Rhod of iron: A Welshman ranting against the world

Rhod Gilbert at Huddersfield's Lawrence Batley Theatre in 2009
Rhod Gilbert at Huddersfield's Lawrence Batley Theatre in 2009
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Comedian Rhod Gilbert is back on tour and the famously angry entertainer has calmed down. Nick Ahad finds out if it’s temporary.

Rhod Gilbert is sitting in a “very swish hotel” in Hastings, in a room which commands a sea view.

Rhod Gilbert.

Rhod Gilbert.

“I’m looking out at the sea, watching rabbits on the lawn at the front of the hotel,” says Gilbert, a picture of calm and serenity. Which is odd, given that here is a comedian whose fame has been built on the persona of a wild-eyed, stressed-out, ranting Welshman at odds with the modern world.

What’s more, his routines often explain his apparent grumpiness is down to having to lug his weary bones around the country, entertaining audiences with his stand-up routines.

Yet here he is, in a swish hotel, watching rabbits frolic on the lawn? At the risk of recycling an old joke, I feel very tempted to ask: “Who are you and what have you done with Rhod Gilbert?”

Well, nothing. This is still very much the Rhod Gilbert whose angry bewilderment at the rules of modern life provides comedy gold.

“Oh I only do this about twice every tour, stay in a nice hotel,” says Gilbert.

“You should see the places I stay in the rest of the time. And there are those times when I think ‘I cannot face another microwave meal in a dressing room, or another service station sandwich’.

“I think it must be lovely to have an actual weekend, at home, doing normal things. I fantasise about putting my clothes in a drawer, rather than just living out of a suitcase. I can go for months never actually opening a drawer, but getting things out of my suitcase. That’s a bit wearing after a while.”

That’s more like it. There’s the comedian who can take the confusions and minor irritations of modern life and spin them into comedic routines.

Gilbert didn’t start his career in comedy – he had a far more “regular” job, working in sales for a pharmaceutical company. He was also, however, funny. The thing was, he was only funny with his mates down the pub and it is rare for that sort of comedy talent to translate on to a stage – except with Gilbert, it did.

With the encouragement of a now ex-girlfriend, he started performing at comedy clubs and became a hit. Early on in his career he found a famous prop that became a mainstay of his act and helped launch him to the realms where he was able to sell out an arena gig in Cardiff just a few years ago. The prop was the handle from a suitcase and the conceit was that it was all that arrived when Gilbert landed at an airport. The routine, which has since been watched on YouTube close to a million times, proved just as popular when he repeated it on the Michael McIntyre Comedy Roadshow.

For years, though, he had been touring live and it is still where, as he brings his latest tour to Yorkshire, he thrives.

“People who have seen my live shows know there is a lot more of a sense of a shaggy dog story, and a lot more nuance than perhaps those shorter appearances on TV shows,” says Gilbert.

“My live shows, I used to say, were 100 per cent fact and 100 per cent fiction. What was always true was the emotional state I was in that I was describing on stage. It was just the facts that needed to be taken with a pinch of salt.”

Ah yes, the emotional state. Even in his live shows that are packed with moments of odd whimsy and surreal tall tales, the Gilbert anger is never far from the surface. Whether he’s raging against the system that rates quilts on their “togness” or because he wants to know exactly what award a mince pie has secured, the Gilbert rage is oft in evidence in his shows. He finally addresses his anger issues in the latest tour, Rhod Gilbert, The Man With The Flaming Battenberg Tattoo.

“I’ve said for years that the ranting, raving bloke in the stand up is a character that I play,” he says.

“My Battenberg tattoo was a turning point when I realised that this contrary, argumentative, cup half-empty person might actually be the real me. I have realised through being this angry ‘character’ on stage that it might actually be something bubbling inside of me. I realised that actually, from a very young age I have been this incredibly argumentative, contrary, opinionated person. The comedian Greg Davies is a good friend of mine and he says I am incapable of not arguing.”

What does this have to do with a tattoo of a cake? In recent years Gilbert has found a talent for television presenting and one of his popular shows is Rhod Gilbert’s Work Experience, which sees him do a variety of jobs. Including tattoo artist.

“The producers and the tattoo artist I was doing the work experience with said I should get one,” says Gilbert.

“I was saying that I wasn’t going to get one for lots of reasons, but mainly because they are totally pointless.

“The argument kept on going and so finally I said ‘fine, I’ll have one done’. But, because I’m so contrary and argumentative, and in order to prove a point, I decided to get the most pointless thing I could think of tattooed.

“Which is why I’ve got a Battenberg tattoo on my back.”

And once again, he’s found a rich seam of comedy.