Confessions of an Essex addict
He hit the big time as TV’s cuddly wideboy, then egomania and a disastrous show burst his bubble. Now James Corden is discovering his inner thespian
He comes to me like he is coming to confession. He is dressed for the occasion in his Sunday best; bespoke black suit, sharp white shirt, slim black tie. His baby-blue eyes blink out of a soft, sombre face framed by a rigid quiff of blond hair. The overall effect is that of a toddler someone has stuffed into a suit for church.
James Corden squeezes into the wooden booth opposite me, squares his shoulders to mine, opens his palms, and confesses his sins: the awful sketch show, the flopped film, the Groucho, the girls, the critical bloodbath.
He has done his penance; now he’s hoping for redemption at the National Theatre, where he’s soon to star in One Man, Two Guvnors, a modern retelling of an 18th-century Italian farce, The Servant of Two Masters.
Being back in a theatre seems to delight him: he feels “like I’m part of a company”, that he has the chance to “flex muscles I don’t get to use on TV”, and most of all “it’s so nice to be working with a really great director [Nicholas Hytner]”.
I was hoping to find a Smithy-style Corden who would try on his cheeky charm with me. Instead I got a still, softly-spoken man nursing a cup of tea
The performance should play perfectly to all Corden’s strengths: food, sex and class — he plays a corpulent servant caught up in a love triangle. So why does he seem so worried? “Are you going to be nice?” he asks, nervously. This wasn’t what I’d had in mind at all.
I’d left that morning to meet tubby funny man James Corden in a London chippy. As I’d pictured it, Corden would be waiting, munching a battered sausage, already half-cut. I’d shout: “Smithy, you slag!” He’d say: “You slag!” I’d say: “No, you slaaaaag.” And so on. (If you’ve ever watched Corden play Smithy in Gavin & Stacey you’ll know a lot of this goes on.)
Then we’d go to the pub and get hammered — Smithy’s a 15-pint-a-night-man — and stumble home some time the next day.
I was expecting Corden to be Smithy, his Gavin & Stacey character, because that’s what everyone thinks he’s like. Essex-lad Smithy walked out of that BBC sitcom and into real life with an ease no character had managed so completely since the Fonz. Now Smithy appears on sketch shows, accepts awards and recently starred in The Best Comic Relief Sketch Ever (highlight: Gordon Brown duetting with R&B boy band JLS), all because, as PR svengali Mark Borkowski once noted, “Corden is just like Smithy.”
It sounded like Smithy who left The Empire Awards audience hysterical when, collecting an award on behalf of Keira Knightley, Corden claimed the reason the actress couldn’t make it to the event herself was because: “I’ve just been shagging her solid for the last three days. Honest. Really gunning it. Some of it sensual love-making, but on the whole quite brutal. It really took me by surprise. Quite dark, a lot of it.”
It looked a lot like Smithy when Corden took to tumbling out of clubs at 2am with gaggles of Essexy blondes. And it seemed a lot like Smithy when Corden appeared on Lily Allen’s talk show and — before a live audience — schmoozed her: “You don’t know how lovely you are.” Lily sighed: “Just f*** me.” (When he tried the same line on Germaine Greer, she sniffed: “Well, you’re quite wrong; I know exactly how lovely I am.”) And now I was off to meet “the porkiest babe magnet in town” I was hoping to find a Smithy-style Corden who would try on his cheeky charm with me. Yet I wasn’t even to get a wink and a pint. Instead, I’d walked into the Golden Fish Bar in London’s Clerkenwell and found a still, softly-spoken man nursing a cup of tea. “Hello, I’m James,” he said, not in Smithy’s Essexy leer, but in the snug tones of Little Charley Bear (the CBeebies character Corden narrates). He posed quietly for photographs, which he said he was too self-conscious to look at.
Now he slides into a booth and smiles shyly at me. Borkowski and I (and everyone else) were wrong: Corden is nothing like Smithy. He’s a middle-class Christian teetotaller who grew up in High Wycombe. He finds it “mystifying” how anyone could mistake him for a working-class, alcoholic, Essex handyman. “People would come up to me and ask, ‘Which part of Essex are you from?’ And I’m not from Essex. I don’t really drink. I don’t really go to the pub.” Corden tells me he is shyer than Smithy, brighter than Smithy, more New Man than Smithy: “He doesn’t seem to understand the male-female relationships very well. He’s not very open with how he feels about those things. I always have been.”
Do they have anything in common? “Well, I look like him and I sound a bit like him,” Corden says dryly, “and I like wearing tracksuits.”