Doc Brown on getting back to comedy and taking on Hollywood with Ricky Gervais
- Credit: PA Wire/Press Association Images
From rapping with Winehouse to filming with David Brent, Doc Brown’s building a career as a ‘renaissance man’, finds Bridget Galton.
Whenever Doc Brown is name-checked, journalists usually tag on the prefix ‘rapper-turned-comedian’.
But as the 38-year-old builds an increasingly juicy film career, he’s in danger of being recast as a ‘comedian-turned-actor’.
Filming commitments meant the Newington Green resident had to swerve Edinburgh last year and keep taking breaks from his live tour.
But with screenwriting, songwriting – and even a forthcoming picture book for 3-7 year olds – you might be tempted to call him ‘renaissance man’.
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“I’ve moved into the world of TV and been off the circuit because my tours get interrupted by TV or 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 a 20 minute set at Islington’s Union Chapel on Saturday with Tim Key headlining, but in November the comic actor – who had cameos in Rev, Miranda, The Inbetweeners and Derek plus a meatier role in Law and Order UK – starts shooting Ricky Gervais’ spoof rockumentary Life on the Road.
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Smith and Gervais collaborated on reggae song ‘Equality Street’ for Comic Relief 2013, but now head on tour with The Office character David Brent and his band, Foregone Conclusion.
“It’s a buddy movie and a road movie with me as an aspiring rap artist that Brent takes under his wing.
“It’s a homage to both of our pasts as failed musicians in real life, an ill-fated coming together of two wannabe musicians.”
Growing up on a Willesden council estate, Smith was keen on acting – involved every year in the school play – but thought acting “wasn’t an option for working class kids”.
“I thought ‘It’s not for us, it’s for those RADA types’. I told myself I couldn’t do it, which is a lie.”
But when he wrote 13-part teen TV comedy drama The 4 O’Clock Club, he was asked if it had a part for him and suddenly thought “why not?”
“In a very forgiving arena, I learned how to act on camera.”
He adds: “I am happy to drop in and out of the comedy – it’s horrendous driving four hours on your own after dying on your arse in Durham, picking apart the bones of your nightmare.”
Hopefully that won’t be the case at the Union Chapel where he pledges to put together “20 minutes of the best gags that, whether or not you know who I am, you will find funny”.
He’s also 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 stage. It’s a vulnerability issue to put your heart out there. It’s scary, but I like the brave guy, and the handful of comedians, Bill Bailey, Tim Key, that you can’t work it out. How did they come up with that?”
While his older sister, Zadie Smith, has made her name as a novelist, Brown initially broke through as a battle rapper, later working with Mark Ronson, Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen.
He’s mined this period for comic material and says that though he really hated the politics of the industry, he misses the feeling of “stepping out on that stage at Bestival with Amy Winehouse and 40,000 people”.
With two children, he’s hyper aware of the “diversity and impact of London in terms of its racial history”.
“When I started looking for schools in Hackney I was horrified by how racially and economically segregated they were. The first school I saw in Stoke Newington was all white and middle class and lovely, but I can’t send my kids to a school where there are no people of colour.
“The one they go to at the bottom of my road is not just black but all Nigerian Catholics with one Turkish kid – you can see him through the bars. I started to realise, ‘Oh my God, there is this secret, unspoken decision the parents have made.’ The divide is getting scary.”
So he’s “itching to get back to North West London”, scanning Zoopla daily for a house near his “support network in NW” near Zadie, his mum and friends.
“There’s something natural about wanting your kids to experience the happiness I did. I love that you can walk down Cricklewood Broadway and it could still be 1985.”
For Brown 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.”
Doc Brown plays the Union Chapel on Saturday. Visit unionchapel.org.uk