Free Time

Doc Brown: ‘If 500 strangers laugh at something I’ve said, it means they understand me’

He’s a rapper, a comedian, an actor, a screenwriter and a voiceover artist – and still finds time to run his own production company. Felicity Evans talks to the multi-talented Doc Brown (AKA Ben Bailey-Smith) who brings his unique brand of rap-standup to the Key Theatre on 23 April

There are so many facets to your career – how on earth do you manage to fit it all in?
I don’t really know. I’m a parent as well, and a lot of people say they don’t want kids, they want to get lots of stuff done: they want to achieve this, they want to achieve that, but actually I procrastinated a lot more before I had kids. Before I had kids I was in a day job, and then I was unemployed, and by the time I stepped on stage to do stand-up I had a child and another one on the way – and I was completely broke! Having children focuses the mind. You can achieve loads in a whole day if you really want to, but most people would rather just watch a box set. People always talk about ‘watching a box set’! How many hours is that? It’s about 16 hours to watch one season of Mad Men, it’s lots of time! I am a bit of a workaholic, and I’m sure that helps. I hate just sitting around doing nothing, it gets me down, and I get bored very easily. I flit around and think: ‘Right, I’ve done that to a pretty high standard, what next?’ It’s why I do so many different things.

At the moment you’re doing voice work for the BBC, specifically CBeebies, which puts you in pretty exalted company: Roger Allam, Mark Rylance, Adrian Scarborough to name just a few. How are you enjoying it, and how does it fit with the rest of your work, creatively?
It’s possibly my favourite job, voicing cartoons – it’s such fun and it’s so freeing. With stand-up, with television and film acting, there’s so much self-discipline you’ve got to apply in order to keep people entertained, there’s so much pressure. With children’s television there’s less critical pressure, I would say, and also when you’re alone in front of the microphone with these wacky pictures playing in front of you, you’ve really got to push it in terms of craziness! There’s the freedom to mess around to find ways to achieve a result, and because you’re on your own you don’t feel as self-conscious. One of my life’s ambitions is to do a voice for a Pixar animation, and I’m getting closer all the time. I just landed a job with Disney to voice a hero in a new TV cartoon, and of course under my belt already I’ve got Big Babies and Strange Hill High for CBBC, and NumTums for the little ones on CBeebies.

Let’s talk about rap, which is where you started – specifically, taking part in rap battles. If anyone thought the concept of stand-up was nerve-wracking, rap battles take that to the limit and beyond, don’t they?
Yeah, it’s the only performance art that outdoes stand-up for tension. Stand-up is very similar, the skillset is similar, the nerves you feel: all very similar. But with stand-up, your opponent is kind of the audience, in a way, and you can engage with them or not. If you don’t want to engage with them, you can say to the lighting guys: ‘Right, pump the lights up that are on me, I don’t want to have eye contact with anyone,’ and this can make you feel as though you’re in your own world. I know plenty of comics who do this. With rap battling, you’re nose to nose with another person who’s planning to destroy you! You have to come out with the same high-quality content that you do with stand-up, but you’re being constantly called on it. With stand-up you generally have silence and this helps you remember how jokes go, enables you to concentrate on your performance, but in a battle, you have to do all these things with a crowd going: ‘arghhhhhh!!!’ at you, and a guy literally in your face trying to put you off. For me, it’s the ultimate performance art: nothing can touch it.

So, from rap battles, to writing books, which is very much a slow, methodical endeavour of draft, redraft, edit and so forth. How do these two disciplines feed into each other?
I think the key thing rap battling taught me was not to be precious, because you could get shot down anyway. And if you’re going to get shot down anyway, then why spend a year trying to come up with something that your audience is going to respond to by going: ‘Nah, that’s crap.’ It made me realise that no matter how close to your work you feel, it’s art, and a lot of art is disposable with the advent of the internet. I think once you’ve been working for a while doing different things that people have appreciated, you can be a bit more confident – I do have a lot of faith in myself now. I’m not saying everything I write I put out there, some of it will be rubbish, but I base everything on my last positive experience: this or that bit worked, so I’ll do something with a similar flavour. For writers that’s a hard thing to do until you’ve had some success; you just need one thing that everybody loved to give you the confidence to start doing more stuff and putting it out there.

You’ve developed a very warm and productive relationship with Ricky Gervais. Are you working with him on anything at the moment?
Yeah, we’re meeting on Thursday afternoon, actually! We’ll be talking about a film we’re doing, the one which is being described as The Office movie but it’s not, really, it’s following David Brent ten years on. But we’re also writing songs and talking nonsense, planning gigs, all sorts. It’s one of those things where I think he sees some of himself in me, and I definitely see a little bit of myself in him, in that people think he’s a megalomaniac when he’s just very creative and very confident in his abilities – I do recognise that in myself. With me, it’s not like I’m cynically stepping in to the children’s book market or writing music for films, or straight acting roles – I just need to create, I need to perform, that’s my thing, and if I can’t do it via a particular artform, I’ll move into another that I feel I can do well. It’s something people often misunderstand: they’ll say, ‘Oh, now this rapper’s an actor, he’s taking parts away from real actors,’ but in the UK there are more rappers than people know who have become brilliant actors. Anthony Welsh, who was in Starred Up, was a great rapper called Precise; Riz Ahmed who was in Four Lions, rapped under Riz MC; Plan B of course… there’s loads of us! And it’s not a coincidence, it’s a transferable skill, it’s not like we’ve gone, ‘Right, I’m going to be a ballet dancer now, and screw all the people who’ve been studying at the Bolshoi for years!’ The same with children’s books: you’re talking about a rhyming story – who better to go to? As artists we need to keep creating, keep creating or die; and as artists, no-one wants us to keep doing the same thing over and over again anyway. That just becomes irritating. I’m all for shifting around, chameleon-like; I don’t even think it’s that remarkable, considering the different artforms I’ve worked in are not actually that different.

How does touring and stand-up fit into all of this?
For me, I never want to completely leave stand-up alone, because it’s such an incredible creative exercise, the way it intellectually works out the brain, like a gym workout. It really keeps you sharp. And if 500 strangers laugh at something I’ve said, it means they understand me, not just that they’ve found something I’ve said funny, and that means the idea has legs. It could be one line or a ten-minute story – either way it’s the birth of something that could be universal from a creative point of view, and that’s the exciting thing about stand-up: that one line could become a movie; one five-minute skit could become a novel. So, stand-up is the perfect place to test stuff out. Sometimes, you watch comedy films, and you know for a fact there are no stand-ups involved, in the writing or in anything, because you watch it through and you don’t laugh once – at anything – and you know that they had no idea whether it was funny or not. Look at Mortdecai, with Johnny Depp: about as funny as the Berlin Wall, because no real comics were involved – the only real comic involved was Paul Whitehouse and there’s something of the night about that, because Johnny Depp is ripping off his character from The Fast Show! I think someone called up Paul Whitehouse and went: ‘Look, um, Johnny wants to do your character – what can we offer you? How about eighty grand and a cameo?’

It sounds to me that maybe you have a movie brewing…?
For me, that’s the end-game: movies and novels. Or the two together, because you know that 95% of the movies you see now are based on novels anyway – novelists are the new screenwriters. That’s the relationship that’s win-win, because the bottom has fallen out of publishing – you can sell if it’s a cookery book or you’re a celebrity or some s*** like that, but novels don’t sell anymore, so the only way to get a novel published these days is to have one eye on: ‘What if this were a movie’. And that’s what I would call ‘big entertainment’, it’s the stuff that stays with you forever. I like the stand-up stuff that I’ve done, but I doubt that anyone’s going to be sharing my stuff in 30 year’s time. However, I don’t feel I’m old enough yet to write a film or a novel. I know you do get young people doing it, but for me, I think I have more life left to live before I find the ideas I’ll be happy enough to sit with for the time it takes to make a movie or write a book. So far, everything I’ve done is stuff I wrote in minutes, or at the most, days. I ask my sister [novelist Zadie Smith] all time: ‘How the hell can you still think, 15 or 16 months down the line, that this is still a good idea?’ I hate my stuff within a year, I look back and think: ‘I can’t believe I was doing that back then!’ But for novelists, it’s like, there’s an idea, and in four year’s time you’ve still got to be into it!

Idris Elba started a debate a few months ago concerning the amount of work, or rather the lack of work, available for non-white actors in the UK, saying he’d been offered more roles in the US. What’s your opinion on the number of creative opportunities for actors of colour at the moment?
I’m 100% with Idris, and Lenny Henry, on this. However [laughs], all three of us have had almost constant work since we went into the business, so it’s tempered slightly! But the fact of the matter is that people don’t think of characters as being ‘black’, in a mainstream project. These characters are written down, there are no visual descriptions of them in the script, and yet they’d never think to cast a black actor, or an Indian actor.

The character would have to be black for ‘a reason’…
Yeah, exactly, they’d have to be black for a reason. And I totally disagree with that. If you’ve written a script and it doesn’t say in the character description: ‘White, male, 25,’ or whatever, then that’s open season. Black people, Indian people, Chinese people, can do anything. It’s through your lens we become ‘other’, this ‘other person’ living an alternative life in an alternative universe! We live in the mainstream world as well! In real life, you don’t walk around asking yourself: ‘Why is this person black? Why is this person Chinese? I don’t get what that means!’ No-one cares! You go into a new job, your boss is Chinese, you just get on with it! But when scripts are being written, to appeal to the masses, the hero has to be white. Look, I have to say, I don’t disagree with that: we live in the UK, people of colour are a minority, if you’re making a big, mainstream show, maybe the hero should be white. The audience will be mass-majority white, they’ll relate to him. The problem with that is that the alternative has been tried and it didn’t affect viewing figures at all. In Luther, the hero is black, and it’s not about race, the concept is the same as Taggart, it’s a cop procedural. I think that was great milestone, what Idris did with Luther. But I don’t have a lot of confidence that it will continue until the next generation of film-makers and casting directors comes through – hopefully in 20 year’s time it won’t be an issue.

In the US, the films, the TV, there are way more black characters who just ‘are’, rather than: this is a ‘black’ movie. When I was growing up I used to love police procedurals, always used to watch American stuff like NYPD Blue and Homicide: Life on the Street, and they always had black police; in fact there was a good, even mix between black and white police, and black and white criminals. It wasn’t a racial deal, it was just: ‘this is what a police department looks like’. How many more times will we have to watch films set in London where there are no people of colour; and how many times will we have to watch a Top Boy kind of film, where it’s a case of: this is what black people do, Middle England, they live on council estates, they’re trying to get away from crime, they do kitchen sink stuff, they say ‘bruv’ a lot, and they love rap? It’s one of the reasons I want to become a writer: these things need to be changed from within.

One final question: have you seen the Horrible Histories Celt rap battle?
Yeah, I have! I do know a few of the people involved in Horrible Histories, and it’s such a brilliant show, I love it!

Doc Brown appears at the Key Theatre on Thursday 23 April at 8pm
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