Rhod Gilbert is sitting in a ‘very swish hotel’ in Hastings, a room which commands a sea view.
“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 comedian whose fame has been built on a persona of a wild-eyed, stressed out, ranting Welshman at odds with the modern world.
What’s more, his routines – I’m thinking of his show Rhod Gilbert and the Award-Winning Mince Pie – also explain his apparent grumpiness is often down to having 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 bewliderment at the rules of modern life. “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 routine gold.
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. Thing was, he was only funny with his mates down the pub and it is incredibly rare that that sort of comedy talent actually translates on to a stage – except with Gilbert, it did. With the encouragement of a now ex-girlfriend, he took to the stage 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 his career 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, an appearance that launched him on to a different plane.
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 percent fact and 100 percent fiction. What was always true was the emotional state I was in that I was describing on stage. It was just the facts that I was saying 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 specifically to know 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 actually this contrary, argumentative, cup half-empty person might actually be the real me. I have realised through being this angry ‘character’ on stage that that 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.
“I realised it might not all be an on-stage character.”
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 were saying I should get one done,” 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 on me.
“Which is why I’ve got a Battenberg tattoo on my back.
“It was so bloody painful. The only reason I still have it and I won’t get rid of it is because I’m told it’s even more painful to have it lasered off.”
As you might imagine, having a piece of cake inked on your body as a constant reminder of a time when your inability to back down from a situation, might give one pause for thought. It certainly has for the Welsh comedian.
“I did take a moment when I realised what I had done and thought about the fact that this character on stage might not be entirely something I have fictionalised,” says Gilbert.
“I looked at all of that and that was where the idea for this new show came from. I think it’s a bit more reflective and about that journey I’ve been on. It looks at the character and looks at how that relates to who I actually am.”
While he might – possibly – be calming down, the comedian’s fans remain as passionate as ever. With this tour, Gilbert is travelling the length and breadth of the country, even though he doesn’t necessarily have to.
“I’m in a really fortunate position where I can pick and choose what I do,” he says.
“I turn down about 95 percent of the television I get offered, because I just don’t want to do it.
“One of the things I want to do is do live shows that connect with people.”
One way to do that is to perform shows not in the places that have become the venue of choice for some comedians in recent years – arenas – but in big theatres.
“I have been doing this latest show for quite a while now – I think I’ve done the show 122 times,” says Gilbert, the weariness creeping back into his voice.
“I could get the show to the same number of people if I did a couple of dozen nights at a few massive venues and I have done the arena at Cardiff, but it’s just not the same experience. Even though some of the venues I’m playing are pretty big, they are all essentially theatres and that means that they just allow for a different, much more intimate experience.
“I personally just think that makes it a better experience for the audience and for me as the performer.”
Plus, although he doesn’t say this himself, if he is on something of a personal odyssey to find some inner calm, where the baggage handlers of an airport don’t drive him crazy and where the absence of proof of an award a mince pie has supposedly won doesn’t make him fly off the handle, then perhaps the smaller, intimate venue is the best place for him to be.
Huddersfield Town Hall, Oct 26, Hull City Hall, Oct 29, Halifax Victoria Theatre, Oct 31, York Barbican, Nov 1, St George’s Hall, Bradford, Nov 8, Scarborough Spa Theare, Nov 13, Harrogate Royal Hall, Nov 14, 15. Details www.rhodgilbertcomedian.com