IF you’re out and about in Skipton on Friday, don’t be surprised if you catch a glimpse of a famous face.
Rory Bremner is playing the historic North Yorkshire town’s Mart Theatre and as a convert to Twitter part of his pre-show routine is to ensconce himself in a coffee shop and gen up on local news. “If I’m playing somewhere I try and get there early so I can sit in a cafe and write, or catch up with tweets and see if there’s anything I can use in the show,” he says.
Last year, in the run-up to the general election he travelled around Britain with his Election Battlebus Tour which, as well as his trademark impressions, included Q and A sessions with members of the audience and invited guests. At his gig in Sheffield, he was joined on stage by Labour veteran Tony Benn and Doncaster’s outspoken mayor Peter Davies, who ended up criticising his own councillors by suggesting they weren’t up to the job.
“Sometimes they worked quite well, Tony Benn was very entertaining, and then there were times when a local politician would start speaking and he’d be met by this wave of indifference.” The idea of doing a Q and A was to get the audience more involved, although he admits some of the questions took him by surprise.
“When I played Sheffield, the first question I was asked was from a man who said, ‘Can I have my mobile phone charger back that you borrowed two years ago in Harrogate?’”
His latest 15-date summer tour combines satire with topical stand-up and he will be joined on stage by fellow comic Hattie Hayridge along with jazz star and friend Ian Shaw. “I’m really looking forward to getting back out on the road again and it will be a pleasure to be working with Ian and Hattie. I know Ian from our days at university 30 years ago when we did cabaret together, so it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Bremner cut his teeth on Jimmy Cricket’s TV show And There’s More 25 years ago, since when he has become a familiar household name. From the Bafta award-winning Rory Bremner – Who Else? to the hugely popular Bremner, Bird and Fortune, he is recognised as one of Britain’s sharpest and best known impressionists.
Given all this, people might assume, with no disrespect to Skipton, that he would be doing a high-profile arena tour playing our big cities, rather than genteel market towns. “On past tours, I’m very conscious that I’ve missed out a few great places along the way, so this show is a chance to apologise properly,” he says.
“The whole idea of going on tour is to see different places and I’ve passed through Skipton many times but I’ve never done a show there so I thought it was time I did.” He will also be doing shows at places like Buxton, Northampton and Abergavenny, not widely regarded as comedy hotspots, but Bremner says he’s happy to be going off the well trodden comedy path. “It’s much more enjoyable and engaging playing intimate venues rather than the big gladiatorial arenas, because I actually find that kind of comedy juggernaut quite intimidating.” His talent for mimicry began at school before he honed his skills on the London Cabaret circuit while studying French and German at King’s College, in London. “At school I was doing impressions of teachers and sports commentators. I should have been removed and sent to a specialist school, a reform school for impressionists – that would have been good.”
After his initial breakthrough, he quickly made a name for himself, mimicking the highly recognisable styles of John Motson, Richie Benaud and Bill McLaren, before going on to provide voices for Spitting Image in the late 1980s. Since then he’s made the transition from light entertainer to heavyweight political satirist, writing for the broadsheet newspapers as well as making regular appearances on The Andrew Marr Show.
Bremner has been at the heart of political comedy in this country for the past two decades lampooning the likes of John Major, Tony Blair and George Bush. He became so adept at their voices that on one occasion when his young daughter, Ava, spotted a photograph of Blair on the front a newspaper, she exclaimed: “Look, it’s daddy.’” And even though it’s four years since he stepped down as Prime Minister, he still can’t resist mentioning Tony Blair. “If you look at places like Libya and Tunisia it’s nice to see Tony Blair doing such a wonderful job as Middle East peace envoy.”
You suspect, though, that in a strange way he wishes Blair was still making headlines, in the same way that Mike Yarwood, an acclaimed impersonator of Harold Wilson, lost a key part of his repertoire when the former Labour leader stepped down and slipped out of the limelight.
Certainly Bremner feels the new breed of political leaders don’t have the same charisma as their predecessors. “All you have to do is compare people like Peter Mandelson, John Prescott and Michael Howard, with Ed Milliband, Caroline Spellman and Danny Alexander and you get the point,” he says.
Before last year’s general election, he claimed life was too short to sit up night after night trying to impersonate Nick Clegg, and in an interview with the Yorkshire Post a couple of years ago he described Tory leader David Cameron as being like an iPod – someone “happy to play all sorts of different policies.”
His opinion of the Prime Minister hasn’t improved a great deal although he says at least he’s becoming an interesting character. “The difference between him and Gordon Brown is that Brown couldn’t decide what to have for breakfast whereas Cameron, with all the confidence and arrogance that comes from being a public schoolboy, chucks out six ideas and a month later people come back and say, ‘Actually, this isn’t working,’ and then it’s ‘oh, we’d better try something else.”
But despite his indifference to Westminster’s new recruits, a Rory Bremner gig wouldn’t be the same if he didn’t have a pop at those leading the country. “As with all new governments at the beginning they’re all very woolly so I may have to carry out a bit of a health check,” he says. “I still talk about the coalition, it’s not as if there’s no material, what I’ve said is there’s a shortage of characters you need to carry that material. I don’t think that Philip Hammond and Andrew Lansley have sunk into the public’s consciousness yet, but it might be time I got stuck into Eric Pickles.”
So who, in the ever-changing world of celebrities, are among his favourites at the moment? “I’m having a Louis Walsh mode at the moment,” he says, transforming his voice into that of The X-Factor judge. “Then there’s William Hague who is enjoying an Indian summer late on in my career,” he says, taking off the Foreign Secretary. Those who go to his shows will still get to see some of his most popular impressions. “It’s a bit like a rock band doing a gig and saying they’re going to play songs from their new album and the crowd is disappointed. So there will still be Blunkett and Prescott as well as people from the coalition.”
Although he’s looking forward to his tour, Bremner, who turned 50 last month, believes he’s in a young person’s game. “I was talking to Alistair McGowan and Ronni Ancona about this and we were saying that as you get older, your ear perhaps isn’t quite as sharp as when you’re in your 20s and 30s and you don’t pick up voices quite as quickly, because you’re distracted by things like real life and families.
“You can’t sustain the level of single-mindedness that laser focus of virtuosity and you end up in the Wogan years,” he says, morphing his voice to sound like that of the much-loved presenter, “and you find yourself being described as a humorist known for their whimsical anecdotes. The best way to avoid this, I think, is to go back on the road and write new material in cafes in places like Skipton”.
* Rory Bremner plays Skipton Mart Theatre on May 20. For ticket information call the box office on 01756 708 011 or visit www.themarttheatre.org.uk