Rhod Gilbert: Why every day’s a good day

Comic and TV presenter tells us about touring and surviving.

Rhod Gilbert became known as more than a comedian when he was diagnosed with head and neck cancer. Now recovering, he is currently touring his show Rhod Gilbert and the Giant Grapefruit. He also spoke to us recently.

How are you – and of course in the circumstances that’s not just a casual enquiry?

“It’s not. It’s funny how that’s changed – when people say ‘How are you?’ now it’s very different. I’m lucky, I’m wary of saying I feel wonderful but basically wonderful means happy to be alive and I’m very aware that head and neck cancer patients especially struggle post-treatment. It’s difficult and I don’t want to dwell on it, I know how people struggle. I have lots of problems, sore throats, spasms, I’ve got no saliva glands, I have to watch my teeth don’t fall out. There’s lots of things I have to watch for the rest of my life but broadly I’m wonderful.”

Do you find that people either skirt round it or they make it the focus, so you’re Rhod Gilbert the cancer patient rather than the comedian?

“I think people always need to pigeonhole you. For a while I was Rhod Gilbert, surreal Welsh comedian, then I was Rhod Glbert, angry Welsh comedian. Now I’m another cancer patient.”

When I spoke to Wiko Johnson he said the same thing, he wasn’t Wilko the guitarist any more, he was Wilko who had cancer.

“I don’t mind it. I stepped into this slightly public role willingly by doing a documentary and I think my life has changed. My stand-up has changed over the years from trivial stuff that isn’t true to big stuff that is true. I sort of morphed that way in everything I do. I did a series called Work Experience where I tried out different jobs and the things I loved most were teaching or working as a carer and I realised there’s a side of me that I’m not using much. The last three tours I’ve done, I’ve tried to raise awareness, to put something back and help people. I get contacted every day, I get stopped on the street, I get emails and letters, people asking me questions, telling me that the documentary helped them, and weirdly I love it. I feel I’m doing some good with my stupid life.”

Your current tour’s a long one.

“I always do long tours. The last one was 207 shows, this one’s about 150. I’ve stopped counting, we keep adding them. I’m taking it quite easy, my schedule isn’t five or six days a week anymore so it’ll take a long time. I’m going to pretty much every town in the country but the most I do in a week is four so I have a bit of downtime. I’ve got to pace myself, I’ve got to make sure I can do it.”

One of your shows is in Wolverhampton. That could be a bit of a culture shock.

“Wolverhampton Civic Hall is great. I talk to so many bands who say it’s their favourite venue. The Manic Street Preachers say it’s up there with the great venues. It’s electric.”

When you’re touring do you see much of the places you play?

“I do. Well, yes and no. I don’t just go to hotels then the gig, me and my tour manager go off and we’ll find airbnbs in the countryside ore whatever. We base ourselves somewhere and do three or four gigs from one spot, in the countryside or by the coast, something like that. I walk a lot or go cycling in the day so it’s all quite healthy and grown-up. I don’t see much of the local area, but I do see a bit wider. I don’t go out of my way to museums or things like that. On the day of a show it’s all about the show from the minute I wake up until I go on stage. I can be walking along a beach for miles but l’m thinking about the show. What I can’t do is go anywhere like the cinema to get away from it. I know people who do that, when I’m on tour a support act or someone will say ‘Shall we go to the cinema?’ and I’ll say ‘We’ve got a show tonight, you can’t go to the cinema’.”

You mentioned your tour manager. It must be a bit lonely on the road. If you’re in a band there’ll be four or five of you plus a crew whereas for a comedian it’s just the two of you.
“I’ve got a wonderful tour manager, Simon Mason, who I’ve known for twenty years and we’ve worked together for fifteen. Never a cross word, there’s just us two travelling together in the van. He’s brilliant and I’m very lucky to have him. The only time we’re apart is when I’m onstage and he’s in the wings> i miss him terribly when I’m performing.”

So no great entourage, just a great grapefruit. Tell us about it the show.

“It’s a nod to the tumour in my neck, and also a take on James and the Giant Peach, Rhod Gilbert and the Giant Grapefruit. It’s slightly the idea is that if life gives you lemons you make lemonade but what happens when life starts lobbying great big grapefruits?

“Lemons you can make lemonade with then, grapefruits you’re buggered, there’s nothing you can do. All you can do is make grapefruit juice, which is just as bad as grapefruit in the first place and that’s where the idea came from. It’s a really happy, upbeat show. Hopefully people will see it as a life-affirming show, I want them to come out laughing. There’s tears as well but hopefully people will come out laughing at the end.”

Danny Baker had a similar cancer to you and he said he was put in a private room, not because he was so ill but because people like Paul Gascoigne and Chris Evaans were visiting him and the hospital didn’t want photographers around.

“I didn’t have anything like that but Greg Davies did have to drive me to hospital a couple of times. We didn’t get a private room.”

I really didn’t mean to make your illness the focal point but we keep drifting back to it. Hopefully there will come a time when you don’t have to talk about it because it’ll be long gone.

“The chances of it coming back are always there and that’s always on your mind but every day I’m cancer-free is a good one.”

You’re also playing Warwick Arts Centre. In fact you’ve got some big venues booked.

“There’s a real variety on this tour. I’ve decided to do some smaller shows – the smallest is about 250, the biggest is five thousand. Warwick is different to Wolverhampton but it’s also a great venue. They’re all selling well and I’m really happy. I think it’s the best show I’ve done and also the funniest, which is surprising given the subect. There’s a lot of absurdities and there’s a lot about bodies. I keep constantly asking the audience if I’ve gone too far”

That’s the thing these days. There’s a line and once you’ve gone past it you’re in trouble but nobody knows where the line is.

“That’s true, but I’m having fun exploring it. Might as well, I’ve got nothing else to do.”

Rhod Gilbert & The Giant Grapefruit is currently touring the UK, playing Wolverhampton The Halls on 10th October and Warwick Arts Centre on 17th October. Tickets available here.