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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me @markffisher and @writeabouttheat I am an Edinburgh-based freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian, Scotland on Sunday and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success, published in February 2012 and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers published in July 2015. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide. See my website for more information and comprehensive Scottish theatre links.
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Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Interview: James Corden

Published in Scotland on Sunday
THERE was a familiar face on Doctor Who last week. It was a character called Craig Owens, who we'd previously met as the Doctor's flatmate in series five.

Back then, the time lord had become Craig's lodger in order to figure out why so many people were disappearing from the flat upstairs. In due course, the Doctor put a stop to the guilty aliens before zipping off in the Tardis.

Now, in series six, Craig has a baby boy called Alfie, and is on baby duty alone. The last person he expects to find on his doorstep is the Doctor. In a way, it's a blessing, because the time traveller's gifts include an ability to understand baby language. So the Doctor can tell Craig exactly what the wee man wants.

He can also tell him when the boy is being critical. Like when Alfie says his dad should have more belief in himself. "Great," says an exasperated Craig. "So now my baby's reviewing me."

All of this made it a particularly funny episode. It was also particularly pertinent. Because the actor playing Craig Owens was James Corden, a man who knows all about getting bad reviews.

"In the past five years, I couldn't have been heaped with more praise or more criticism in so short an amount of time," laughs the Gavin & Stacey star.

Indeed, he'd come in for such a battering from the press that he was all prepared to ignore the reviews for his latest show, at London's National Theatre.

He could tell the audiences were enjoying One Man, Two Guvnors in the preview performances.

The last time he'd heard such a roar of appreciation was when he starred in Alan Bennett's The History Boys, so he knew that even if a dozen critics didn't like it, there were 900 people a night who did. Reading the reviews would only rattle him.

That was the theory. In practice, it didn't work out like that. Updated to the 1960s by playwright Richard Bean, Carlo Goldoni's farce is about a sacked musician who says yes to two job offers, then spends the rest of the play stopping his employers from finding out about each other.

Yes, it's daft. Yes, it's improbable.

But with its manic pantomime energy and air of improvisational chaos, it is also hilarious. And the reviews were not just good, they were ecstatic. The Guardian's five-star rave said it was "one of the funniest productions in the National's history".

On BBC Radio 4, Mark Lawson called it "the single funniest production I've ever seen". It simply wasn't possible for the 33-year-old to ignore them. "My plan was not to read the reviews, and then I woke up to a barrage of texts saying they were unbelievable.

I said, 'Unbelievable in what way?' So I thought I'd treat myself to a couple, and I'm blown away by it."

As he sits in an office in the National Theatre, his blue eyes well up.

"I'm completely … I'm, I'm … I'm gobsmacked," he says, momentarily lost for words. "When you do the work that I've done in the last few years, you get used to people sitting down with perhaps a negative frame of mind before something has started. I don't think I've ever been represented badly because, at the time, I was probably representing myself quite badly.

But I worried, as anyone would, because I'm aware of what an honour it is to play a lead in this building. It's not lost on me. You just walk along the corridors and you see picture after picture of Jim Broadbent, Simon Russell Beale, Helen Mirren … it can be quite overwhelming. So to get those reviews – it's terrific."

The man sitting opposite me, dressed down in black T-shirt and jeans, is not the James Corden of repute. No hint of the commitment problem that led to him being sacked from the film of Martin Amis's Dead Babies in 2000.

No sign of the headstrong character who thought he could maintain a wild social life – falling out of clubs in the early hours, being photographed with soap stars and X Factor winners, going on a ten-day bender – without letting the quality slip.

Instead, the James Corden I meet is garrulous, honest and undefensive. He's as friendly as you'd expect Smithy from Gavin & Stacey to be, and with none of the coarse Essex booziness.

More accurately, he's the genial actor who made his mark on stage long before small-screen fame. When he suggests we should hook up again for a meal when the play tours to Edinburgh, it seems genuinely friendly, like something one of your mates would say. He doesn't even seem to mind the negative press.

"I've had nothing close to the criticism that would have been aimed at David Beckham or Gary Barlow or Coldplay," he says. "It's inevitable. You can't keep writing, 'That person we said was good, they're still good.'"

But by his own admission, he was not always so well-balanced. "I was being a bit of a tit a lot of the time," he says.

"I was a bit lost. I'd been in a relationship for eight-and-a-half years – a brilliant relationship, very solid – and that ended. I had a series of unsuccessful, quite toxic relationships and I was single for the first time in my adult life, and a little bit famous.

"That's not a healthy concoction. At that first influx of fame, you need those anchors, and mine had been cut away so I was just drowning. I felt rooted my whole life, except for that point, which was probably about a year-and-a-half.

"I enjoyed it. I had a great time. It wasn't all bad, it was a lot of fun, but I'm pleased that I didn't get lost in that world. It would have been easy because it's very intoxicating. You feel like you're at the centre of something, but what you realise is you're at the centre of something that doesn't exist."

It was his turn to fall from grace and, after the rush of popular and critical acclaim for Gavin & Stacey, he was knocked by the reception of 2009's Lesbian Vampire Killers ("There isn't a funny gag in the whole film," complained the Sunday Times) and, in the same year, the sketch show Horne & Corden ("About as funny as credit-default swaps," said the Daily Telegraph).

He'd taken on too much, and the cracks were starting to show. "You can't do anything without making mistakes," he says today, without malice.
 
 
"My character in the play says, 'Only the man who never does anything never makes any mistakes.' It's a very easy thing to sit and say, 'Oh, you shouldn't have done that.' Of course, if I had my time again, I would do things differently. What I've learned is nothing is gained from rushing. You have to take your time."

He gives his own career as an example. "If I think about how long series one of Gavin & Stacey took from when we typed our first word to when we shot it, it was probably 2? years. When we made that sketch show (Horne & Corden], it was 2? months.

"You can't fast-track those things. You've got to work out what it is, what's going to make it different and special. I don't think it's any surprise that a lot of people's best work is their first work, because it's the stuff they've worked on for a long time and they were never thinking, 'What will people say? How will this be judged?' So it's no shock that you would falter after having such a bona fide success as Gavin & Stacey."

He takes the criticism on the chin and has emerged with a clearer sense of perspective.

"As a person. I'm better for all those experiences." As a born actor, he craves attention, but he has developed enough self-awareness to admit it.

Consider the knowing title of his newly published autobiography, May I Have Your Attention, Please?, in which he recalls a litany of look-at-me tactics, from upstaging his sister's christening as a precocious four-year-old to playing the class clown in preference to studying, while single-mindedly pursuing the goal of becoming an actor.

Among the book's revelations is the story of his television debut, which he made while bunking off school and phoning up This Morning with Richard and Judy, claiming to be a bullied 14-year-old too scared to leave the house.

Not exactly an auspicious start to a TV career, but an early indication of the direction he was heading in. By the time he dropped out of school, still 17 and with only two GCSEs to his name, he had landed a part in the chorus of Martin Guerre. Roles followed in Shane Meadows' Twenty Four Seven, a Tango ad (withdrawn because of sensitivities about bullying fat children) and Mike Leigh's All or Nothing.

He writes about living the high life in New York in 2006 while starring in The History Boys, as well as carousing with Lily Allen and hanging out in fashionable London media haunts such as the Groucho Club.

The phenomenal success of Gavin & Stacey – written with his Fat Friends co-star Ruth Jones and earning best newcomers gongs at the 2007 British Comedy Awards – added fuel that his ego did not need.

Today, he can see the funny side. In a promotional video for the book, he portrays himself as a needy celebrity frustrated at not being recognised by the general public. Even dressing up as Smithy and cracking open a can of beer fails to get him noticed. Only when he sees a woman laughing out loud as she reads his book does he relax.

But his lost weekends are behind him, and seemingly too his insecurities. He has been steadied by his relationship with fiancĂ©e Julia Carey, a charity worker, and the birth of their son Max in March. That was a couple of weeks after Corden recorded last week's Dr Who episode – so, no, Alfie was not his real son – and immediately before rehearsals began for One Man, Two Guvnors.

He also attributes his new-found balance to the support of his parents. His background in middle-class High Wycombe, where he was a member of the Salvation Army, with a Bible salesman for a father, has proven a foundation firm enough to cope with the whims of a showbiz lifestyle.

"My mum and sister are both social workers," he says. "All I have to do is spend some time with them and it puts a few bad reviews into perspective. 'Oh, I got a bad review in the Observer,' is a high-class problem. I grew up in a very loving, supportive, caring environment. My world is very strange for them, but they're incredibly supportive as a family. They enjoy the nice bits of it – when I got to take my two sisters to the Brits, they were on cloud nine, talking to Adele and Take That. That makes me think this is great."

So in 2011, it feels right to find Corden not in some glitzy watering hole but at the National Theatre, being directed by no less a figure than artistic director Nicholas Hytner in a play that's destined for a lengthy run on the West End after its UK tour. "Lots of actors will tell you that they dreamt of playing Hamlet," he says. "This is all I ever dreamt of."

Despite his affinity to comedy (and in One Man, Two Guvnors he is very funny indeed), Corden regards himself as an actor and not a stand-up comic. He is at his most enthusiastic when talking about the "complete actors" he admires, all-round performers such as Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robbie Coltrane and Matthew Macfadyen, who is one of his co-stars in The Three Musketeers, a 3D adventure movie released later this month.

He hopes he can demonstrate similar versatility and that his career can be as varied. "I've never considered myself to be a comedian, ever," he says.

"Anyone can be funny for ten or 15 minutes at a charity benefit, but an hour is a whole other thing. There are lots of people who are brilliant at it, and I'm not one of them. Acting is all I've ever done, and everything else I do I just see as fun. The hosting of shows and things like that, it's a blast, it's a joy. If you're doing a charity gig at the Albert Hall, great, but I would never feel comfortable taking money for it. I've had offers where people have said, 'Why don't you come and do an arena tour?' I just think, 'Are you mad?' What have I got to say?"

Back in last week's episode of Doctor Who, Corden's Craig has found the courage to foil the Cybermen. Through the power of his fatherly love, he saves the world. This time, his baby boy is impressed. He gurgles and the Doctor translates. "That was another review," he says. "Ten out of ten."

May I Have Your Attention, Please? is published by Century; The Three Musketeers goes on general release on 12 October; One Man, Two Guvnors, Kings Theatre, Edinburgh, 25-29 October; James Corden is at Waterstone's Princes Street, Edinburgh, on 25 October, and at WH Smith, Argyle Street, Glasgow, on 28 October
© Mark Fisher 2011
 
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