This summer, Griff Rhys Jones is hosting a brand new comedy panel show on Channel 4, A Short History of Everything Else. This six-part series uses brilliant, hilarious and downright weird archive clips to challenge contestants to remember key moments from our recent history, and provide new and irreverent perspectives on our past. Team captains are Marcus Brigstocke and Charlie Baker.
Here, Griff talks about the ageing process, his love of box sets, and the joys of filming indoors for a change.
You said in an interview a while back that you were always too busy because you couldn’t say no to things. How’s the work-life balance shaping up these days?
Not bad, actually. The trouble is, a long time ago, I started doing all sorts of different types of programme. I think if a finger had pointed at me and said “You will be brilliant at pulling faces and doing silent, exaggerated comedy, and everyone will admire you for that,” [like former comic partner Rowan Atkinson] I would have stuck doing that. But it didn’t quite work out like that. So I put myself about a bit. I do lots of different things, and that’s rather exciting. It’s given me a new lease of life. I’m happy to do it. But I don’t say ‘no’ very easily, it’s true. In fact, I rather like having work, because it gives me the opportunity to say no to things.
What was the attraction of doing A Short History of Everything Else?
I’ve always quite fancied doing what I’d call a desk job. I’ve spent quite a lot of time on the road. And they sent me a pilot they’d made, and it just worked. There are a lot of these comedy panel games, and many of them, I have to say, are based on false premises. Often they’re too complicated – people get themselves really worked up creating a complicated structure, and the audience doesn’t have the faintest idea what’s going on, and nor does anybody playing it. This is a very simple idea – to revisit fads, moments in our past, look at them again, and answer questions and see what we can remember, about everything from the whole ‘video nasties’ scare to Boris Yeltsin and his extraordinary drunken career. We show clips, and you watch them and go ‘Wow, I’d forgotten all about that!’ And when it all comes flooding back, it really gets people talking. It’s a sort of nostalgia piece. I suppose that’s why they chose an ancient figure, old enough to have forgotten everything, to introduce it.
The programme only deals with very recent history, doesn’t it?
Yes, because we use archive footage. I don’t think we go much further back that the 70s. I’m afraid I suffer from the affliction of being nearly 60, which means I find myself going ‘The 90s? That’s not history!’ They did a recent TV series about the 70s, and I watched it going’Wow! All of these things were going on, with the unions and everything, I don’t remember any of that. I remember it being rather dull and wet and grey for a lot of the 70s.
What recent period of history was your favourite?
My favourite era of recent history was about 1965 to 1970, because I was growing up then. I spent my time in an awestruck state, looking at people like Jimi Hendrix, wandering around thinking there was some sort of nirvana in central London that I was denied access to, because I lived in Brentwood. So the train out of Brentwood and into town was the sort of Yellow Brick Road. We’d get into this world where people wore funny sunglasses and had frizzed out hair. That was our dream, which we fulfilled by going to the Roundhouse and things like that. After that I became an adult, and realised that you get on with life, get married, have kids, grow up, try to follow a career, do things, and the tide of history is just washing past you. Which is one of the reasons why this series is fantastic, you can watch it and go ‘Oh yes! Was that really 20 years ago?’ I went to John Mortimer’s memorial service, and they read a piece by him and he said “as you get older, the most terrifying thing is how quickly it all goes – how it seems to all speed up.” And I do find that the last ten years have gone alarmingly quickly. I’m not ready for what it is I’m supposed to be ready for!
Are you quite pleased to be presenting a programme in a sharp suit rather than your anorak?
The sharp suits were very, very nice. Of course, I’d already been doing It’ll Be Alright on the Night, which had obviously been a huge success, because I got a nice suit out of that. I would also like to say that the red anorak that I wear in other shows is not just an anorak! It’s actually a jacket that was designed for the Italian racing drivers in the Mille Miglia in the 1950s, and it’s an object of great veneration. People write in to the manufacturers saying ‘Please, please make one for me – because Griff looks so good wearing his.’ It was made in limited edition, and I have two of them. But I must say, to be able to sit and wear a suit, and totter the journey from the dressing room to the studio is pretty good. There was a time when Mel and I were finishing off filming Smith and Jones together about 15 years ago, when being in a studio was my life. And as we finished, I thought ‘This is crazy. I’m really good at this. Changing out of a costume really quickly and getting on to the next set. I can really do that! Not many people can.’ And it’s quite nice being back in that environment. The only difference is that now I have to wear glasses to read the autocue. I did notice during filming that I look a bit like the old man from the film Up. I was really disappointed about that. That’s not my self-image at all.
Is there anything you enjoy about getting older?
Everything, absolutely everything. All that slightly furious business of peer pressure goes away. It’s fantastic. I’d really recommend it. I’m really glad that I’m still getting work. They’re probably desperate to fire me. My wife would like me to do less work – but in the last two weeks I’ve done less work, and now she wants me to work again. My wife and I were 26 when we got married. We had kids at the tremendously early age of 30. Most of my friends seem to have decided to wait until they were about 50. We go round and they’ve got toddlers everywhere, and they’ll go “Oh, oh, oh, Griff,” and hand me a child, and I’ll say “No, it’s okay, I’ve done that! I remember when you used to come round to my house and play loud music and stay up drinking til 3am while we were trying to get the kids into bed, and I don’t care about your kids!” I do a little bit of babysitting from time to time, and I have godchildren, but my kids have now fled the nest, and believe me, there’s no better time in life.”
You’re not tempted to go round to their houses and play loud music until 3am?
Luckily, that’s the other thing that happens. You suddenly think ‘Why did I ever go to stadium rock? Why did I do that? What was that about? Is there a less entertaining experience than sitting on one of those ridiculous bucket seats, peering at a sort of mini-picture of the Rolling Stones four miles away? Some of my friends still go to Glastonbury! I can’t think of anything worse. At the moment I’ve been trying to get into 40s jazz, because I’ve realised that some people are obsessed with 40s jazz, so there must be something in it. So I’m listening to a lot of that.
Back to A Short History of Everything Else – what sort of a host are you? Are you strict?
Yes, I’m quite schoolmasterly. No mucking around, please. It’s quite difficult getting them to shut up. We ran a programme which was part chatty and part quizzy – Marcus would go off on these long tangents, and Will Self, who’s a guest, was unbelievable. I’m no slouch in terms of yakking on in a non-stoppable way, but I found stopping people the most complicated thing. But I did have to be a bit schoolmasterly at times.
What’s it like being back in front of a studio audience?
Quite interesting, for me. It was quite a big transition. I was talking to Mel about this. We used to parody presenters, and then, when I started doing restoration, I had to talk to a camera. As an actor, I’d only ever looked into the camera in character, and suddenly I had to be me on camera. Now, of course, love it – I can’t go anywhere without a camera. And I now talk continually to the camera, which causes great problems for the editors, who wish I would shut up from time to time, and they could film me walking or looking at stuff. So that was quite a transition for me. And now I have to undergo another transition, being in front of a studio audience, and speaking more slowly, and getting the audience to join in.
Who are the guests you have on the show, and who would be your ideal guest?
The guests we had were all ideal guests! Robin Ince was brilliant, we had Kirstie Wark, and she was fantastic, absolutely marvellous. Not only did she have more knowledge about everything, but she was great on what I call the argy-bargy as well. Bob Mortimer was fantastic – very, very funny. And of course each guest brings a slightly different flavour. Bob was surreal, so he’d take the whole thing and push it off in a different direction. And, of course, as team captains, Charlie and Marcus were absolutely fantastic. Marcus is remarkable – his capacity to take the audience with him was really asomething – and he has such strong opinions. And Charlie was just very, very, very funny. But, to be honest, everyone was really good – it’s going to be very difficult to edit. I know it’s quite commonplace for these quiz shows to do long recordings, but we were doing three-and-a-half hour recordings, and they were pretty high energy all the way through. We’d walk off exhausted. I haven’t seen any of it, so I shall wait to see which of my gems has been cut, and then complain furiously.
Which is more difficult, being a contestant on a panel show, or being a host?
Well, they’re rather different. This has been a learning curve for me. What you’re involved with is what they call the housekeeping. If you’re a guest, there’s a lot of waiting around, and maybe a bit of preparation. But all the top guests and the top team captains don’t actually prepare anything – if you go on Have I Got News for You, Paul and Ian always tell you not to prepare stuff. They never do. They allow spontaneity to happen. One of the keys, whether you’re hosting or on the panel, is to be relaxed enough to let it happen – which is quite a challenge for me!
Does it feel like a comedy gig? O you get heckled by the audience?
We did a lot of appeals to the studio audience. Actually, I remember Will Self heckling the studio audience, which was a bit frightening. He rounded on them and shouted “You voted for them!” I wondered whether they’d stay for the rest of the programme!
What makes you watch on TV at the moment?
I spend most of my time watching films and HBO. I’ll sit down and think ‘Oh good, they’ve made something called The Wire which goes on and on and on. And Mad Men as well. I’ll get annoyed because for some reason it takes a long time for Mad Men to come out on DVD now, which is the only way I can watch shows now. I can’t bear watching things on Sky Atlantic – it’s the principle that bothers me. You’ve paid a subscription and they’re putting in advertisements. If that’s the future of television, we’re all doomed. The future of television is being able to watch a long series one episode after another and have to say ‘Look, we cannot sit here in the middle of the afternoon and watch a fourth episode. We’ve really got to get out.’
A Short History of Everything Else is on Channel 4 on Wednesdays at 10pm from 13th June.