Rhod Gilbert interview
The gruff-voiced comic has realised his onstage persona is the real him, he tells Ben Williams
It’s a dark, rainy morning in Notting Hill and I’m in Starbucks. Written on the side of my coffee cup in black marker is ‘Bane’, despite me having the easiest of all names to spell and looking nothing like a Batman villain. The situation sounds like it could be the subject of one of Rhod Gilbert’s legendary frustrated rants, I think, as I sit down with the man himself. Duvet thickness, lost luggage and mince pies have all been tackled in his past shows, so I can imagine misspelt names in coffee chains being the type of trivial irritation that would rile the Carmarthen-born comic into a vein-popping rage. However, the publicity material for Gilbert’s new show, ‘The Man with the Flaming Battenberg Tattoo’, claims he is now ‘laidback’ and ‘chilled-out’. Could his trademark rants be a thing of the past?
Gilbert has always claimed his onstage persona isn’t the real him. ‘I remember Ruby Wax grilling me when I was on “The Culture Show”,’ he tells me. ‘She was going, “Oh it must be cathartic getting all this stuff out on stage, you must feel like you’ve given birth.” And I was just sitting there, very unhelpfully going, “What are you talking about? It’s all just a nonsense made-up character. I’m a totally normal relaxed person”.’ In his first solo show, ‘1984’, the then 35-year-old comedian invented a fictional family and hometown (‘Llanbobl’) for the Rhod Gilbert character, and trying to separate the fact from fiction has always been a fun part of seeing him perform. But over the past few years Gilbert himself has found it difficult to separate the two, and finds it equally tricky to explain. ‘I describe everything I say on stage as 100 per cent true and 100 per cent nonsense,’ he says. ‘It’s all absolutely made up, but it’s all completely true as well. I can’t quite explain what I mean by that. It sounds like an incredibly bullshitty and wanky thing to say. Do you know what I mean? Am I making any sense?’
What he’s trying to say is he’s realised the onstage Rhod Gilbert isn’t entirely a facade. ‘I used to think I was a character, totally made up, everything,’ he explains, ‘and I’m not talking about the old Llanbobl stuff, I’m talking about the ranting, contrary, argumentative little shit that has evolved over the last few years. I’ve since realised that it is totally me up there. Yes, it’s a comic exaggeration of what I’m like. But if you get to know me I’m an incredibly irritating little shit. Ask Greg Davies and he will say I drive him insane with my contrariness. I’m so argumentative: I will argue that black is white, white is black. I will argue stuff with 100 per cent conviction that I don’t believe in at all, I will just argue. It’s an awful characteristic.’
These traits are summed up in the form of Gilbert’s titular tattoo. He added the piece of permanent body-art while filming his BBC One series ‘Rhod Gilbert’s Work Experience’ which takes a behind-the-scenes look at British jobs. During an episode where the comic tried his hand at tattoo artistry, the producer was adamant he should receive a tat too. ‘I didn’t want it,’ says Gilbert. ‘But I had it out of pettiness and contrariness. I was going, “No, I don’t want a tattoo, they’re pointless, they’re not for me,” and in the end I capitulated, but very much by going, “Right, I’ll show you how pointless tattoos are, go on, do one, bloody do one. I’ll have the most pointless shit in the world.” So I had a battenberg with flames coming out of it on a cushion and in my head I had then won that argument.’
The brusque Welshman uses the story of the flaming cake to explain that it has made him realise how petty and argumentive he is. However, there are of course still only elements of the truth in what he says on stage and, thankfully, the famous rants still play their part. ‘I’m more reflective in this show,’ he explains. ‘I’m going: “Look, I’m all right now. But look what I was like then. Look what I got wound up about.” So I’m still doing those rants, but in a much more playful, whimsical way. I’m 42, and I’ve sort of always known it, but it’s only now that I’ve come to terms with what I’m like. So I’m catching up with my own shows and with what other people saw. I’ve come to conclusions about myself and I’ve realised just how petty and argumentative I am. I’ll never be sorted, I’ll always be like this. But at least I’m more aware of it and able to admit it. I’ve managed to find a positive in a very ugly characteristic: to put it into something creative, make money from it and have fun doing it. So some good has come from being the dickhead that I am.’