Doc Brown on getting back to comedy and taking on Hollywood with Ricky Gervais
From rapping with Winehouse to filming with David Brent, Doc Brown’s building a career as a ‘renaissance man’, finds Bridget Galton.
When namechecking Doc Brown, journalists usually tag on the prefix ‘rapper-turned comedian’.
But as the 38-year-old builds a juicy film career, he’s in danger of being recast as a ‘comedian-turned actor’.
Filming commitments kept him away from Edinburgh last year and forced him to take breaks from his live tour.
But with screenwriting, songwriting – and a forthcoming picture book for 3-7-year-olds under his belt – the wordsmith could soon be dubbed ‘renaissance man’.
“I’ve been off the circuit because my tours get interrupted by TV and film work, but I promised the fans I would be back,” says Brown, whose real name is Ben Smith.
In the immediate future there’s his show The Weird Way Round at North Finchley’s Arts Depot on April 8.
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But in November he starts shooting Ricky Gervais’ spoof rockumentary Life on the Road.
The duo collaborated on Reggae song ‘Equality Street’ for Comic Relief and now head on tour with The Office character David Brent’s band Foregone Conclusion.
“It’s a buddy movie, a road movie with me as an aspiring rap artist that Brent takes under his wing.
“It’s a homage to both of our real life pasts as failed musicians, an ill-fated coming together of two wannabe musicians.”
Growing up on a council estate, Smith had always loved acting in school plays but thought it “wasn’t an option for working class kids.”
“I thought ‘it’s for those RADA types, I told myself I couldn’t do it.”
But after writing teen TV comedy drama The 4 O’Clock club when asked if it had a part for him, he suddenly thought “why not?” “In a very forgiving arena, I learned how to act on camera.”
Having since had cameos in Rev, Miranda, The Inbetweeners plus a meatier role in Law and Order UK, he says: “I am happy to drop in and out of comedy – it’s horrendous driving four hours alone after dying on your arse in Durham, picking apart your nightmare.”
Hopefully that won’t be the case at the Arts Depot for a show the father of two says is “very personal and involved.”
The title references growing up black and white to a Jamaican dad and British mum “how my dad was actually the white one and my mum the black one”.
And the fact that he’s a nerd in the capital but a gangsta in the Cotswolds - only the second ethnic actor in Midsomer Murders.
It also refers to his “skew-whiff take on where we are right now in the UK, the things I talk about with my mates; race, religion, sexism. What we tell our kids about the future when we live in such crazy times.”
He’s keen to add: “It’s still very very stupid.Watching clever people do idiotic things makes me laugh.”
But he’s also pretty big on emotional truth: “Most comedians are more interesting in the car home from the gig than on stage, but they can’t translate that truth to the performance. It’s a vulnerability issue to put your heart out there. It’s scary, but I like the brave guy.”
As the younger brother of novelist Zadie Smith raised in multicultural Willesden he was “incredibly happy”, although having a successful sister had its moments.
While at Hampstead School he recalls being summoned to the head’s office for smoking around the back of the drama studio.
“I was looking at my feet, listening to ‘you have let the school down’. I looked over his shoulder and there was a signed photograph of my sister, a grade A student, with Betty Boothroyd and I remember thinking ‘oh fuck off’.”
But Zadie’s book deal straight after finishing university had a galvanising effect.
“Walk into my mum’s house in Willesden there’s a shelf of White Teeth in the 57 languages it was translated into. You realise an idea can touch the world, you can connect with strangers, have a positive impact.
“It had a massively profound the effect on me, the belief system to go into everything thinking ‘this is going to be amazing I’m going to be great’. I take everything I do very seriously.”
He refutes any suggestion of jealousy. “But only because I didn’t want to be an author. If I had I would have found it incredibly hard because she’s something special.
“I often ask her ‘it takes you four years to write a novel, how the hell can you still believe in that idea, when I write a joke it lasts two minutes.’”
Perhaps that’s why Brown veered away from the literary world, becoming a rapper, but ultimately hating the music industry and moving into comedy.
But now he’s “itching to get back to North West London” scanning Zoopla daily for a house near Zadie adn his mum. “I only moved to Hackney because Brent was too expensive. Now with the price changes we have this new community, new money, I am not really into it any more.
“There’s something natural about wanting your kids to experience the happiness you did. I love that you can walk down Cricklewood Broadway and it could still be 1985.”
For Smith his journey from there to here is “everything”
“I dip back into the memories of that journey to inspire new ideas. I owe everything to the energy I created on that journey.”