Griff Rhys Jones: "I've had more failures than successes"
When I was 16 my life was dominated by A-levels and thoughts of university. Me and my friends all lived around the M25 and went to high-octane schools, which were like university factories. We all felt that life on the fringes of London was pretty dull. We dreamt of getting away. I was quite a noisy bloke – I’d get fired up on beer and try to entertain my mates. Even when I went to Cambridge and I joined Footlights, I was more of a fooler-abouter than a writer.
I went to a boys’ school so we thought about girls a lot. We had to do a lot of chat and try to be funny to seduce them. But in fact I think me and my friends were so noisy, so chatty with each other, girls got bored quite quickly and wandered off. They didn’t seem to find us as funny as we did. We had school discos, which were really important ’cause that’s when we got to meet girls. They put all the blokes on one side of the hall and all the girls on the other and told us to choose a partner. Sexually, it was the most exciting time of my life. Nothing could ever match that excitement.
If I was to give my younger self advice it would be to focus on what I want to do. Most people with successful careers have a game plan. I’ve tried to do almost everything it’s possible to do, which was probably a mistake. Why do comedians try to do everything – comedy, acting, writing novels, jousting, completing 15 marathons, travelling the world pointing at monuments? Why do we feel we have to be multi-tasking renaissance men? I’ve just finished singing and dancing, I’ve just been on Question Time – what on earth am I doing that for? I think it’s something to do with the kind of character comedians have. They want people to like them. Not just the work, but ‘them’.
I should have been a theatre director. The trouble was, I couldn’t settle down and learn to do it properly. I got distracted and ended up being a BBC producer because they offered me a job. I got the chance to act and I took that, too. I couldn’t concentrate. I’ve jumped around and had more failures than successes. I’ve won two Oliviers, but I don’t have a constant stream of offers. I’d have liked to have acted in more films. But then again, would I have had such an exciting life? I’ve had a lot of fun.
Not the Nine O’Clock News was my big breakthrough. It was a huge success, a phenomenon. It changed my life. We were young – only 26. And we got rich. It was like being in a pop group. In 1979 there were no other young people’s shows. In the next decade comedy changed and became something aimed almost entirely at young people.
My 16-year-old self would be incredulous at how much money I’ve made. It was a terrific surprise when we sold Talkback [the independent production company Jones set up with Mel Smith in 1981, responsible for I’m Alan Partridge and Da Ali G Show] and I became so rich I didn’t have to work again. That should have made me more picky about the work I did. But I’m ridiculous, I can’t say no to anything. I’d tell my younger self to learn the art of discrimination and leave more time just to chill out. Compare me to Pamela Stephenson – she went off to be a doctor, wrote one book – in that period I’ve made about a million shows.
Looking back, the thing which stands out most in my life is the birth of my first son, George. That was fantastic. Family, the love of a good woman, that’s the real stuff. As far as the career’s concerned… what does that matter?
In 1969, the year Griff Rhys Jones turned 16... John Lennon and Yoko Ono stage their Montreal bed-in... Concorde makes its maiden flight... World’s first ATM is installed, in New York... First Scooby-Doo cartoon airs... Oliver! wins Best Picture Oscar...
A Short History of Everything Else is on Wednesdays, 10pm, Channel 4