That’s why I don’t do interviews,” says Simon Bird. “I regret everything I said.” I just asked the 38-year-old star intermediaries and Friday dinner about Rishi Sunak. In his stand-up special mid-pandemic in 2021 Report backBird suggested that Sunak, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, was “personally responsible for involuntary manslaughter through gross negligence”, calling his Eat Out to Help Out program “an act of terrorism.” “There was definitely an element of comic hyperbole there,” he tells me somewhat pragmatically. “I don’t think it’s my place to be involved in politics. Although, I mean, the reason you mention it is because I literally went into politics… I completely contradicted myself. But what do I think about him being prime minister? Well, I don’t think I’ll vote for him. And I’ll probably stop there.”
When I video chat with Bird from his home in East London, most of our conversation goes to this kind of wry rhythm of self-questioning. With a short, unkempt beard and glasses, he has an obscure “between projects” vibe – as if one of the very tense characters he played on screen had relaxed a bit. Just a little. It’s been over eight years since Bird last played the pompous teenager Will McKenzie in a sequel intermediaries film, but it’s still a role he’s hard to escape from.
No matter how many other projects he implements – directing a feature film (2019 – Days of the Bagnold Summer), hosting a comedy show (unfortunate The king is dead) and acting in the West End – always preceded by Will McKenzie and the accompanying nickname of “the scoundrel with the briefcase”. The moniker originated from the show’s first episode, which ran for three series in the late 1990s, but has since become common slang for someone who is dapper, conceited, and/or socially awkward.
Bird’s latest project, the Channel 4 sitcom Everyone else burns, may not change it, but it’s as good an opportunity as any. Written by Dillon Mapletoft and Oliver Taylor, the series follows the Mancunian family, which belongs to an extremist Christian sect. Bird plays David, the patriarch of the family, a petty and controlling buffoon with a truly ridiculous bowl-cut haircut. “My first reaction [upon seeing the wig] there was laughter, irritating, which was the reaction of almost everyone. Which meant we had to keep going,” he laments. “Hopefully, if the series is successful, the character’s appearance will become something of an icon. So I had to admit that a haircut could help on that front.”
Everyone else burns is an extremely enjoyable sitcom, peppered with bitingly funny dialogue and surprisingly nuanced performances by Bird and his co-stars, especially Kate O’Flynn who plays David’s wife Fiona, and Amy James-Kelly who plays his sheltered daughter Rachel. “It’s not a religious show,” explains Bird. “I think the religion on the show is a metaphor for a lot of other things, whether it’s “family values” in quotes or a little conservatism.
I ask what preparations went into the role (other than the unsightly wig). “Oh, you know, so much preparation and research,” he says. “I have been on many different pilgrimages. I got to know the Bible.” Is smiling. “Not really. I just read my poems. Turns out I’m not a very professional actor.”
Channel 4 was also responsible for the production, which commissioned a six-episode series Friday dinner, intermediariesand Bird’s Special. Bird highly appreciates the broadcaster’s achievements – he is delighted Girls from Derry several times – and celebrates the fact that plans to privatize it appear to have been abandoned. “Of course I’m very happy because it’s the only channel that gives me any work,” he laughs. “That’s not the main reason why it should be allowed to continue operating. Although…”
Bird stumbled upon acting almost by accident while grinding his teeth on sketch comedy at Cambridge University. “I hate myself,” he complains at one point after referring to his character’s “journey”. Everyone else burns. “I’m not a trained actor,” he says. “I’m not a very good spokesperson for the industry. But I think comedy is a slightly different skill set. The most important thing in comedy is to feel comfortable enough in front of the camera that you can follow your own impulses. So in many ways I try to get out of the role [on screen]just be yourself as much as possible.”
Anyone familiar with Bird’s career probably already knows this. In most of his on-screen appearances, there is a distinct “type” he usually plays: tough guy; a figure of mockery; bursting balloon. “As you’ll learn from this conversation, I couldn’t be more of a beta male,” he says. “What’s below beta level? In a way, I am where I am. So I understand why I wasn’t offered the alpha male roles.”
Near intermediariesWill, Bird’s second best-known role, appeared in the sitcom Friday dinnerwhich ran from 2011 to 2020. Bird played Adam, the elder son of a dysfunctional Jewish family. Bird is not Jewish or even “in the slightest” religious, he says. In the years since the show’s debut, the casting of non-Jewish actors in prominent Jewish roles has become a point of contention in the film and television industries: Rachel Brosnahan in The wonderful Mrs. MaiselRachel Sennott in the acclaimed independent film Child of Shivaand Felicity Jones playing Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the biopic Based on gender these are just a few of the casting decisions that have raised eyebrows recently.
I don’t turn down a lot of active work – they don’t knock on the door!
“I think it’s a really valuable and important debate,” says Bird, “and I didn’t really consider that when I was offered the role. But if I had my time again, or if it were happening now, I would have to think long and seek advice.
One of the “mitigating factors” for Bird was the enthusiastic blessing of Robert Popper, the show’s writer and producer. “He approached me personally to cast me as himself,” explains Bird. “You know, the character of Adam is literally Robert. He felt I was the person who best represented him on screen, so that meant a lot to me. If he was happy, then I am happy too. But I totally understand why this conversation is going on.”
Throughout our interview, Bird makes some nonchalant remarks about his “professional struggles” (“I don’t turn down a lot of active work – they don’t knock on doors!”). Ask him about intermediariesand reluctantly expresses the opinion: “I don’t watch. I never want to see it again. I watched it on the projection through my fingers, cringed at my performance, and then tried to forget about it.
However, when pressed on the subject, he sees positives in the show’s legacy. “I think something like Girls from Derry is a direct continuation of what he was really working on intermediaries, which is that it’s right, appropriate and necessary to show people that they are themselves on screen. It couldn’t be a more universal experience, the experience of being a kid in school. Everyone has Jay in their friendship group. Everyone has Neil. So that seems important.
He continues: “Honestly, I just graduated from university and starred in a lot of student comedies that were quite pretentious and avant-garde. And I looked down a bit snobbishly on comedies that tried to be broad and relative. And I think intermediaries taught me that it is really worth creating something universal. And it’s really hard to do it right.”
The bird shakes its head. “That’s a terrible answer,” he mutters. I’m not sure.
“Everyone Else Burns” premieres on Channel 4 at 10pm on Monday 23 January