One of Britain's sharpest impressionists and satirists, Rory Bremner, popped into NMP Live for a coffee and exclusive chat about the state of global politics, why he believes satire is the best outlet for his impressions and why he loves performing for corporate audiences.
Of course, Rory didn't visit alone. Crammed into his car he also brought with him US President Donald Trump, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and former Conservative PM John Major, to name but a few.
In conversation with Rory Bremner
When did you start doing impressions?
Just after I left school, I think. I can remember going to one party in particular, just a friend of mine, and we had all just left so I was doing impressions of all the teachers that they had left behind. Instead of just being a minute or two it kind of went on for about ten or fifteen minutes and people gathered round and I thought gosh, this is quite fun!
I went to university in London and that worked out quite well for me because just at that time it was the beginning of the 1980s and the cabaret circuit was really booming in London because some of the theatres were above pubs and they changed the regulations. So, instead of having plays and things they were going for stand up comedy.
That was a real explosion where there was The Comedy Store and Alexei Sayle andJohn Dowie and people like Julian Clary and Harry Enfield were all kind of in that ’82, ’83, ’84, ’85. It was a really thriving circuit. So I kind of found my feet, cut my teeth, had my education there really.
I learnt a lot about life and a lot about stand up at that time. So, I was able to do lectures and seminars and stuff during the day and in the evening I would be doing shows.
You could do three shows in an evening. You would start at the Hemingford Arms up in Islington, and then maybe the Finborough Arms in Earls Court, and end up at Jongleurs in Battersea. They were great days and some of the people are still working now — Mark Steel, Jenny Eclair.
That was the first show I did in Edinburgh as a stand-up, was with Mark Steel and Jenny Eclair in 1984 I think it was. They are still going strong and, hopefully, so am I!
When did you decide to specialise in satire?
When I started out at the BBC the first series I did was in about ’85, I did a show called Now Something Else. There were sports commentators and I did a lot of comedians [Billy’s voice] you know Billy Connolly and [Ronnie’s voice] Ronnie Corbett I did. [Own voice] It sounds like an impression of Rob Brydon now [Ronnie’s voice] how can I do that? [Own voice] But it was a mainstream variety kind of show with John Dowie, with the Flaming Hamsters, with Steve Steen and Jim Sweeney, that show at the BBC.
But I think increasingly I thought that if you can do impressions you should be doing people that are in the public eye, in the news, and have something to say. It was around about ’88, ’89 that John Bird first did the show with us. We got him on to do Gorbachev I think, and I went to see him in a play with John Fortune. John Bird and John Fortune sort of worked together. They knew each other and they loved working together.
So round about that time, just coming into the 1990s I did a stage show which was directed by John Wells, sort of a third of the Johns, and he was very involved with Private Eye and Richard Ingrams and things like that, and I had a real thirst and interest in politics. So this brought together the two things; I could do the voices on one hand, and I could do the politics on the other.
Of course politically it was a very fertile time. It was the end of Thatcherism so it’s sort of [Michael’s voice] the big beasts like Michael Heseltine of course and [Ken’s voice] Ken Clarke who extraordinarily Ken Clarke is still going, [Michael Portillo’s voice] Michael Portillo of course, well that was [John’s voice] and John Major, dare I say it.
[Own voice] I remember when John Major arrived I think most of us who’d done impressions of train spotters during our lives [train spotter voice] oh yes, I know, yes, that’s the 7:15 from Carshalton and it usually goes into Clapham Junction. [Own voice] And then you turn on the radio and this guy has been made Prime Minister. But it was a trainspotter voice, but with [Julian’s voice] a little bit of Julian Clary. Just a little bit of Julian Clary thrown in. And if you mix up Julian Clary [trainspotter voice] and a trainspotter, [John’s voice] you get John Major. It’s rather remarkable.
[Own voice] So he became the mainstay of our first series with Channel 4 in 1992 when he won the election [John’s voice] rather improbably, if I may say so, [Neil’s voice] beating Neil Kinnock.
[Own voice] I suppose middle of the 1990s, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Blunkett, all these characters were emerging. There were a lot of characters, more than there are now.
I mean, now we are sort of down to the big three; [Donald’s voice] of Donald Trump, gotta say, big, huge character. Really, really big, and they love him at the corporates, they love hearing from him. You know, I don’t think we’ve ever seen so many people at a conference before. I know there’s got to be 250,000 people here today. You know, they tell me there’s 110 but you know there are such dishonest people.
[Own voice] So, we have Donald Trump, we have [Boris’s voice] Boris Johnson. Let me, let me, let me, entertain you. [Nigel’s voice] And of course, Nigel, Nigel Farage. [Own voice] And they are kind of the three big beasts now so it is interesting to see how times change politically.
You have to have different material, different takes on different characters. But, I have just always been fascinated with politics and what is going on and try to make sense of what is going on and then make nonsense of it. That is what I try to do so that you’re making people laugh, but also there is a truth underneath what you are saying.
Have you ever received any backlash from your impressions?
Some politicians got a little bit testy. I think Margaret Beckett wasn’t very happy because I rang her up as Gordon Brown. [Gordon’s voice] I just thought on the day of the election in 2005 I think, or somewhere around there, and erm, we had a conversation. I rang her up in her constituency and said Hi Margaret, how are you doing? So how do you see things after the election, the Cabinet?
[Own voice] So we talked for a couple of minutes about who should be in the Cabinet and then said [Gordon’s voice] Okay Margaret, I have got to go now so good luck and we will speak later in the week. [Margaret’s voice] Okay Gordon, goodbye. [Own voice] I hung up and looked up and there was a row of faces and a producer, there were about three lawyers and they were shaking their heads saying that is not going out, and I think it was two or three years before that saw the light of day.
It’s always fun to catch politicians out and we did it first when John Major was Prime Minister and he was having a bad time. Do you remember, those days when the Conservative Party was splitting itself up over Europe and having arguments? Yes, yes, a long time ago. Unimaginable! You can’t imagine the situation where Tories are ripping themselves apart over Europe, but they were! [John’s voice] Oh yes, and how. No not Geoffrey Howe, the other one. We were tearing ourselves apart, and I remember, in the late 1980s.
[Own voice] So I rang up one of the so-called “bastards” as John Major while John Major was in the air flying back from Japan.
So we rung up this guy, Richard Body I think his name was, and I said [John’s voice] now come on, what have you been saying behind my back? [Richard’s voice] Oh no Prime Minister, I’m just worried about the unemployed. [John’s voice] Well I know Richard, so am I. I don’t want to join them, that’s my point. [Own voice] And we had this conversation and I asked him [John’s voice] Now look are you coming to the Party conference? [Richard’s voice] I don’t really go to that. [John’s voice] Well, I want you to come with me and I want you to dance with me on the last night. [Own voice] We hadn’t got a script; we were just making it up.
Anyway, it went very well, but then something weird happened. The word got out in the Cabinet Office because somebody said I have had this call from John Major and so the Cabinet Secretary, Robin Butler, was put in charge of an enquiry. He rang up Richard Body and said did you get a call from John Major? It wasn’t John Major. He said [Richard’s voice] Oh no, I think it was, I think I’d know if it wasn’t John Major!
[Own voice] They had to find out because John Major said [John’s voice] well you know this is very funny but it could get quite serious. [Own voice] So there was this hunt going on and I think somehow or other Robin Butler must have contacted Michael Grade, who had the tape in his desk. We were sort of rumbled that way. But it’s in John Major’s book. He says [John’s voice] that well-known wag Rory Bremner was having a jape or a wheeze.
[Own voice] That was treated with good humour but I think when it happened with Margaret Beckett she was a little more serious-minded.
How do you approach corporate performances?
For me, there are two things about a corporate. Firstly, when it is taking place, obviously it is taking place in a context in the world outside. It’s always great to be responding to what’s happening in the news that day, or that week, or who has just resigned, or who is about to resign.
For a topical comedian, for me, a corporate is just another audience. It’s an audience that perhaps in some ways wasn’t expecting to be entertained, maybe, and you just go in there and talk about what has been going on in the news that day or on the way in. For me, that is great fun, and that is the challenge of it. That is the buzz of it really. So you are inventing material for that night’s show.
I still have the feeling, every time I go to a show, every time I wake up and have a show that evening, there is still that excitement. You go I could do that tonight, talk about that tonight, or what can I say about this?
So there is that, but the other side of corporates is engaging with the audience. Because they have a world in which they operate and I think that is where the briefing call has become much more important in recent years.
When I was young you didn’t do that kind of stuff, but now, I think perhaps because now people have got more professional about it and there are people in the company whose ass is on the line, shall we say? They want to make sure they have made the call. But from my point of view, I can pick up a lot of information from that. Particularly about, I always say what are they talking about, when these guys get together in the bar afterwards what are they talking about? What is happening in their business?
There are performers, who don’t feel comfortable with corporates, but for me, it’s another audience and it’s an audience for that night so I can talk about what has been going on that day. I can engage with that company and the challenge is to make that particular group of people laugh on that particular day.
There is no better feeling than to be going back after doing a show thinking those guys, those people, that audience, you talked about what they do, you got in to their world, you made them laugh about the things that they do, and a whole lot of other stuff besides, and it’s really very fulfilling. They know that you have taken the trouble to find out about them and to make them laugh about what they do, but also you brought, hopefully, a little bit of magic from what you do. That is the mixture that I find both a challenge and a joy.
Do you often share the platform with other speakers?
It’s great fun doing stuff with other speakers and not knowing what to expect.
I did do a conference the other day, it was a Yorkshire business conference, and the organiser was really pleased, he said: [Yorkshire accent] “I've got a great speaker coming on after you, a great speaker!” I said, “who have you got?” He said “Elle Macpherson”. I said “the model?” He said "yeah", I said, “oh right, what is she going to talk about?” He said, “who cares?!”. Ha, ha!
Then he introduced her like that in front of the audience! He had 2000 businessmen at a conference centre in Harrogate, he said [Yorkshire accent] “Now ladies and gentleman, I’m very pleased we’ve got our next booking. When I said we have managed to get Elle Macpherson somebody said to me what is she going to talk about and I said who cares? Ladies and gentleman…” [own voice] Just outrageous! Oh dear.
But, it’s a joy. I still love this. It’s still a privilege. But, you get out of it what you put into it. I think if you do the briefing call, you do the homework, you do a bit of research, you spend time, you have dinner with the client on the night, then you are doing a show for those people on that occasion and it will only ever be done like that, at that time, once.
It’s special. It’s a challenge because it keeps you on your toes, but it is so rewarding. Not just, you hope, for the audience, but also for the performer because you think that’s what you were there for. It’s a good feeling because you gave them exactly what they wanted.
Do you have a favourite venue for corporate events?
There are places that I always enjoy. The Grosvenor House. Some people hate it, I love it! I love The Grosvenor House.
The balcony [Donald Trump’s voice] always makes me think of a cruise liner, you know. There are all the way. [Own voice] Particularly if you have only got the bottom floor and you do Donald Trump saying [Donald’s voice] look at all those people up there! Thousands of people, there's thousands of people all the way up there. [Own voice] and there is nobody there. That’s good fun.
On a packed awards night at The Grosvenor House when you are doing it, you have got to hit them with those 20 minutes, or they say we just want 10 minutes, but for a comedian, 10 minutes is just too little, you want to do more. So, if you do a really good 20 minutes and then into the awards and they are all up for it, and you have got 1200 people right there, that’s the best feeling there is. It really is.
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