Rory Bremer has been one of Britain's greatest impressionists and satirists for a quarter of a century. He spoke to Tessa Waugh.
It’s show day in the Scottish border town of Kelso. Flags are flying on the banks of the Tweed, tractors are revving and gleaming farm animals are being led off trailers. It’s an important day for the area, but not one you would associate with a comedian, less still one as well known as Rory Bremner. He is here, however, moving faster than anyone has moved in the Ednam House Hotel for years, accepting coffee, making small talk about the weather and cutting a tall, well-dressed dash in the tartan surroundings.
The Bremners moved to the Borders in 2003 – he’s married to the sculptor Tessa Campbell Fraser and they have two teenage daughters. ‘It’s where we relax,’ he says, ‘although it can be depressing watching Wimbledon in front of a log fire. I’m often reminded of Billy Connolly’ – he breaks into a rumbling Glaswegian accent, his first impression of the morning – ‘saying that we have two seasons here: winter and July.’
Mr Bremner is probably Britain’s best-known impressionist. Huge in the 1990s and, to an extent, in the early 2000s, when he was one of Channel 4’s main talents, fronting Rory Bremner, Who Else? and Bremner, Bird and Fortune in an unbroken 18-year run, these days, it’s fair to say that, although busy, he struggles to get the big jobs he once enjoyed.
He’s just completed a run of stand-up dates around the country, which he relished. ‘It’s a really political time at the moment with Trump and Brexit and satire is limping along behind trying to make sense of it all,’ he says. ‘The election was called in the middle of the tour: I was a bit like Brenda [cue indignant female Bristolian]: “What? Not another one?”’
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Although current political events are so off the wall they almost defy satire, the present crop of politicians is depressingly bland. Mr Bremner reels off a few: ‘Phil Hammond, Jeremy Hunt, Chris Grayling, Michael Gove – a bit like a wasp in a jam jar, slightly drony.’
He’s got Boris Johnson and Donald Trump (who he’s particularly enjoying doing) down to a tee, but refuses to demonstrate his Jeremy Corbyn.
‘I’m working on it, although I think Jeremy Corbyn is working on his Jeremy Corbyn,’ he says.
‘I think of him as one of those grey, woolly mascots that you get on the front of a lorry that looks as if it’s been through too many car washes. Somehow, it’s managed to stay on the radiator grille, but you wouldn’t want it driving the lorry.’
We drink our coffee and Mr Bremner talks. He’s good at this, obviously, as he used to be (still is, to an extent) paid large sums of money to do so. His conversation ranges over Brexit (he thinks it’s a disaster), Scottish independence (he believes we’re better together), Trump, immigration and political affiliations (he claims to have voted for every main political party at some stage).
Great waves of information, statistics, concerns and opinions pour out of him along with the odd celebrity name drop, but his facial expression is almost perpetually worried. For someone who’s spent his life exposing the flaws in others, he’s incredibly courteous, almost apologetic, in person and appears, for all his talents, to be slightly vulnerable.
I suggest that he seems to be tirelessly creative, to which he replies, with a big sigh: ‘No, not tirelessly. I’m very tired at the moment.’ He’s currently working on an idea for a panel show and a programme about Trump. Why, I wonder, doesn’t he give himself a pat on the back and go off to play golf? Again, the forehead creases: ‘I’d love to take it up again, but I don’t have time.’
If Channel 4 called tomorrow with a weekly show, would he go? ‘Like a shot. It’s a passion of mine. I love trying to make sense of the politics and to share that understanding. In Bremner, Bird and Fortune, we had the time to get proper stuff into the show, so we did a lot of research into Iraq.
‘Satire isn’t just about “laughing about those idiots in power” quote, unquote. It’s about looking for the truth and exposing myths. We have this idea that everyone is on benefits and 24% is fraudulently claimed.’
He’s off again, explaining the pernicious effects of tabloid stories about benefit fraudsters before boomeranging back to the demise of television satire: ‘We’re in a different era now, events are running ahead so fast and so much of it is beyond satire. The social-media reaction is instant and very often satirical and, anyway, everyone is watching Love Island.’ He segues into the broad Scots of the programme’s voice-over: ‘Once again, Michael and Boris are fighting like cats in a sack and Jeremy is beating off the girls with a shitty stick.’
Fortunately, Mr Bremner, 56, hasn’t been off our screens altogether, although he admits that appearing in front of the cameras as himself is a tough call. There was a Horizon programme about Attention Deficit Disorder, which followed his own diagnosis with the condition and threw much light on the subject.
‘In my case, it’s mild and I’ve managed it for a long time,’ he explains. ‘It’s annoying when you lose something or get distracted or take too much on, but the ability to make connections, spontaneity and creativity – all that kind of stuff I enjoy.’
He explored his family background (upper middle class, Edinburgh) in the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? and also made a toe-curling appearance on Strictly. ‘Very tough,’ he says. ‘I didn’t go into it for redemption, as people go into the jungle. My family and friends told me I’d be mad not to and I talked to Julian Clary about it and he said you won’t regret it for a second.’
And with that he heads off in a flurry of chat to find his daughter, cutting a slightly incongruous figure on the rural scene as he tries to find new material among the farm machinery and outsize veg.
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