Comedian Rufus Hound on Surrey school days, theatre and politics
PUBLISHED: 18:10 02 August 2017 | UPDATED: 18:10 02 August 2017
No stranger to controversy, comedian turned actor Rufus Hound lives something of a double life. Born for the stage, he grew up in Surrey as Robert Simpson. Matthew Williams catches up with the famously facial-haired raconteur to chat school days, showbiz and, well, modern politics
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine July 2017
“I often wonder whether I’d prefer to live somewhere that’s got a broader set of values than the stark me, me, me capitalism we often seem to be held underwater by these days…”
It’s fair to say that Surrey-schooled actor, Rufus Hound, has a lot on his mind when we catch-up during a break in his hectic rehearsals for a new musical adaption of The Wind in the Willows – and that’s before the General Election has thrown the nation into even more confusion.
He has the kind of brain that makes for deep, passionate and intensely interesting conversations but that also has a habit of getting him in trouble with any mainstream media found on the other side of the political fence. Brexit, Trump, Terrorism, the election… these are all things that throw heavy shadows across the 38-year-old father-of-two’s mind.
Such is the speed that the ideas and concerns whir about during our chat that it’s hard to imagine how he holds onto his lines at times. I imagine he’ll steal the show though, especially as he’s playing the infamous Mr Toad. While ‘messing around in boats’ and the simple life are probably most people’s abiding memories of the book, Mr Toad is an arrogant and selfish menace of the roads who finally finds friends by, well, relaxing into his riverside community... if never quite losing his ‘lovable rogue’ nature.
During our call, I joke that it seems to be a role perfect for the subversive humour of someone inspired by Rik Mayall – following the interview I find out that Rik did indeed play the role in a TV adaption and relished playing “an enormous git”.
“It’s certainly a fun play to be involved with and, yes, there are a few comparisons to characters who might make me bristle a little in real life,” says the man who “never really wanted to be a politician” but did run to become an MEP for the National Health Action Party in 2014 anyway.
“We do seem to have quite a few people in Britain at the moment who paint themselves a few rungs above the rest – and even, quite often, the law. A little Toad-like, yes. It’s very easy for people to find a subtext in stories. I did Don Quixote last year and discovered that every 15 years or so someone will inevitably write a huge spiel about ‘what Don Quixote really means!’ What it tends to show with any great text, whether children’s novel or high-brow play, is that we project so much of who we are and where we are at the time onto them. The best plays, films, books etc. appeal to the fundamentals of who we are. At the end of the day, The Wind in the Willows is about the power of home and friendship.”
A true calling
Best-known for TV comedies Never Mind the Buzzcocks, Celebrity Juice and Argumental, as well as BBC Radio 4’s My Teenage Diary, Rufus has always felt that the stage was his true calling (more on that later) but vehemently hates the idea of being pigeon-holed.
“While he might seem a slightly strange person to take advice from, I remember Jason Donovan telling me his dad, Terry, who has done all sorts during his life, would say ‘the thing is son, always provide a moving target,’” he laughs. “Seems about right to me and I hate the idea of people thinking I can or should only do one thing. It helps to keep the options open.”
Before the comedy, the theatre and the heavy politics though, Robert Simpson (as he was known on his birth certificate) was born in Essex (despite his Wikipedia entry long saying Chertsey). His parents moved the family to Surrey when he was seven so that he could be educated at Hoe Bridge School in Woking, Frensham Heights and then Godalming College.
“I always read a lot and dreamed of good versus evil,” he says. “Back then I loved Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl and Brian Jacques, whose books often held the idea that being a good person is sticking up for what you believe in and for others who might not be as fortunate.”
“I absolutely loved my time at school – Hoe Bridge was blazers, caps and all that business, but the teaching was incredibly involved and encouraged camaraderie. We were always encouraged to excel, but not at the expense of those around us.”
He then moved on to the forward-thinking Frensham Heights School, whose ethos (think, create, explore) sounds fairly similar to what Rufus and fellow alumni (comedian Jack Dee, Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason and Kula Shaker’s Crispian Mills) all experienced.
“It was already co-educational; there were no uniforms or religious affiliation; you called teachers by their first names etc…” he says. “During my time there, it was all about being encouraged to have ideas and then debate the validity of those ideas. I moved on to more grown-up books with a bit more nuance.”
As inspiration grew, his parent’s money ran out and his future at Frensham was uncertain until a drama teacher called David Proudlock got him a performing arts scholarship – which takes us back to the political tangent...
“It was certainly a time when more left-leaning authors started to chime with my view on the world,” he says. “I remember as a teenager I’d often look at adults and wonder how they’d fallen into the cynicism of ‘that’s just how the world works’ and said I never wanted to be like that. I accept now that things are a little greyer than I saw them then, but still think we could do more to improve things for everyone. I have so much admiration for anyone smart enough, strong enough and determined enough to be able to take that ‘broken-world’ view and shine a more positive light on it.”
There was another twist in the tale during his college days, where like so many teenagers before and since he discovered the distractions that come with growing up…
“Let’s just say that Godalming College was and remains a superb sixth form but that I, well, didn’t really treat it as such,” he laughs. “I discovered how much effort I needed to pass and promptly did the absolute minimal, while spending the rest of the time in the local pubs. I feel so sorry for the drama teacher I had, as essentially Frensham had been so inspirational that no one was ever going to be able to live up to that.”
On leaving college, he and his friends burst forward into the world with many leaving Surrey. Having decided that performing was probably a bit childish, he fell into a “soul destroying” PR role. It only served to create ‘Rufus Hound’ and to open up the worlds of stand-up, TV and radio and then theatre.
These days, he lives just on the London side of the border, but finds himself venturing into Woking with his laserquest obsessed son. “We go to The Big Apple and I can laser an eight-year-old via a mirror for my own amusement with the best of them,” he laughs, which he does a lot, whether discussing the fun of bringing up a young family or the ridiculousness of life and politics.
He also loves Kingston’s Rose Theatre and sings the praises of the recent production of Junkyard. “They have such high ambitions, which deserve full support,” he says. “I performed in Trevor Nunn’s The War of the Roses there and would love to do something again sometime. It’s world class and I’m very lucky to live around the corner.”
Riding the waves
While there are unsigned opportunities on the horizon, we find ourselves drifting back into the conversation that started it all.
“A little like The Wind in the Willows, what matters to my family most are friends and home. So while I have thought of moving away and feel a little lost in the current political climate, my wife, Beth, reminds me of what’s important. Whenever I talk about moving away, she reminds me that our friends are the people who can help us ride the waves back to the shore, however tough things get. She is a fundamentally nicer person than I am!”
Whether being shot at by kids at laserquest as Robert or firing angry political missives as Rufus, it’s unlikely the election result has stemmed the confusion but at least this perfectly coiffed force of nature has learned to laugh about it (even if sometimes a little bitterly).
• The Wind in the Willows is at the London Palladium until Saturday September 9. Tickets can booked at willowsmusical.com