Laughter Lines: Rory Bremner on Party Political
Ahead of an appearance at Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre with his latest show Partly Political, Vanessa Lee talks to satirist and impressionist Rory Bremner.
Wherever you stand politically, you must acknowledge that this is a great time for political comedy – no wonder that Rory Bremner, the UK's most famous impressionist, has decided to tour a new show. It's the first time he has been on the road since 2010.
The satirist, whose television shows Bremner, Bird and Fortune, Rory Bremner... Who Else? and The Rory Bremner Show have won numerous awards, including four Baftas, says that Brexit and Donald Trump's election as President of the United States make for interesting times.
“You wake to find Trump in the White House; Nigel Farage being talked about as a UK ambassador and Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary. Maybe we should just not go to sleep,” he tells me, laughing. “Bad things happen at night!”
The new show, Partly Political, was prompted by a sell-out run of Rory Bremner Meets..., an hour of comedy and conversation, at the Edinburgh Fringe last August.
I ask him to describe the touring show's format: “The first half is me doing stand-up,” he says, “and the second half is more free-form, with a political guest I'll interview, and possibly a Q&A. From March I am joined by the brilliant [fellow impressionist] Jan Ravens. The set-up with Jan is that I'll interview her in character, and then I'll wrap up the show at the end.”
Rory, who is as funny in conversation as he is on the telly, and does several impressions as we speak, describes himself as a “stand-up chameleon” and will be introducing new characters on tour – Trump and Farage, obviously, but also Louis Walsh and Jeremy Corbyn. Others he is keeping under wraps for the moment, while the female characters – including Theresa May and Hillary Clinton - will be supplied by Ravens.
I ask if Trump's election – in that he is male, rather than the female Clinton – came as some relief in impersonation terms, and Rory laughs at the idea. “He's a bit of a mixed blessing, isn't he? On one hand he is this big character who says all these things that make you seriously fear for what will happen, but on the other hand the comedian in me says there's four years of mileage in him.
“It's almost as if satire is redundant – politicians are doing my job for me. But what I hope I do is try to make sense of things and rediscover the truth in this post-truth era. I want us to engage with what's going on, but be entertaining at the same time.”
Satire changes over time, he says. “The 1960s it was about breaking down that deference to the political class; the 70s was about the Labour government; the 80s was about Thatcher, strikes and the Cold War; in the late 90s it was Blair. During the Coalition, with David Cameron and Nick Clegg, big characters were thin on the ground and satire all but disappeared from TV. But now the grotesques are back – with Trump, Boris and Farage. Volatility in politics is challenging for a satirist, and it's an exciting time for me.”
Rory has never revealed which way he votes although, like many in comedy, he's in the liberal centre.
“I've always been very careful not to align myself with any party or movement,” he responds, “because once you do, you allow people to try to pigeon-hole whatever you say. But I do think people in the centre ground feel homeless at the moment, and there's a danger that this country is becoming more polarised between those who voted Brexit and those didn't.”
But is he afraid that his show may be preaching to the converted?
“There is an element of that in as much as your audience is self-selecting,” he says, “but of course I welcome people who don't share my views. Part of what you do as a comedian is present your view of the world and invite people to share it - but instead of voting, they laugh. Their laughter is, in a sense, a sign that you have captured - or indeed released - something for them, regardless of how they vote.”
Being on tour will give Rory more downtime than he's used to, as the busy father of two teenage daughters at separate schools, one of whom is a keen horse rider and needs to be driven to competitions. Rory is married to the sculptor Tessa Campbell Fraser and the family divide their time between the Cotswolds and the Scottish Borders.
“One of the things I loved about doing the show at Edinburgh is I could go back to my hotel room and just think, or write - because in real life, as it were, I don't always have much time to think, to concentrate on just one thing.”
He will need that free time on the road, as he will be updating the show frequently. “Politics are so fluid at the moment that the show is almost a work in progress. There will be a significant element that will change as the tour goes on.”
But he never really rests; Rory is a sought-after translator of opera (he studied languages at Kings College London) and is back on our TV screens in the spring – although not with comedy. He suspected a few years ago that he had the behavioural condition attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) when he was a child, and has since had that diagnosis confirmed in a documentary on the subject for BBC2.
“It's an important subject and a big cause of mine,” he says. “There are half a million children with ADHD in this country and families are under enormous pressure because they are permanently restless.”
In the meantime, though, comedy – and the ever-changing world of politics – awaits.
- Rory Bremner: Partly Political is at The Sherman Theatre, Cardiff on November 15 at 7.45 pm Tickets £20 | Concessions £2 off 029 2064 6900 / shermantheatre.co.uk