Cotswold Character: Simon Pegg
Actor and comedian Simon Pegg is best known for starring in Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Mission: Impossible and the 2009 version of Star Trek. So film fans will be delighted to know he's just published his memoirs, Nerd Do Well
Actor and comedian Simon Pegg is best known for starring in Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Mission: Impossible and the 2009 version of Star Trek. So film fans will be delighted to know he’s just published his memoirs, Nerd Do Well, full of stories about…Gloucester. Katie Jarvis takes a look, and manages a quick chat with this busy ‘Hollywood’ star.
Now be honest. When do Hollywood stars ever mention Gloucester? Have you heard Nicholas Cage discussing the swimming pool at Gloucester Leisure Centre? Or Julia Roberts chatting about a drama group at Quedgeley. Well, all that’s about to change, thanks to Simon Pegg’s autobiography Nerd Do Well.
Born and brought up in Brockworth, where he attended primary school and the local comp, this Hollywood star’s memoirs are packed with references to the Cotswolds’ least romantic corners.
He talks about falling flat on his face with his first self-penned comedy sketch – literally, that is. On the day he was due to perform it – aged eight at Castle Hill Primary School in Brockworth – fellow pupil and school vamp Denise Miller threatened to kiss him on the lips if she caught him. Not unnaturally, he took off at speed, collided with a group of young footballers, and hit a low wall, face first, with maximum velocity.
But not even a half-closed right eye and a gory cheek could stop this born performer.
It’s clear he inherited his penchant for the stage from both sides of the family. His mum, Gill, is a talented amateur dramatics performer, who introduced her young son to Gloucester Operatic and Dramatic Society shows. His first major role was as Francis of Assisi in the Lady Chapel at Gloucester Cathedral; and by the age of seven, he was performing alongside his mum in musicals such as Carousel and The Music Man.
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His dad, John Beckingham, is equally at home in front of an audience. A former head chorister at Gloucester Cathedral, he’s well known as the leader of JB Jazz & Blues Band, who often play at the Daffodil restaurant in Cheltenham. While Simon says of his mum, “Had she been afforded the same opportunities, encouragement and dumb luck as me, she might have found herself working as a professional actress,” his dad had his 15 minutes of fame back in the 1970s. He and his then-band won the studio vote on Hughie Green’s Opportunity Knocks, only to lose in the postal vote to a another well-loved Cotswold celebrity: the poet Pam Ayres.
After failing the eleven-plus (“When I finished I had the sick feeling that I would not be receiving the racing bike I had been promised if I made it into Tommy Rich’s, and that inclination was one of the only things I got correct that day”), Simon went to Brockworth Comprehensive. He may have been minus a bike, but it turned out to be a reasonable punt on the part of Fate. “I can pinpoint specific moments that contributed to my becoming a professional actor and comedy writer, which perhaps would not have occurred on the more staid, all-male environment of Tommy Rich’s,” he muses.
At 16, the aspiring actor went to the South Warwickshire College of Education in Stratford for two years (as did Ben Elton, as it happens), before studying drama at Bristol University.
Oh, and of course, there are lots of bits about Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, etc, that don’t take place in Gloucester. It’s a great fun read, with a few serious bits thrown in. “In the end, this memoir has turned out to be far more personal than I ever intended,” admits the man who would rather talk about his dog than his family (purely to protect his private life):
“Journalist: So, you recently had a baby. What’s it like being a father?
“Me: My dog likes eating socks!”
Bearing that in mind, Cotswold Life posed Simon a quick set of questions, which elicited no canine-based answers. Surely a sign of success…
Tell us what we already know, Simon: Hollywood is just like Gloucester, but with slightly taller buildings – yes?
The only tall buildings in Hollywood are the hotels and they’re nothing compared
to New York. You’re talking about a community of predominantly insecure arty types facing the very real possibility of being shaken into the Pacific Ocean. You have to go to downtown LA for tall buildings. They don’t worry about that stuff.
Nerd Do Well, your book of memoirs, has just been published. As the title implies, by no means all movie stars grew up in Gloucester and attended Brockworth Comp. What are the downsides of your down-to-earth childhood? And are there upsides, too?
The vast majority of actors have down-to-earth upbringings. Their status is conferred on them by people who view the industry from outside and believe their own speculations and assumptions about celebrity. Also by actors who start to believe it too. Fame doesn’t turn you into an arse, it just brings out the arse you always were.
You mention in your book teachers who… well, let’s just say they were memorable (NB story involving the collapsing desk). Were there characters in your childhood who particularly inspired you?
My English teachers Margaret Taylor and Gareth Calway who taught me at Brockworth Comprehensive. Both were encouraging and supportive of my creative impulses. Good teachers are invaluable.
There must be a tendency for a comedian to make light of everything – but there must equally have been times when writing your memoirs was difficult, not to say thought-provoking?
Yes, you don’t realise how much you remember until you start poking around inside your own head. There were far more good memories than bad ones though.
After studying drama at Bristol, you very successfully took to the stand-up comedy circuit: a baptism by fire. How was it and where did you get your material from?
Stand up is the best job in the world. People always say ‘oh that must be terrifying’ but it’s only scary if you’re no good. If you’re funny and have confidence in your material, it’s great fun. It’s a very enjoyable thing to make people laugh. My material just materialised, I never went looking for it.
Which have been your favourite projects to date? And who have you most enjoyed working with?
I generally enjoy everything I do. I can’t recall a job I didn’t get something out of. I don’t really have favourites in terms of actors. It’s amazing to work with legendary actors like Jeff Bridges, Sigourney Weaver and directors like Spielberg and Landis but it’s also fantastic to work with relatively new talents like the Enterprise crew or cool comic talents like Jason Bateman, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig. I’m lucky to have worked with all of them.
Any behind-the-scenes anecdotes you can share with us?
Too many to recall.
Tell us about your latest film, the black comedy Burke and Hare
It’s the story of two Irish immigrants who came to Edinburgh in the 1820s and fell into the murderous racket of supplying medical science with fresh corpses for dissection. It’s based on real events that were less than comic but by turning it into something lighthearted it provokes some serious thoughts on morality, the conclusion of which should be there is absolutely no excuse for murder.
So what’s next?
The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawntreader (in which Simon provides the voice of Reepicheep, a talking mouse) comes out in December; then Paul (a sci-fi comedy film written by and starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) hits theatres in February ‘11. I’m currently shooting M:I:4 (the next instalment in the Mission: Impossible series).
Back to the Cotswolds… Do you return to the area very much? And, if so, where do you head for?
I don’t get home as much as I’d like. When I came back for the Cheltenham Lit festival, I realized I had not been to Gloucester for almost two years. When I do get back, I am content to lay on my mum’s sofa and watch TV.
And, finally, what would the teenage Simon Pegg from Brockworth Comp make of it all?
He would be a lot less cool about it than I am. Things are so much more surprising when they come unheralded. I have worked hard to achieve the things I have achieved. I feel like I’ve earned it. A young me would probably think “ooh you jammy bugger!”
Simon Pegg’s Nerd Do Well, a small boy’s journey to becoming a big kid, is published in hardback by Century, priced �18.99.