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‘I’ve reached the sunny uplands’

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Much-loved Welsh comedian Griff Rhys Jones will be performing his new show, Where Was I?, at the Opera House this evening. He discusses how he rediscovered his love of performing live, the subjects in his show and the most frightening thing he's ever done.

Griff Rhys Jones: ‘It’s a little bit of a shock, I think, for friends who come to the theatre to see me standing on stage just talking about anything that comes into my head. But it’s really fun to do, and audiences seem to enjoy it a lot’ Picture: DEAN CHALKLEY
  • What was it that revived your love of live performing?

The truth is that over the last 15 years or so, I discovered that, rather alarmingly, the schedule of doing a huge quantity of programmes and running my own production company made life quite complicated. But I was constantly producing books based on television stuff, and I often found myself standing at book shows, talking here and there. So one night I was standing on stage at the Monmouth Theatre promoting my last book, Insufficiently Welsh, and afterwards one of the guys who ran the festival said to me, ‘You know, you’ve got a show here.’ I thought, ‘Yes, I guess I have. Well, I should do this.’ So I just put together some stories about my travels and went out on stage, and here I am.

  • What have you enjoyed about performing live again?

What I have loved about it is that it’s very unmitigated. When you’ve worked in television for so long, you get slightly fed up with producers saying, ‘You have to talk about this.’ In TV, agendas are being decided and commissioners are interfering in every single thing that happens. By contrast, live performing is great – it’s raw. I can get up, and if I’m in the middle of it and want to start talking about something completely different, I can. I absolutely love that. It’s a little bit of a shock, I think, for friends who come to the theatre to see me standing on stage just talking about anything that comes into my head. But it’s really fun to do, and audiences seem to enjoy it a lot. So I’m really happy with the process.

  • What would you say is the theme of Where Was I?

It’s that there’s quite a distinction between holidays and travelling. I am a traveller, you are a tourist and they fall off balconies in Greece. There is a slight agenda to try and sort out for other people what travel really constitutes – what a journey really means. My family used to undertake massive adventures because my father was so neurotic and so the things that he did required a great deal of planning and fuss. So we didn’t do holidays. As far as my mother was concerned, she never had a holiday. There was a tendency for us to dramatise our adventures, and I think that stayed with me.

  • What will you be discussing in the second half of Where Was I?

I talk about the fact that the torture has now settled down and that I’ve reached the sunny uplands. In between watching Cash in the Attic, like all people over the age of 60, I spend a lot of time trying to work out what the supermarket self-checkout is checking out and how it works. Sometimes with success. But I can’t do those things where you have to self-stick those labels. They’re needlessly complicated.

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  • What other subjects will you address?

The fact that when you arrive these days at an airport, your only thought is, ‘Why aren’t I running the airport? Just give me ten minutes and I can make the thing slightly more efficient.’ You do all your self-check-in online and then at the airport you go straight to the counter to get it done all over again. Who is that benefiting? There’s one thing that unites us these days as a human race, and that’s the contempt for air travel and the horrors that we experience while flying. Everybody flies now. You go to Delhi airport and you’re astounded by the number of people from every corner of the world who are trusting themselves to these 400-year-old jumbos. So there’s a lot of ranting in the second half about the inadequacies of travel, and a little bit of philosophical cogitation on why we travel – what we’re trying to achieve.

  • What is the scariest thing you’ve done on your travels?

Feeding the sacred crocodile in Bali was certainly a very silly idea! We thought it would be a good idea to try and do that for a programme I did about spirituality. They gave me a bag full of this dismembered sheep and sent me down to the side of the lake to see if I could feed the sacred crocodile, who had not yet appeared.

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  • Did he appear?

In the end. Not because I was throwing a sheep’s head into the lake, but only because an airplane came in. The sacred lake was right next to the airport. The crocodile did eventually arrive, but only when a plane landed. When a plane had previously flown in, it had missed the runway and gone straight into the lake, and the crocodile managed to chew up one of the cabin staff. So every time that a plane arrives now, the crocodile thinks it’s feeding time. If you look at the end of the film, there is the crocodile licking his lips. In retrospect I should not have done that. Be that as it may, I’m still here with my artificial leg.

  • So was that the most frightening thing you’ve ever done?

No. The most terrifying thing I was ever sent to do was to go inline skating in Paris. Just to illustrate the madness of Paris they actually close a lot of the lanes in the centre to traffic on a Wednesday evening so that inline skaters in their hundreds can travel round the city. But the producer said, ‘We can’t do it on a Wednesday.’ So we went instead on a Friday when they hadn’t closed off the traffic. So we went straight out into the worst Parisian traffic you can imagine. You don’t want to hear national stereotypes of any kind, but the Parisians are just crazy drivers. If you happen to be inline skating across the cobbles in the centre of Paris in the rush hour, the drivers just don’t pay any attention to you. It was extremely frightening. I should never had done it. But like all those things, after a point you give up arguing with producers and directors and cameramen about whether you should be doing this and just go, ‘Oh, all right.’

  • Will we see any of these terrifying moments in Where Was I?

Yes, I will show a few clips. Most of them will be shown in order to emphasise the limits of your reporter’s capability. Because to be able to deliver witty or fascinating commentary while you’re being dangled over the edge of a precipice is quite hard! There are a couple of moments where all you can hear is the fear in my voice. The thing is that when I sit down, I remember I have been the executive producer of all these things, so it’s actually my own fault. Having blamed the director, the producer and the cameraman, I now realise it’s not their fault at all – it’s mine!

  • Griff Rhys Jones is at the Jersey Opera House tonight at 8 pm.

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