Whether it’s performing stand-up or writing children’s shows, Ben Bailey Smith – aka Doc Brown – takes it all in his stride. He somehow finds the time to talk to Mark Kebble about rapping regrets, not getting big for his boots and laughing with Ricky Gervais
Actor, comedian, screenwriter, songwriter, voiceover artist, rapper… You certainly can’t call Ben Bailey Smith lazy. ‘I stopped procrastinating,’ he says on his wonderfully diverse career to date. ‘The main thing to have is desire. You have got to keep moving and creating – there’s that fear of being left behind.’ Judging by how quickly the man works, you’d need a time machine to send him behind the times.
It’s an apt reference considering Ben is better known as Doc Brown, something that causes me to worry about what I should call the East Londoner when I call him up on a particularly mild autumn morning. ‘Whatever you are comfortable with,’ he replies and I can sense him shrugging down the other end of the phone. Considering my love for Back to the Future, let’s go with Doc. The name came about because Doc was a geeky child, but not because of an affinity for science. ‘I got bored very easily,’ Doc says on his North West London upbringing, ‘but I was always massively creative. I had no interest in the likes of science, maths, history – I really wanted to act and do anything creative. In primary school we used to have a competition whenever we did a school play – we designed a poster for it and the best one would be used to promote it. I won so many times they banned me!’
This level of confidence must have stood Doc in good stead when he started out as a stand-up comic, but that’s to come: his first career move was in the world of rapping. ‘From the age of 12 I was writing rhymes, but as a teenager I was into indie music – the rap side was my secret,’ Doc recollects. ‘That all changed when I started going to rap nights at 16, seeing people do it in what I would consider to be a sub-standard fashion. That gave me the belief.’
Doc describes his rapping career in two words – ‘endlessly frustrating’ – but it’s still a riveting story. Doc’s biggest hit was a track called Donnie’s Lament, which brought with it a host of legal issues due to the sampling of Mad Word by Gary Jules. Full length tracks did follow, but it all amounted to an unfinished album, Another Way. But the struggles inspired Doc to find a way to promote the music he loved. ‘There was not an industry then, no-one wanted to sign rappers, so we just did it ourselves and created our own night,’ Doc says.
Friday Night Live at Deal Real Records on Carnaby Street became the stuff of legend. Big names from the hip-hop world were invited and most accepted, but it was the unknowns at the time that prick the interest. ‘It’s where I met Mark Ronson, Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen, Daniel Merriweather… It was an amazing thing to be part of and a real moment in time. But I still regret not having records that everybody knows. Time is the only thing stopping me going back and doing the whole album. The truth is funny and in my early years of stand-up I would tell my story – it was fantastical, but quite tragic.’
Comedy is the reason we are chatting today as Doc prepares to hit the road with a new show, The Weird Way Round. It was whilst working at the BBC that someone suggested he’d be good at stand-up, but it was still a huge gamble on Doc’s part. ‘I came to the party very late as I had two kids, so had serious responsibility – I had to be funny fast. I needed to make a living out of stand-up, so I was very driven.’
He knew he could write comedy – his first credit was on the Lenny Henry vehicle, Rudy’s Rare Records, which has recently returned to the Hackney Empire – but he admits stand-up wasn’t exactly a career path he saw himself heading down. ‘Who would actually want to be a stand-up?’ he questions incredulously. ‘It’s such hard work! I see why people want to do it because of the adrenaline you get from making people laugh, but I don’t actually understand wanting to be a comic. It’s a bit like self-flagellation!’
But Doc was good. Initially mixing his rhymes with comedy, his act has evolved to become more about the stand-up than the music. Despite never having watched much stand-up and initially ‘winging’ it in the early days, does Doc feel comedy now comes naturally? ‘Performing comes naturally to me,’ he considers. ‘When I walk on stage it is like walking into my living room. The nerves come from the pressure on making people laugh. You really feel like you will ruin everyone’s night out! There was probably one night where I had no nerves at all and I totally died out on stage. If you think you are the king of comedy, the gods will remind you otherwise. It’s a good lesson for all comedians – never get too big for your boots.’
Sell-out crowds are an indication that those nerves have never left him, and popularity was enhanced further thanks to Comic Relief and a certain David Brent. ‘When me and Ricky [Gervais] had the idea, we were laughing together for an hour,’ Doc says, laughing along the way. ‘We knew it was definitely a funny concept after we wrote a couple of lines; however, we weren’t confident that everybody would find it funny – so that’s why we had the idea to do it for Comic Relief. If people didn’t find it funny, we could at least say it was for charity.’ Equality Street, billed as the return of The Office’s David Brent, was funny and arguably stole the show during last year’s Comic Relief. ‘Finally I got my rap hit!’ Doc laughs. ‘It was a real feeling of vindication.’
Doc has gone on to work with Gervais again in Derek, but has also starred in countless comedy shows, from The Inbetweeners to Rev. All this and he is also an award-winning children’s TV writer too, being the creator of CBBC’s acclaimed The Four O’Clock Club. ‘Having children makes it slightly easier,’ Doc says on writing for a younger audience. ‘The inspiration came from my days as a youth worker. Kids are smart. We follow what kids do in terms of style and fashion, so you can’t short change them. For me, writing for kids is just the same as writing for adults, but finding what words are inappropriate and taking them out!’ It worked as the first series won a BAFTA and Doc is now just adding the finishing touches to the fourth series. Oh, and not forgetting he also set to be a children’s author too, with his own brand of picture books due to be published next year.
There’s so much more you can talk to Doc Brown about, but his time is precious. Perhaps it’s no surprise when you learn that his sister is Zadie Smith – a talented family. ‘I have really successful people around me,’ Doc remarks on his relentless output. ‘It’s a constant inspiration. Look at my sister, one of the most popular novelists in the world. There’s a wall at my mum’s house that has her first book in 57 different languages. What that says to you is that you can touch the world in many ways if you really want to.’
For more information on Doc Brown, visit docbrown.co.uk