Rob Brydon on his ‘really, really bleak’ comedy classics Marion & Geoff and Human Remains

Rob Brydon as Keith in Marion & Geoff
Rob Brydon as Keith in Marion & Geoff - BBC
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In the original series of The Trip, Rob Brydon – playing a fictionalised version of himself – is served a posh meal topped with froth. “Have you had a lot of froth?” asks Emma the PA (Claire Keelan). “His life’s full of it,” replies Steve Coogan. Rob Brydon agrees: “I’ve built a career on it.”

It’s Brydon having fun with his light entertainment-leaning persona: the face of lovable Uncle Bryn from Gavin & Stacey; the voice of various high-profile consumer products (including P&O Cruises, Bounty, and Crunchy Nut Cornflakes); and the host of top primetime panel show, Would I Lie to You?, currently airing its 17th series. 

On February 19 he’s also embarking on another tour of A Night of Songs and Laughter with his “fabulous band” – a crowd-pleasing set of show tunes, singalongs, and stories. “I’ve always had quite broad tastes,” Brydon said when I spoke to him in 2020. “What I’ve ended up doing is a bit of everything I’ve ever liked.”

It might knock the cosy socks off Gavin & Stacey fans to see Brydon’s punishingly bleak breakthrough comedies: Marion & Geoff and Human Remains, which are now both, finally, available to stream online – Marion & Geoff on BBC iPlayer and Human Remains on UKTV Play.

Brydon admits that his viewers now – people who know him from the likes of Would I Lie to You? – might be shocked at his dark comedy roots. “I think people probably would be surprised,” he told me.

In Marion & Geoff, Brydon plays Keith Barret, a divorced taxi driver who’s too half-glass-full to realise he is, in fact, having a nervous breakdown. In the mock-doc series Human Remains, Brydon and Julia Davis – the dark mother of blacker-than-black British comedy – play six different couples across six episodes. Each one is a portrait of quirks, foibles, and perilously grim subject matter – domestic abuse, depression, dead children, terminal illness, and flesh-creeping sex lives.

Marion & Geoff and Human Remains originally aired on the BBC 24 years ago – in September and November 2000, respectively – after years of Brydon trying to break into the big time. Brydon had scrambled around for roles as an actor and worked as a voice artist. He hosted a Saturday teatime quiz show on Welsh TV and moved to London for a plum presenting role on a shopping channel. (You can see the footage on YouTube of Brydon shilling a Black & Decker lawnmower. “It’s very, very manoeuvrable,” he insists.)

Brydon got a small break playing a beat-up traffic warden in Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, taking a battering from none other than Jason Statham. Brydon was name-checked in Empire magazine for his brief Lock, Stock appearance and seized on the nugget of good press. He made a video of character sketches and slapped the Empire review across it. “I think the line was, ‘Robert Brydon – extremely unlucky traffic warden,’” laughed Brydon. 

Julia Davis and Rob Brydon in Human Remains
Julia Davis and Rob Brydon in Human Remains - BBC

Among the sketches was one featuring Keith Barret, who talked to a dashboard-mounted camera in his taxi. “Keith was the best one on the tape,” said Brydon. “But inexplicably I put him on last!” 

One by one the tapes were returned, forced back through Brydon’s letter box and thudding onto the floor. By chance, Brydon bumped into an old college friend in the corridors of BBC Television Centre – writer, director, producer Hugo Blick – and gave him a copy of the tape. Brydon and Blick then co-wrote Marion & Geoff together. Blick would also direct and produce. Meanwhile, Brydon’s friend Julia Davis passed the tape to Steve Coogan. Coogan’s company, Baby Cow, picked up the series.

Brydon had previously played Keith Barret on the radio, in a sketch about Keith and his best friend Tony, who – as everyone except Keith realised – was sleeping with Keith’s wife, Marion. 

“Keith was being cuckolded,” said Brydon. “But he was blissfully, comically unaware. He was driving around in his taxi all the time, so he was never at home. He was thinking that he had the perfect life and didn’t realise he was being made a fool of.”

Brydon and Coogan are recreating Odysseus's journey home from Troy
Brydon and Coogan are recreating Odysseus's journey home from Troy - Andy Hall/Sky

In the TV version, Keith’s marriage woes worsen. Marion has left him for Geoff and taken their sons with her (“My little smashers,” as Keith calls them). Keith – now replaced as husband and father – is left driving alone in his minicab, lingering outside Marion and Geoff’s house, bringing gifts for the boys that are invariably refused, and missing out on seeing his smashers through some cruel twist of fate.

Episodes are just nine minutes long and – when they aired in 2000 – were tucked away between raunchy drama series Attachments and Goodness Gracious Me. Marion & Geoff was quickly acclaimed (“the funniest British comedy for years,” wrote the Evening Standard) though if you simply stumbled across it while switching channels, you might have asked – with the homemade look and bittersweet tone – “What on earth is this?” It looked like the kind of offbeat, cheaply-made oddity that seemed to pad out nighttime TV schedules and filled alternative content quotas in the 1990s. 

Sitting in his car for pretty much the whole series, Keith talks to the dash-cam about his sons, his marriage, and what a great bloke Geoff is. “I don’t look at it as losing a wife,” Keith says. “I look at it as gaining a friend.”  The one man-and-his-car setup seems simple – as simple as poor, naive Keith himself – but the scripts and Brydon’s performance are deceptively intricate: a series of monologues crafted around unseen dramatic ironies. It’s a glimpse into a tragic, emasculated soul.

In one episode, Keith reminisces about going to Portugal with Marion after a “rocky patch”. The holiday saved their marriage, he says, now sat alone and in the middle of divorce proceedings.

Indeed, Keith is an eternal optimist and empath — a man who’s delighted when Michael Owen scores a goal but always spares a thought for the goalkeeper – and incapable of reading between the lines. When the kids draw a picture of him having his head shot off, he responds, “I think that’s how they see me – bit of an action hero.”

“That’s him putting some gloss on it,” said Brydon.

Keith’s oblivious to the crushing despair beneath the things he says, and often the things he doesn’t realise he’s saying. To the viewer it’s all glaringly obvious: Marion never really loved him; her affair with Geoff was going on under Keith’s nose for a long time; and one of the little smashers isn’t really his son. When Keith’s eyes glaze over, or he pauses mid-anecdote, we’re forced to visualise the depressing scenes of his life beyond the minicab.

“When I would film it, it felt optimistic – I would inhabit him so I would see things through his eyes,” said Brydon. “But I was aware of the bleakness, of course. When I would watch it, it felt bleak.” There is, said Brydon, an “aching sadness” to it all.

In one brilliantly un-self-aware moment, Keith sits outside Marion and Geoff’s house with a family heirloom – a rifle – with his sights locked on the happy couple’s bedroom window. “Good morning, Geoffrey!” says Keith, taking aim. No malice intended, but he’s still a borderline stalker with a gun. 

The most harrowing episode sees Keith follow Marion and Geoff and the boys to Euro Disney, where he plans to surprise them by disguising himself as a waiter and asking, “Avez vous… your real dad?”

We never see the horror that transpires when Keith ambushes his estranged family at Disney – only the aftermath as he returns home via the Channel Tunnel. Clutching two Winnie the Pooh cuddly toys – more unwanted gifts for his two little smashers — he acts out a puppet show, with Tigger and Eeyore playing the parts of his fractured emotional state. “Why you sad, Eeyore?,” asks Tigger. “Just am,” replies Eeyore. The scene is oddly, painfully tender.  “That really is bleak,” said Brydon. “Really, really bleak…” 

Julia Davis as Michelle and Rob Brydon as Stephen in Human Remains
Julia Davis as Michelle and Rob Brydon as Stephen in Human Remains - BBC

Marion & Geoff came as part of a wave of boundary-pushing, convention-breaking comedies that traded in realism: kitchen sink sitcom, The Royle Family; the spoof-doc series People Like Us; Bolton-set mockumentary That Peter Kay Thing, which became a precursor to Phoenix Nights; and – most successfully – The Office. Pathos and tragedy were nothing new to British comedy. But the bleakness of Marion & Geoff felt somehow fresh. 

“Word of mouth built up because it was so unusual,” said Brydon. “I had people at all ends of the spectrum telling me how wonderful it was, from Steve Coogan to Michael Barrymore [cue Brydon’s spot-on impression of Barrymore mumbling the show’s praises].”

A one-off special followed in 2001 – a home video of the family BBQ where Marion and Geoff’s affair was first discovered (Geoff, in a genius bit of casting, is played by Steve Coogan) – and a second series in 2003, with episodes extended to 30 minutes and Keith now working as a chauffeur.

“I have a vivid memory of watching an episode from the second series,” Brydon said. “There was a gap between filming and it going out, and you forget stuff that’s in it. I remember sitting down to watch it on the television and getting the impression of, ‘My god, we beat this guy up – we really did batter him.’” 

All these years on, Brydon is still curious at how or why he created such a tragic character. “By then I think I had two children, but I was not at all estranged,” he told me. “It’s a very interesting thing. Why would one invent that sort of thing?” He credits Woody Allen, Barry Humphries, and Victoria Wood as influences. But Brydon also admitted, rather tellingly, “I’ve always found relationships fascinating.” 

Indeed, in both Marion & Geoff and Human Remains with Julia Davis, relationships – often involving people who don’t love each other – are a unifying theme.

Each episode of Human Remains – presented as a series of 30-minute documentaries – follows a couple from different walks of life. They include upper-class toffs who can’t have sex because the wife has a medical condition (“penile accommodation is absolutely impossible”), though she spends a suspicious amount of time with her masseur; Brummie swingers who are waiting for a comatose sister to die – so they can extend their sex dungeon into her soon-to-be-empty bedroom; and flower shop owners coping with the (apparently suspicious) death of their eight-year-old twins. The deaths “ruffled feathers we didn’t know we had,” says Brydon’s chirpy, unknowingly traumatised florist.

“With Human Remains, I think it was very much about how couples consider themselves normal and everybody else is out of sync,” explained Brydon. “It’s this idea of how couples live. How they behave is normal to them, but to anyone on the outside it’s very idiosyncratic, very specific.”

Brydon and Davis created the characters through improvisation, recording and developing them on videotape (which you can also see on YouTube – and it’s funnier than Brydon selling a lawnmower).

“They started with the voices,” recalled Brydon about the characters. “The voices suggested attitudes and the stories began to suggest themselves through improvisation. In those writing sessions tons of dialogue just came to us – it just fell from the heavens. It was a very labour-intensive script. Gathering the material took a long time and a lot of work.”

He threw himself completely into the writing process. “I didn’t have anything else except voiceovers,” Brydon said. “I’d go and say, ‘Bounty, taste the exotic’, and then I’d be writing [Human Remains]. I had this desperate need to be seen. I wanted people to see what I could do.”

Rob Brydon appearing on Children In Need with Tom Jones in 2015
Rob Brydon appearing on Children In Need with Tom Jones in 2015 - BBC

As comedy fans will know, Julia Davis’s shows – though brilliant – don’t get any easier to endure. In Nighty Night, Davis victimises Rebecca Front’s wheelchair-bound MS sufferer (to get her claws into Angus Deayton, no less). In Camping, she turns a middle-class family holiday into a drug-fuelled, sexually-deranged nightmare. In Sally4Ever, she spices up a lesbian affair with coprophilia and sadomasochistic levels of discomfort. Dear Joan and Jericha, her agony aunt podcast with Vicki Pepperdine, is positively excruciating. “She doesn’t hold back,” laughed Brydon.

It’s easy to imagine that improvising with Julia Davis leads to increasingly dark territory. “I think with us we always were a nice balance for each other,” said Brydon. “I maybe pulled her a bit more towards the mainstream, she maybe took me more towards the edge. Not that Julia didn’t have it in her and that I don’t have it in me. After all, I came from Marion & Geoff – I’d earned my dark comedy credentials.”

He added: “All the successful partnerships I’ve had – whether it’s Julia or Steve Coogan – I always say it’s a Venn diagram. Our outer extremes are very different but where we overlap in the middle, there’s a real harmony.”

The standout episode of Human Remains is All Over My Glasses, about Welsh lad’s lad Stephen and his pregnant fiancé, Michelle – nicknamed “Spindalero!” – a gangly, thick-as-mince, Princess Di obsessive. 

Stephen is a brilliantly observed image of what we’d now call toxic masculinity: a wannabe alpha male suffering from little man syndrome; clearly harbouring gay feelings for his best mate, but outwardly homophobic; a Jean-Claude Van Damme-fixated man-child.

“I always said he was like a computer with a large hard drive but small processor,” said Brydon. “I felt he was with [Davis’s character Michelle] because he could feel intellectually superior and that was important to him. He was an attitude and voice that I’d experienced and heard growing up.”

It’s, ultimately, about an abusive relationship. “Stephen’s got quite a temper,” says Michelle at one point, completely unprompted. Stephen repeatedly tells her that she’s not as good as his previous girlfriend (“Rightly or wrongly... I’m not gonna lie to you, ‘Chelle”). He arranges their wedding seating plan so he can sit next to his mate instead of his new bride (“It’s my big day ‘Chelle!”). And he heaves the pregnant bride-to-be into the air by her stomach (“Take the baby to Alton Towers!”). He inevitably leaves her before the baby is born.

The only couple of Human Remains who feel truly in love are churchgoers Tony and Beverly. They’re also the most monstrous of the bunch: vindictive neighbours from hell who harass their local vicar with persistent phone calls and curly sausage casseroles – while refusing to believe the vicar is gay. “He ain’t got time to be gay... amen.”

“They’re very unpleasant people, but they’re very well matched,” said Brydon. “They’re harmonious in their unpleasantness. They seem quite devoted to each other, actually.”

Rob Brydon and Julia Davis in Human Remains
Rob Brydon and Julia Davis in Human Remains - BBC

It’s strongly hinted that Tony, an overbearing Aussie, pushed his ex-wife down the stairs and paralysed her, after which he left. “She made her choice, it wasn’t for me,” Tony says.

Tony’s in poor health himself but lives life to the fullest – “I’ll tell you what, a dicky ticker didn’t stop me walking out on my family!” – and pesters Beverly with his sexual peccadillos. “As I always say, try it once, and if you don’t like it, we’ll come back to it in a few nights.” 

They get their comeuppance when Tony is diagnosed with testicular cancer in the final scene. “And it is quite far gone,” Beverley says in her final phone call to the vicar – a devastating punchline.

Looking back at Human Remains, Brydon recalled some trepidation about using the mock-documentary format, which was about to become the comedy standard (though Human Remains came before The Office). “We had a bit of a thing at the last minute, saying we don’t want this to be documentary style,” Brydon explained. “People Like Us had done it and we felt it was going to be old hat. For a while, we dillied and dallied with the idea of making it a narrative thing. I’m glad we didn’t because that’s not what it was meant to be. But we were both a little bit conscious of feeling like we were on some bandwagon.”

Seen through the documentary lens, there is a strange beauty to some of the episodes. See Brydon’s upbeat florist looking out at the sea, convinced that him and his wife are happy, choosing not to hear her pleas to take her own life. “If there is a strange beauty, it’s because they’re rubbing along together,” Brydon said about the series’ various couples. “They’re getting on with it. Like I said, we wanted to show people who felt it was their normal. It was wanting to show strange little ways – and we all have them. And they seem very real. I believe the relationships. I believe these people, for whatever reason, are forever.”

Even behind the camera, Human Remains was a unique creative challenge. Director Matt Lipsey explained that part of the idea was a strand of six documentaries each made by a different filmmaker. “For each couple I became a different director,” said Lipsey. “I had a different name and to a degree took on a persona – I became a third character. I tried to ask questions in that headspace. It was unlike anything I’d done before. Totally immersive.”

Lipsey – who has also directed Catterick, Little Britain, Inside No. 9, and Ted Lasso – recalled that Human Remains “freaked the crew out” by having no rehearsals and lots of improvisation.

“We had one rule,” said Lipsey. “We had to hit the script. But generally, we’d improvise into the scene, do the script, then improvise out of it. I’d say a good amount, maybe 20 to 25 per cent, was improvised.”

For Brydon, the dark comedy of Marion & Geoff and Human Remains opened a world he’d been trying to break into. He remembered watching the likes of Steve Coogan and Caroline Aherne winning comedy awards and feeling like that world was “locked” to him. “I was very frustrated creatively and then, all of sudden, I’m working with Julia Davis and Steve Coogan’s production company,” he said. “I can’t overstate how right it felt. It was like I’d come home or something – ‘Oh yeah, this is where I should be.’”

Brydon still has a taste for the darker side of comedy. “It niggles away at me,” he said. “I’m always talking about it. Steve’s always telling me to do more character stuff. Julia and I have innumerable lunches where we discuss ideas. I would still like to do that sort of thing – I’m sure I will at some point.”

Brydon and Davis discussed a potential second series of Human Remains on a recent episode of Brydon’s podcast, Brydon &. There was talk of reviving the show for its 20th anniversary but, as Brydon remembered it, the BBC offered less money than the first time around.

As Brydon told me back in 2020, they have plenty more characters and material to unleash. Among his favourites are a pair of “staunch Republicans”. “We have improvised tons of stuff in the intervening 20 years and written things,” said Brydon. “We’ve got hours of tape.”

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