Ben Bailey Smith: 'The world is a much worse place without my funny friend Amy'
Whether rapping about tea as his stage persona, Doc Brown, or cringing with Ricky Gervais in the forthcoming David Brent film, Ben Bailey Smith likes to keep things weird, he tells Bruce Dessau
There is one person sitting in front of me in his London shed-cum-writing-den yet I feel as if I am interviewing two people. Is this Doc Brown, stand-up comedian and rapper, or Ben Bailey Smith, actor and co-star of the forthcoming Ricky Gervais movie Life on the Road?
Bailey Smith (37) is best known by his Doc Brown alias. He appears on shows such as Live at the Apollo and writes comic raps about the correct way to make tea: "Man go sit down, Go watch telly/ Give me back my teaspoon, bruv you're not ready." But now he is temporarily reverting to his family name for his biggest acting role yet.
Brief Encounters, which started on ITV1 on Monday, is a drama about a group of Sheffield women in the Eighties who beat the recession by hosting Ann Summers parties. He plays policeman Johnny Daniels, who has hidden depths. "He's supposed to be tough but he's a sensitive soul. I can relate. I spent my life as an entertainer trying to show people that I am amazingly cool, but I've got insecurities like everybody else."
But it is Life on the Road, the eagerly anticipated film that revives Gervais's Office creation, eternal loser David Brent, that will raise his profile. As musician Dom Johnson, Bailey Smith ends up as Brent's unlikely surrogate father, supporting him emotionally as he tries to realise his rock-star dream by touring Berkshire's bleakest nightspots.
It is the continuation of a relationship with Gervais that stretches back to the Comic Relief video for Equality Street in 2013. The song is reprised in the film, with Johnson looking on uncomfortably as Brent does his "biddly biddly bong" attempt at reggae to a sea of cringing faces. It is squirm-humour at its finest. The friendly-yet-serious actor is very proud of his involvement, that's why he wanted to ensure he gets a Bailey Smith credit. "I want my mum to see her name."
But isn't there a risk that Gervais dusting off Brent's chain-store suit could dilute the legacy of the landmark series which was first broadcast in 2001? "Ricky is like that. He's brave, man, he's got b**** the size of watermelons. I'm so flattered this all came out of trying to make each other laugh back in 2013. He's had me involved from a blank piece of paper to a completed movie."
The collaboration threw up some interesting moments. In one scene Johnson is helping a drunk Brent back to his hotel room when Brent starts asking him to say he is his "n*****". "That wasn't in script," recalls the co-star. "He rang me when I was in a petrol station and he said 'Here's an idea for a scene but I'm not going to do it unless you are okay with it…' I said he had to justify using those words. He told me the context and I decided it was funny and not offensive."
Bailey Smith grew up in the affluent north west London borough of Willesden and comes from a high-achieving family. His sister is acclaimed novelist Zadie Smith.
After leaving school he studied drama at the University of East Anglia but dropped out. He says: "I was coming back to London and seeing my mates going to raves and then I had to go back to Norwich and be a tree so I jacked it in."
Instead he pursued a musical career in rapping and session singing, working with Mark Ronson, Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen before he opted for comedy. "When I was five all I wanted to do was make a fool of myself in front of strangers. The comedy was there, I just never opened myself up to it."
He dismisses the idea that comedy and acting are that different: "When you do stand-up you are acting. It's not like I'm a synchronised swimmer, a baker and a rapper. I'm so envious of people who know what they want to do from birth. Like my sister said 'Bang - this is it'. I don't have that."
Life is good at the moment. He is married and has two young daughters. His first children's book, I Am Bear, was published in March and sits proudly on his shelf next to his laptop. There have been difficult times, though. In 2008 his father passed away and his friend, musician Jason Rae, died of a drugs overdose. Then in 2011 Amy Winehouse died.
They were only acquaintances but he is still moved when asked about her: "What can you say that hasn't been said. She had these demons but she was also bubbly, funny and incredibly talented. She was one of the greatest modern female songwriters the UK has produced. That's pretty much fact."
The Amy portrayed in the tabloids was not the Amy he knew. "I didn't experience too much of the dark side.
"What I experienced was a bubbly funny north London mouthy person who reminded me of the girls I knew when I was growing up.
"There isn't a day that goes by when there isn't a little thought of her. She will pop up on the iPod or be an inspiration when I'm writing songs.
"The world is a much worse place without her."
He is currently concentrating on his own alternative rap album, which he hopes will be more successful than David Brent's tragic last-chance saloon attempt at stardom. "It's the ultimate in unfinished business for me. Music was the dream when I was a kid. This is where I started. I'll hopefully get my first record out this autumn. It's a bit weird, but I like weird."
'Weird' is a word that keeps cropping up. His last tour was called The Weird Way Round. The phrase came from his observation that his parents, a white father and a black mother, were an atypical interracial couple.
It resurfaces as an awkwardly funny aside in Life on the Road. But it also references the fact that growing up as a mixed-race child was not always easy.
We are talking shortly after news that reports of race hate crimes have increased since the EU referendum result. Usually soft-spoken, it touches a nerve and he raises his voice for the only time during our interview.
"We are seeing the rise of quite a nasty side of a country I love," he says.
"That's what really hurts. I'm not one of these guys who go 'I'm off', I'm so proud to be British. I love my country, so when it lets me down it's like being in a relationship with someone you love who lets you down."
Ben Bailey Smith might use two names - but he knows exactly who he is.
Brief Encounters is on ITV1 on Mondays at 9pm. Life on the Road is in cinemas from on August 19