’t have an autocue so we can’t risk anything too contrived!”
Surprisingly, after nearly 20 years in the limelight, this is Bremner’s first venture on to the West End stage. After a sell-out solo show at this year’s Edinburgh Festival, Bremner is teaming up with his mentors John Bird and John Fortune for a five-week run at the Albery theatre. Bremner, who is a physical (and when he wants to be, vocal) doppelganger for Paddy Ashdown is best known for his work for BBC2 and Channel 4. He has worked sporadically with Bird and Fortune since 1989, helping to revive their careers while redefining his own.
Bremner is cagey about any new additions to his repertoire of voices: “I guess George Bush and Iain Duncan Smith will be making their debuts, but it will largely be the usual suspects. I will also be doing nostalgic pieces using the Bill McLaren and Richie Benaud impressions which launched my career. We’ve got two hours to fill as opposed to half an hour, so I’ve indulged myself with a ‘greatest hits’ section.” Bremner can do hundreds of voices but there remain some which elude him “I’ve never been able to do Chris Evans”, he says without any noticeable regret.
"When I'm with friends and family I use my own voice."
While admitting that his mimicry requires regular practice and perfection, Bremner denies annoying his wife by doing endless impressions around the house. “People always think that I am constantly doing one voice or another, because whenever I do interviews I use the voices to plug the show. When I’m with friends and family I make a special effort to use my own voice.”
Rory Bremner: can't do Chris Evans
Bremner, suave and yoghurt-smooth on stage, has admitted that he gets paranoid about losing his comic touch. He even says that had he not had a gift for impressionism, he probably wouldn’t have ended up in comedy at all: “impressions were my way in – but I’ve learned a lot about comedy since I started, and I’m much more concerned with the material now than I am with just the voices.” Although his show at the Albery “aims to entertain”, it will inevitably have an unashamedly political aspect. Bremner thinks that his comedy has developed in this direction, because he’s “not really drawn to populist celebrity characters” and doesn’t “lose a lot of sleep over Helen and Paul from Big Brother.” Bremner says that he prefers “people who have something to say. I suppose I write and think about characters that come into my spectrum. People I see on Newsnight or hear on Today. There are so many celebrity voices that it would take me ages to learn them all – I guess I’m more concerned with quality than quantity.” However, lest we assume that we’ll be short-changed at the Albery, he quickly adds “having said that, there are over fifty voices in the show”. Can he do an impression of BBC-rival Alistair McGowan, the doyen of the celebrity mimic? “Sadly, I can’t. But John Colshaw [of Dead Ringers fame] does an impression of me, highlighting my earnest cheerfulness – so obviously I hate him for that.”
"I don't lose much sleep over Helen and Paul from Big Brother."
Bremner thinks that it is getting harder for satirists to stand out, as “everybody is a satirist these days. I think that we are all so ironic. Almost all supposedly serious interviewers ask tendentious, ironic, even satirical questions. I also think that many things that the government do are simply beyond parody. Things like the A-Level cock-up and Prince Charles’ letters don’t need to be satirised as they’re satire in themselves.” Despite this, he thinks there are still satirists who break the mould. “Mark Thomas is excellent and then there’s Chris Morris who, I think, is the most fearless of all of them.”
"The Johns complement each other perfectly"
But the satirists that most impress Bremner are his colleagues and co-stars John Bird and John Fortune (hereafter known as The Johns). “I admire them beyond measure. They have a wonderful combination of a curious and sceptical mind, a wonderful sense of humour and a literary ear.” Interestingly, Bremner refers to these characteristics in the singular, confirming that they work together as one unit – a kind of über-John. He credits them with inspiring his conversion from mere impressionist to eminent satirist: “The Johns have taught me just so much, in terms of the way of looking at current affairs and looking beyond the headlines and easy arguments, just being in a room with them writing, seeing how their humour and timing works, has helped me so much. They’re different characters: John Fortune is expansive and literary-minded while John Bird is ascetic almost – he can be quite shy. But as soon as he gets on stage he transforms completely and becomes an outrageous scene-stealer. The Johns complement each other perfectly.”
"I admire the Two Johns beyond measure."
Bremner, who married his second wife, Tessa Campbell-Fraser in 1999, admits that, unusually for a comedian, he is currently very happy in his personal life. This hasn’t always been the case. His first marriage foundered, while a string of high-profile liaisons also fizzled out. He has always been prone to introspection and in Who’s Who he lists “stress” as one of his pastimes. Many comedians require existential woes to fuel their comedy but Bremner feels that he is able to divorce his personal life from his work. “I can divide the spheres between personal and private, and I don’t really think that I write better when I’m miserable. Although in my personal life it is obviously better to be happy!”
Having got the frivolous stuff out of the way, I move on to the serious questions: when he’s bored around the house, does he cause trouble by doing Dead-Ringers style prank calls? “I do do that sometimes, yes. For Comic Relief I rang up Esther Rantzen and asked her to do a Hearts Of Gold Special with John Major and, pretending to be Melvyn Bragg, I rang up Jimmy Hill and asked him to appear on the South Bank Show to do a piece about the semiotics of football. That threw him, I can tell you. What I didn’t expect was that he would be quite as mad as he was. He began going on about his labrador who was using a word processor at the time and I started wondering about who was duping who.” Although satire knows no boundaries, Bremner says that he has usually refrained from doing impressions of people at their own funeral: “although it did happen once” he adds “about a year and a half ago we lost a much-loved floor manager and I was talking about him and suddenly started using some of his phrases and slipped into his voice – I certainly didn’t plan it, it just happened …”
"Jimmy Hill started going on about his labrador using a word processor"
In the 18 years since he first appeared (in voice if not in person) on Spitting Image, Rory Bremner has become the UK’s best known impressionist, but he feels that his notoriety makes his job somewhat harder. “The worst thing you can do with satire is talk it up. It would be quite nice if we were doing this in a dark shed somewhere and people discovered us. But that’s not going to happen. We’ve lost the element of surprise. People know what to expect which can count against us satirically – because satire is about surprising people and sometimes outraging them.” However, despite the country’s familiarity with his material, Bremner reckons that his show “still has a few surprises” and adds cheerily “as Bill Tidy [the cartoonist] said to me [he slips into the voice] ‘don’t worry, Rory, the worst thing that can happen is that you’ll be totally humiliated.’” So he’s got nothing really to worry about.