Big inteview: Rory Bremner on a boom time for satire

Rory Bremner.
Rory Bremner.
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Politics may never have been more unpredictable. Bad news for the rest of us, perhaps, but good news for satirist Rory Bremner. He talks to Yvette Huddleston.

However you feel about politics and whatever your views, there is no denying that we are currently living in ‘interesting times’. For a satirist there is almost a surplus of material, but Rory Bremner isn’t complaining.

The UK’s most famous impressionist and political comedian is currently touring the UK with his new show Partly Political. It’s the first time he has been on the road since 2010 and his timing, comic or otherwise, couldn’t be better.

When we catch up over the phone he is on his way down to a gig in Bristol – cue a perfect impression of social media star Brenda from Bristol lamenting that ‘there’s too much politics going on at the moment’ – and he’s on good form.

“It is like somebody has put politics into a microwave,” he says. “For a long while everything was about economics but now politics is back on the agenda. Suddenly the Scottish referendum happened and then the 2015 General Election, then Corbyn, Brexit and Trump. It is a very exciting time and people seem to be really engaged.”

Bremner heads to Yorkshire next month, playing the final two dates of the tour at Theatre Royal Wakefield on the eve of the General Election and at Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley Theatre on the day the country goes to the polls. Talk about timely. It does mean, however, that events have been moving quickly and he admits that he’s had his work cut out keeping up, rewriting on the go.

“It is quite hard, but it’s great. I started the tour in February and the world has changed three or four times since then – the show has moved from being ‘Partly Political’ to ‘Completely Political’. Of course I want to make it funny too and satirical, but I am putting in more facts and points of view.

“It’s always really enjoyable being able to engage with audiences about things that have happened that day.”

Bremner’s incisive TV shows Bremner, Bird and Fortune, Rory Bremner… Who Else? and The Rory Bremner Show have won many awards including four Baftas, three Royal Television Awards and two British Comedy Awards, but his most recent appearance on television was for a BBC2 documentary last month about attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD. For a long time Bremner had suspected he had the behavioural condition and during the making of the Horizon programme ADHD and Me he had the diagnosis confirmed. “The main thing I wanted to do was to raise awareness about the condition, so that it was something that people can understand,” he says. “It is not about bad parents or naughty children.”

From a personal point of view he says that he learnt a lot and is “really glad” to have done it, but he now wants to move on from it in a positive way. “I’m keen to process it all but to look out from it and not be owned by the condition. I want to take the advantages and enjoy the benefits of it – I don’t think I could do what I do without it; it makes me who I am. The programme and getting the diagnosis was an important thing for me to do but it’s good to be back at the day job.”

And the day job is going extremely well. The tour has been a huge success, with many of the shows selling out. “The response from audiences so far has been great,” he says. “And the reviews have been really buzzy. I am so happy to be doing what we are doing at the time we are doing it.” The format of the show, he explains, includes guest appearances from other stand-ups – Fred McCauley and Zoe Lyons are among those who’ve dropped by; in Wakefield and Huddersfield it will be Jo Caulfield – and fellow impressionist Jan Ravens will be providing the female voices.

“Jan has been on the tour with me since March and she does a wonderful Theresa May impression, and Diane Abbott, Hillary Clinton and various others. It does bring a definite edge to the show having Jan doing Theresa May. In the first half it’s me doing stand up, then I have a guest comedian who will do 20 minutes or so – which gives the audience a bit of a break from all the politics – and then in the second half I interview Jan in character. The show is full of lots of voices and characters and is very topical. In a way it is trying to make sense of the nonsense of what is going on at the moment.”

He says that in the show he makes reference to a quote from Tom Lehrer, the American satirist, singer-songwriter and Harvard mathematician whose heyday was at the height of the Cold War in the 1950s and 60s.

“He famously said that ‘political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize’. Well look how far we have come from there when we’ve had Tony Blair as a Middle East Peace Envoy… Today, so much of what is happening is beyond parody, especially Trump.” He then does a spot-on impersonation, perfectly capturing the US President’s apparent inability to form complete, coherent sentences.

Regardless of whether you agree with them politically, larger-than-life characters like Trump, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson must be a bit of a gift in terms of comedy impressions.

“Well, it’s true, the Coalition Government was quite dull in that respect but now – especially with those three – it is great.”

Bremner has always been careful not to reveal which way he votes but in the current political landscape with the nation so divided on so many key issues, particularly Brexit, it must be hard to keep his own feelings out of it and remain neutral.

“Look, this isn’t the news – it’s my show and I think it is important that satire has a point of view,” he says. “There is this big thing about ‘bias’ at the moment as if it’s a bad thing, but people have to have opinions.” And it’s clear that he thinks politicians need to be held to account. The forthcoming election he says is “very disingenuous – it’s pretending to be ‘in the national interests’ but in fact it is hugely opportunistic.

“In the show I talk about ‘the two party system’ – there are two Labour parties and quite obviously two Conservative parties, possibly just one LibDem party and I can’t imagine many UKIP voters were Remainers. This isn’t a yes-no thing – in democracy there are so many moving parts. And above all of them there is the kind of polarisation that is particularly to do with social media. People get stuck in their silos where they can’t believe that someone has an opposing opinion.” And that is exactly why political satire is still so important and relevant, he argues. “I say in the show that in the 1980s we had Spitting Image and in 2017 we have The Nightly Show; that kind of says it all about the state of satire on television, really.”

Bremner is a warm and engaging conversationalist and it is nice, during the course of our chat, to be reminded of what a talented mimic he is. He’s looking forward to being back in Yorkshire – last year he was in Hebden Bridge and Halifax taking part in a special fundraising comedy show for those affected by the flooding – and he’ll be dusting off his Geoffrey Boycott and William Hague impressions specially, he says, both of which still go down very well round these parts, apparently. In today’s swiftly altering post-truth world, it’s good to know that some things don’t change.

Rory Bremner’s Partly Political will be at the Theatre Royal Wakefield on June 7 and The Lawrence Batley Theatre Huddersfield on June 8.