Thursday, 8 October 2009

BIRDWATCHING: Simon Bird interview

This coming Monday, Simon Bird brings his latest project, an ‘experimental game show’, to Leeds. When I’m due to speak to him early on a Freshers’ Week morning, it is with an expected politeness that he answers the phone. His is also the, by now, highly recognisable voice of The Inbetweeners’s Will McKenzie, the ‘at least I’m not’ person of thousands upon thousands of Britain’s post-pubescent males: however excruciatingly ungraceful our journey from puny infantile to (slightly-less-puny) twentysomething, thank God it was never quite that bad.

It is encouraging, then, to know that even Simon’s own teen years were “hampered by the overwhelming sense of failure at all times. You know, when it comes to women and to alcohol and popularity and all those sorts of things.”

Like Will’s?

“I don’t know whether it was quite as exciting or outrageous as some of the escapades and adventures that Will and the boys get into. But yeah, I think, like the boys, you make your own fun.”

Nevertheless, The Inbetweeners remains uncomfortably realistic and well-observed. Watching any episode, it’s easy to become convinced that you too went to the very same doomed house-party, or ill-fated school trip. I ask if this is the key to The Inbetweeners’s success.

“Oh yes. I think that is definitely why people like it – because they can relate to it. And I think that’s down to the script and the writers. They had a very clear idea of what they wanted to do, and it was an original idea that nobody had really tried on British TV. I think that’s why people like it.”

Does Simon think that The Inbetweeners’s concept would translate well into a university setting?

“I’m not sure whether The Inbetweeners is the right show to do it necessarily, just because it’s a bit of stretch to think that Jay and Neil would end up pertaining a place of study with Will.” He pauses. “Or even leave home necessarily.”

It was at the University of Cambridge that Simon began performing as part of The Footlights, the university’s famed comedy revue group responsible for kick-starting the careers of Mitchell and Webb, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, The Monty Pythons, and countless other comedy giants.

“I think the set up of comedy in Cambridge is really good. They have a very set way of doing it. They have a stand-up show every two weeks and do really well in encouraging people to give it a go. I think that’s why Cambridge has done so well at producing comedians.”

I ask him if he has received any particularly useful advice about breaking into comedy. After a silence, he admits: “No earth-shattering advice, other than I think it’s good to find like-minded people. If it’s not just you trying to do it all by yourself, it feels less scary. I think Leeds has a comedy group, doesn’t it?” He’s referring to The Leeds Tealights, the University of Leeds’ own take on the student comedy revue. “I’d recommend looking into that and trying to find other people that are in your situation. Because it’s so much easier and so much more fun to try stuff out and to experiment.”

Sound advice. Simon has come a remarkably long way since his Cambridge days. I’m interested to hear what he’ll be bringing to Leeds.

“It’s called ‘Simon Bird presents An Experimental Game Show’. It’s me trying out some ideas for a potential TV game show, in a similar style to Shooting Stars. It’s quite silly.” A chance to loosen up a little and leave Will in the classroom, then. “Hopefully it will be funny,” he adds, perhaps betraying a few nerves. “It’ll have a lot of audience interaction. It’s quite a good night for people who are a little bit drunk. It’s got that sort of anarchic feeling” – I can hear Will’s apprehension creeping in – “so hopefully it’ll go down well.” I’m certain it will.

Having just mentioned Shooting Stars, I ask Simon which other shows and comedians have influenced him so far. He acknowledges that his brand of comedy is “quite realistic and low key a lot of the time” describing it as “quite quiet and gentle. I think the bigger influence I’ve grown up with is The Office, because that came out while I was in 6th form. But there are lots of shows around that I love, like the Peep Show. And I’ve been watching a lot of [US Fox sitcom] Arrested Development, which I highly recommend to anyone who hasn’t seen it. It is brilliant. All my favourite shows are sitcoms. It would be a dream to write a classic.”

Watch this space. Now that Simon has reached celebrity status, I’m curious: has he got round to trashing any hotel rooms yet?

“Not yet” is his sincere reply. “I’m in one at the moment actually. I think the thing is that people who trash hotel rooms do it in really nice hotels that can actually be trashed. Here, they’ve done quite a good job themselves.”

'Simon Bird Presents An Experimental Game Show', coming live to a union near you.
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