Rhod Gilbert's Growing Pains returns for a third series tonight. Here, the stand-up and presenter tells us about his unlikely sexual awakening, the future of his Work Experience show, working with comedy writer wife Sian Harries and his acting ambitions.
I hear you failed to go on holiday recently during the petrol crisis.
Yeah. We realised we didn't have enough petrol, so just went as far as we could. I got very excited when I saw a petrol station, drove in and crashed the car. Then they didn't have any petrol anyway.
What is it about Growing Pains that appeals to you?
The first day I got the treatment document with the guests they imagined having on, I thought "this is a great idea, how come this hasn't been done?" It's such a no-brainer. Teenage life is such a rich seam of fun and a great area for a chat show.
There are shows about nostalgia and gadgets, what you remember about the eighties. But nothing that adds teenage romance, fumblings and first dates, music and fashion. I loved it from the first moment.
Did you plan to share so much about your own teenage years, encouraging the guests to open up?
Not initially. That evolved in writing the first series. Originally, we were going to have a much more generic monologue at the top of the show about teenagers through the ages. I wrote a load of stuff about being a teenager in the fifties compared to what it's like now. Then I threw in a couple of little facts about myself.
But Comedy Central said: "Forget all that stuff about teenagers, we're not interested. This is the stuff we want, this story about you going to Paris with your mate, your first taste of alcohol". So we completely rewrote all the monologues to just be about me.
It wasn't the plan and I don't know how much longer I can keep doing it. Hopefully we can revisit some of those teenagers in the fifties ideas because I'm running out of stuff to say about my teenage life! Hopefully I've established enough vulnerability that people don't need to hear about me every time.
Has it been memory-jogging, sparking thoughts you might spin into stand-up or something else?
It hasn't done yet. But I'm not in stand-up writing mode. When I was on the circuit, like all circuit comedians, I always had a notepad or dictaphone by the bed. But my life has changed and like most touring comedians, I don't do that anymore. We have a period every few years where we sit down for a few months to try and write. I haven't written down a comedy idea for years. But I will at some point and hopefully things will pop into my head. I'll possibly revisit this stuff and see if there's anything I can work up into something more substantial for stand-up, definitely.
I was quite shocked by Jools Holland's cavalier approach to personal hygiene in the new series. What have been the most startling revelations for you?
We didn't dwell on it in the edit. It's only a 40-minute show and we record for three hours. But in the room there was absolute amazement and quite a lot of grilling of him, because he didn't wash for a year I think. I was astounded by that. But there have been some startling ones.
What I love about the show is how relatable it is. You see a picture of Jools Holland as a teenager and think how cool he is. With a clip of him when he's in Squeeze on Top Of The Pops. When he's about 17. Then he gets out these motorbike boots, shows you pictures of his motorbike gang. I was such a dweeby little square, unimaginative, uncool teenager.
But then he reveals he didn't have a bike! He used to go on the bus in his leathers, his helmet and everything. It was just a desperate attempt to fit in with these cool bikers! I love moments like that where you just think yeah, you were a teenager after all.
Speaking of the edit, there's a bit in one episode where Zoe Lyons reveals her nickname at school was The Freak, followed by a sharp cut. Does it ever open up real wounds for the guests?
Yeah, it does. Which surprised me. I always wanted it to be the case. But I wasn't quite sure whether it was possible within the format of a comedy show of 10-minute sections. So I was really pleased, particularly with the Sara Pascoe one where she revisits this performance she gave as a kid in a shopping centre. It was really heart-warming. It's got real soul sometimes this show.
And the bit at the end, where we've got advice for teenagers. Sometimes, there's real depth to it. In the room, Sara actually said: "Oh God, this is like therapy". And it is sometimes. Not for everyone, each show is different. Some people really open up, you can almost see their eyes misting. Others are much more guarded, with a set of prepared stories.
There were a few people like Zoe where it got quite deep at times, particularly on people finding out about their sexuality. Those moments of realising you're gay perhaps. Or not knowing. That was quite moving at times.
For quite a few comedians, discovering stand-up coincided with a change in their personalities. Without generalising too much, they were teenage misfits and outsiders. So is Growing Pains particularly suited to comics?
Yeah. That hadn't occurred to me. Of course, it's not just comedians we have on the show. But yeah, a lot of comedians were quite confused, complex kids who went through a lot of challenging things about who the hell they were. Which tribe they fitted in with. Are they destined to be an outsider all their lives? But we're quite confused adults, let's face it.
Once you start talking about being a teenager, all sorts of weird stuff comes back. It's part of the fun of the show, really. As you say that however, the first thing that popped into my head was actually the Castrol GTX advert. Do you remember that?
With the gold liquid running down engine parts? I can't picture any people in those ads.
No, there aren't. It's just a golden liquid running seductively down, beautifully caressing the body of an engine. To my young mind it was very erotic and highly charged. One of my earliest sexual awakening memories, it used to get me very excited. It was presumably deliberate on their part. I can't have been the only person to have thought that.
And I mean, Madonna's a fairly straightforward one. When she burst on the scene I was at the height of my teenage activity. And God, I fancied Felicity Kendal. In The Good Life as the woman next door...
And the Shake n' Vac lady?
I don't know what it was about her, that's much harder to explain. She had a vim and vigour about her that I liked. I thought she'd be fun and certainly didn't feel like a threat. I was a very, very shy and vulnerable teenager. I think I thought she'd be a good person to be around.
I remember hearing Scott Capurro say you had a bisexual phase when you were younger?
No, I wouldn't say I had a phase. I certainly did loads of experimenting. Lots of experimenting with anyone. But it was so early and so young that it wasn't me searching for my sexuality and thinking: "Am I gay? Am I straight?" Not at all.
Very, very, very. I would go further than that, booze was almost everything for Sian and I growing up. And all my friends and everyone else I really know. Your goal was to get in the pub as soon as you could. And we were all in there by 14. Then your next goal was to be one of the people who got to stay past midnight on New Year's Eve. One of those who got the tap on the shoulder that you could stay for the lock-in.
Every single week without fail, three nights a week, we went out and got hammered. From 16 onwards, same pub, same clubs, same gang, these pubs just packed to the rafters. Fighting, singing. I don't know how universal that experience is. It's a small town phenomenon. But it's also a rugby town, all the farmers come into town on a Saturday to drink and sell their stuff. It's quite a particular mix.
With the drinking stories on Growing Pains though, early experimenting with booze is clearly pretty relatable. Even if it's Jo Brand getting shitfaced, falling off a horse and getting hospitalised ...
Mentioning Carmarthen, can you tell me about your role in upcoming film Save The Cinema with Samanatha Morton?
Yeah, it's a story I actually remember. There was a cinema when I was a very young child, then it closed down. We had to get on the train and go to Llanelli instead. That was my teenage life too, going off in a gang with my mates, getting up to all sorts of nonsense on the way down, coming back and in the cinema.
There was a big battle led by this Liz Evans to get this cinema reopened. I can remember her campaign and relentless determination. Her sons are the GoCompare guy [Wynne Evans] and the other is an opera singer in his own right [Mark Llewelyn Evans]. Their school was a hundred metres from my school, so I knew them. It's an incredible story, one of those feelgood, David and Goliath ones.
Who do you play?
I'm not actor. I just play a builder with about six lines. I was absolutely terrified of doing it, sleepless nights. I'm ok with my shyness and self-consciousness in stand-up. But it really kicks in with acting. I feel very self-aware. It was only a tiny cameo and I was bricking it. And it was very odd to be back doing it in my hometown, obviously.
After playing Nye Bevan, founding father of the NHS in Audible audio drama Getting Better, are you hoping to do more acting?
I'd like to. I was in the middle of filming an episode of my series Work Experience about acting when the pandemic hit. We got half of it in the can. I don't know if we'll be able to go back and finish it. It's something I would love to try but whenever I get sent anything, I end up panicking and turning it down. I'm very acting-curious. But terrified, absolutely terrified. Just because I feel so self-conscious. It's something I probably need to do something about.
When you and Sian set up your production company, Llanbobl Vision, I wondered if you were looking at scripted projects? Perhaps you could finally get that television version of your sitcom set in fictional Llanbobl made?
Do you know what I did with the Llanbobl sitcom? I've pretty much got a series written. It needs work. But I got Sian involved a few years ago and she helped. I had the first episode that went out on radio years ago and she helped me knock it into a series.
I did that because I hear so many stories about scripted comedy and it goes like this: Somebody hands in a pilot, it gets commissioned, then the deadlines and pressure is such that - I'm not even using this word flippantly - they pretty much have a nervous breakdown. It's such a difficult thing to do under the pressure of deadlines that people really struggle. And I don't want that. I spend most of my life trying to avoid stress. So I just wrote it all, I've got the series pretty much written.
I showed it once to the BBC and they didn't jump at the time. I'd forgotten about it and gone back to stand-up. Who knows? Maybe we will do something with that. I just need to dust it off really.
Your podcast The Froth - there can't be many married comedians and comedy writers who work that closely together. Does it work ok?
It does actually. But then we don't do anything else together. There's no prep for it. Basically, I pick out some stories, then I read them to Sian and Barry [Castagnola] our producer and a guest if we have one. They don't get them in advance unless they desperately want them. It's meant to be throwaway and fairly disposable. Frequently, I prefer working like that, just seeing where our imaginations take us, where the conversation goes. Podcast, like radio, is the perfect place for it. It's very laid-back in itself. But also in the way we feel about it. We're just having genuine fun with our friends really.
In your recent Bafta acceptance speech, you spoke movingly about the carer episode of Rhod Gilbert's Work Experience. With the reaction you've had to your documentaries about shyness and fertility, is that something you want to do more of? Bringing a light touch to serious subjects?
I'd like to. Certainly with the shyness and the infertility one, they come from a very personal place. And I don't know how many more really personal, serious topics I've got. It depends what happens to me. It's definitely something I enjoy.
With stand-up and panel shows, you sometimes find yourself a little bit ... not cornered. But it's a persona. And I just find it nice sometimes, as with the podcast and Work Experience, to relax a bit and show a different side to yourself. A much more human and empathetic side really. I am quite inquisitive. I like dropping into other people's lives and their jobs. And I definitely want to continue with factual entertainment because I like the variety.
How are you finding stand-up? You were away for years, seemed to be enjoying it, then you had to take another 18 months off.
Yeah, I timed my comeback perfectly! After six years away, right before a global pandemic! I was loving being back actually. I've come back to it in a different way. It's still my style of stand-up in the way I write. And the ranting. But it's much more personal and honest.
Now we're back, it's sort of weird and really normal at the same time, looking out over a load of people in masks. Once you get into the gig, it's all very easily forgotten about. Which is what you're trying to provide for an audience, a bit of escapism for a couple of hours just thinking about something else. That probably works for me too. I'm so engrossed, it's so intense stand-up. Then you come off stage and start worrying about the pandemic again.
So what's next for you?
Well, I'm hoping that Growing Pains keeps coming back. I'm enjoying it and have some thoughts about how we could change little things and evolve it a bit. This tour goes on till June 22nd. Sometimes when you're touring, you never want to do another show, you're sick to death of it. But maybe because I've had a massive break in the middle, I would like to do another one soon. After a nice holiday.
And I definitely want to do something about acting. It's sitting in front of me like this massive obstacle that, for some reason, I have to try and get past. Who knows? I might dig out the sitcom because it does seem like a waste of a hell of a lot of writing. It's a world I really like and characters I'm really happy with. Other than that, I'm just very grateful that people still think of me to present programmes.
Oh, and there's this DIY SOS Children In Need special coming up on November 16th.
Were they after you to take over from Nick Knowles because you've played a builder? Having done Work Experience, you're used to being parachuted into different working environments...
Well, I wasn't privy to the decision-making process. But I imagine so, it's not a great leap, is it? What I do on Work Experience is exactly that, you're parachuted in to spend time with any kind of people, any age and you've got to get on with them. Bring to life what they do and make them shine really. It was one of the best things I've ever done to be honest, absolutely incredible. Really moving and completely inspirational.