Griff Rhys Jones still gets a kick out of life on the road - Welsh comedian speaks ahead of Birmingham show
It was meant to be a short jaunt around the UK.
Comedian Griff Rhys Jones started his tour at the beginning of the year and imagined it would soon run its course. It was intended to give him the opportunity to talk about life in the public eye, travelling the world and creating a slew of successful TV shows.
By summer, he intended to be back home; enjoying G and Ts in the garden or relaxing with a decent book.
And yet the comedian is still on the road and will be for another month or so.
His tour has been so successful that he’s had to add additional dates to cope with demand – including a headline show at Birmingham MAC on July 5.
“It’s been a treat,” he says.
“It’s been a really enjoyable show to do. That’s why we’ve added more dates. It always develops at the start of a run and then it suddenly takes off.
“The tour always hinges on the relationship with the audience. It’s interesting that you learn things from every performance for a long while – what’s funny, what works, what doesn’t work and so on – and then it falls into place. Every auditorium has a different feel. The atmosphere is different in different places.”
The Welsh comedian, actor and TV presenter became a household name when he starred in a number of series with his comedy partner, the late Mel Smith.
They came to attention in Not the Nine O’Clock News and Alas Smith and Jones.
Jones went on to develop a career as a TV presenter and writer before presenting It’ll Be Alright on the Night from 2008 to 2016. He also founded the production company Talkback with Mel Smith, producing some of the most popular British comedy series of the past two decades, including Smack the Pony, Da Ali G Show, I’m Alan Partridge and Big Train.
They eventually sold it for £62 million before Jones created another production company as a vehicle for his own shows.
The lure of the stage, however, has never left him and in recent times he’s been back on the road.
“The real thrill for me is that I’ve done lots of TV, documentary stuff particularly," he adds.
"So being back on the road is good and life-affirming. To be meeting people and talking directly to them is great fun.
“Mostly, it’s been sold out. We went through the whole snow thing earlier in the year with colossal problems for audiences but even then people came out to join us.
“It’s a great time of life for me to be on the road. I talk to Lee Mack and other comedians and they’re not so sure they want to tour because they have small families.
“But I’m at the age where my family quite likes to see me go. I get an extra kick out of it. I stay a lot at the Premier Inns. I sort of decided, not under the influence of anything, that they are very straight forward.
"They have extraordinary car parks and they are identical with tiny minor changes. If they were absolutely identical they would be really terrifying. But there is always a tiny variation: the way the shower curtain works, the place where they fit the lightswitch. Those things add spice to this tour.”
Rock ’n’ roll. It may not be hard-living in the style of Sid Vicious or Guns N' Roses, but at the age of 64, Jones is all for the quiet-ish life. He travels to most shows by train and often finds himself creating new material while he’s on the 09.06 from Birmingham New Street.
“After years and years of writing stuff, you think you know what will work and it’s very gratifying when it does. I went back to Cardiff, where I was born, and there was a nice big audience and it was like going home and I was able to tell stories about my Welsh aunties.
"I did so much stuff I’d written on the train that I never got to the actual show itself. I was there just doing this stuff that I’d come up with that day and it was terrific, even though I can’t use it again.
“I love going on the train. I sit there writing stuff thinking it would be fun. Sometimes that’s very gratifying. It’s all about refining the stories. So much is about telling stories.”
In addition to his work as a TV comedian and producer of shows, Jones also developed an enormously successful career as a TV presenter.
He co-hosted several Comic Relief programmes, presented Bookworm for six years, presented the BBC’s Restoration and starred in Three Men in a Boat, with Dara O Briain and Rory McGrath.
His Greatest Cities of the World show took him from London to New York and Paris, from Rome to Sydney and Hong Kong. There have been weightier shows about John Betjeman, Rydyard Kipling and Thomas Hardy and his travelogues included the brilliant Slow Train Through Africa, which looked at life on and off trains from Morocco to South Africa, by way of Algeria, Tunisia, Kenya and Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Namibia.
“I look back at some of that work, he says, but my audience isn’t particularly young. I have is a more mature audience and that’s quite funny because they’re a little bit more discriminatory.
"I’m not there to tell them stories about flat shares, stolen milk from the fridge and what boyfriend/girlfriend has done – there are plenty of comedians who do that sort of stuff. I am there to talk about being 60. My audience love it. I put the house lights up and see there’s no one there under 60.
“I have a middle class profile because of some of the things I’ve done in the past few years for BBC 2 and 4. But when I get to the bigger cities, like Birmingham, the audience is more mixed and that puts me on my mettle. I enjoy it.
“The tour really started because I was increasingly asked to tell stories. I decided it would be great to just talk and tell stories, making sure I didn’t get too hassled over it.
“I’ve loved the fact it’s been quite relaxed. It’s nice to have creative autonomy because I don’t want to get into arguments with people who work in television and want to tell me what I’m best at or what I should do more of.
“In a funny sort of way, I’ve done TV shows with eight superior officers – editors – and they can’t agree among themselves because all they’re really doing is trying to advance their career by making a decision and creating the illusion that they are important.”
Jones is on the road until July and will enjoy being back home for a while after that. “I switch off easily when I get back home. But I had a little bit of a break midway through the tour and spent the month working in the garden feeling guilty that I’m not doing more shows.”
Tickets for Griff Rhys Jones’ show, Where Was I? are available from www.macbirmingham.co.uk