“Fame Is Ephemeral”
T4 prodigy Rick Edwards talks vanity, fickle fame and celebrity comedy with Lucy Holden over coffee in Kentish Town.
Rick Edwards drinks black coffee and has a sweetly formal handshake. “Hello, I’m Rick”, he tells me unnecessarily, after loping into the quietly cool Kentish Town restaurant where we’ve agreed to meet on a wintry November afternoon. It’s impossible not to lope when you’re 6’5″.
Many a heart will flutter at the thought of sitting opposite Rick Edwards. After a four-year membership to T4’s it-crowd, Edwards left the glamourous sides of Alexa Chung and Miquita Oliver to break into broadcasting, becoming the dashing young front-man to That Paralympic Show, and its finale, Channel Four’s coverage of The Paralympics. He is an ex-model with sarcasm as sharp as a knife and a hatred of having his photo taken; a regular style columnist for The Observer who doesn’t follow the trends, and a comedic script-writer who’s worked with Tim Key and Tom Basden, and lapped the London stand-up scene. There’s a saying about fingers and pies but we don’t want to play to all the Northern stereotypes.
Despite it all, Edwards seems a bit of an anti-celebrity; rarely doing interviews because he dislikes the press. He implies that if doing what he does without the ‘fame’ was a possibility he would take it, and the very idea that he has become famous for interviewing other famous people on television seems to bemuse him. What strikes you is how down-to-earth he seems in contrast to his television-personality; he considers each question with intelligent green and hazel eyes that shine in the shadow of a huge bobble-hat the colour of Malbec, and speaks in a surprisingly soft voice. It’s difficult not to wonder whether a career in the spotlight has allowed Edwards to perfect a finely-chiselled poker-face; you know that under the surface he has a sense of humour as crude as Johnny Vegas and wit as quick as a Porsche, but it would be naïve to consider that a presenter does not play up to the cameras in some respect, and his eyes still gleam with cheekiness when he is amused.
This preference for the lewdly funny started when Edwards assumed a regular stand-up slot at Cambridge University. But his insecurity, surprisingly, dwelled more with academia than the stage. After struggling with an initial first year of Maths, Edward’s discomfort switched him onto a Natural Sciences degree. “It’s weird when you go from the top of something to really struggling, I couldn’t handle it”, Edwards says honestly, adjusting an otherwise take-it-as-it-comes attitude. He only applied because the majority of those in his Further Maths class were. I imagine the whole thing to be the mathematical equivalent of The History Boys; not that Edwards thinks there will be a dramatization any time soon. Cambridge weren’t interested in his personality; base, crude comedy sets were where that was fuelled, and when Edwards wrote a stand-up double act for the London comedy circuit with Joe Wilkinson (Him and Her), base is exactly what the crowd got.
The premise, now, embarrasses Edwards. “We kind of played ourselves in that I was a kind of thrusting, entirely egocentric narcissist who’d written about 67 episodes of a sitcom entirely for himself, and Joe played my mother’s cleaner’s son, who was there merely to showcase the other parts. It was awful, but fucking funny”, he says in amusement. Yet he’s making a disclaimer: his memory is as blank as his style is suave; all jokes are lost to the wind. Clear though, was the advantage of stand-up comedy in giving Edwards’ a confident style of delivery, something that later made presenting a breeze.
Strange then how self-depreciatory Edwards is of his ability; his acting particularly is stunned by a lack of self-belief and seems a consequence of a high-flying friendship group, but also one that stems back to a dislike of not being brilliant at something. “I’m a shit actor. It’s just not something I feel comfortable doing. But stand up was fine. I’ve always been quite good at being me – it’s my forte.” Oh yeah? “Yeah” – he jokes – “On my CV it’s listed as an excellent skill.” So the problems come with trying to be someone else? “That is difficult, but it’s a confidence thing in some ways – I just don’t feel like I’m a confident actor, and when so many people are very talented, you just feel like you should leave it to them”, he explains.
When Edwards devised Rick And Peter with Tom Basden, a pilot for Channel Four about a disgraced TV presenter trying to right public opinion, they discussed the possibility of Rick not playing himself. But when it became necessary to the show, Edwards found filming genuinely stressful. “That was one of the only times in my life when I’ve not been able to sleep” he says. The fear in his own ability is tangible. As with the beginning of his Maths degree at Cambridge, Edwards was uncomfortable with the idea of vulnerability. It is a very powerful thing and Edwards is an intelligent guy; he’s aware that being in the public eye makes you susceptible to a wide range of criticism. Confusing also, must be the difference between Edwards’ two very parallel lives; public and private. The screen-strutting persona who wise-cracks the pop-world and goes bowling with Alexa Chung is countered with the life of a normal guy who lives with his long-term girlfriend in a flat in Kentish Town and keeps up with his old university friends.
Did Edwards feel his graduation from Cambridge made him a commodity to Channel Four? No – he doesn’t think it mattered; he’s not even sure they knew. “I’m not in any way ashamed of my educational background, but there is a certain stigma about it, and I don’t really like telling – I don’t usually volunteer the information myself because I think it’s a bit of a dickhead thing to do.”
Perhaps he’s right, but shamefully it seems that Edwards’ looks were more the commodity. Can it be a coincidence that not only Edwards, but Steve Jones, Jameela Jamil and Alexa Chung all have a history of modelling; that Chung just won Style Icon at the British Fashion Awards for the third year in a row? Has appearance become too important to the media? “Possibly” Edwards concedes, but he’s reluctant, and thoughtful. “It’s all kind of driven by the public, isn’t it? I mean, I know the media lead the public to a certain extent, but if the public didn’t care what people looked like then that would filter into television. The public do care though; we live in a culture in which appearance is important. It doesn’t have to be a negative, although it sounds like one. It is only pernicious when people feel they need to look a certain way, and I guess sometimes girls feel that more acutely than boys, not that boys are unsusceptible to it. But I don’t know what the answer to that is – if one is needed.”
Would Edwards describe himself as vain? His voice creeps a couple of octaves higher in uncertainty before he settles on “I hope not”. But I wonder if vanity is not inseparable from fashion, and Rick agrees. “If you’re going to be on television, you’ve got to look presentable-ish, but I think I’d like to look presentable-ish anyway. It’s not like I’d be in rags if I wasn’t on television; there’s just a sort of necessary vanity on screen. Everyone wants to look their best don’t they? Vanity is an extension of that. If you see someone on TV who isn’t trying to look their best, you kind of think, why not? But I don’t know – I don’t think about it very much.”
Nor does Edwards think much about fashion in general, despite being heralded by those in the know as a male style icon. “The then-editor of The Observer was looking for someone to write a style column”, he says simply. “I’ve always been quite interested in clothes, and it’s just a good discipline, to keep writing.” He disagrees though, that he is considered a ‘style icon’. “If I wasn’t on TV no one would look twice at what I’m wearing, even though I’d probably be wearing the same stuff. No one would notice. So it’s sort of meaningless. It’s just exposure – lots of people wear nice things.”
Edwards isn’t overly interested, then, in the different trends the catwalks are pulling onto the streets. “It’s probably not great if you’re writing a style column, but I tend not to get cat-walks. I just recognise if someone wears something that I like, that’s all. That’s kind of how I choose style, which is not a very original way to do it, but I’ve never really been a trail-blazer of fashion.”
When it came to the fashion of presenting T4, Edwards made the decision to leave, wanting to chase work that was tonally different to what he had done before, and thought it would have been too easy to stay. “It was a very fun job, but I think too many presenters did stay too long. There are only so many pop stars you can ask about their new album.” So did the musicians Edwards’ was interviewing begin to blend into one, or did he get sick of speaking to the sometimes-imbecilic new artists the music industries were pushing through the charts? “The thing about being a presenter is that you usually get on with people” he says politically. “Very few of them I would socialise with, and there are some idiots, but they are nice idiots if you know what I mean. But maybe that’s because it is in their interest to be nice to the interviewer. Otherwise they look like a dick. In the end though what grows wearisome is that everyone you’re interviewing is there to promote something.”
As different faces and different promotions swung through the studio doors, the impression that stayed with Edwards was the ephemeral nature of fame. “You begin to notice people slipping away. They come in with releases every four to six months and then gradually they don’t come in at all. It’s sad because some of them are quite young and you kind of worry about them – it’s not true of all of them, some of them have amazing longevity – but you hope they’ve been sensible enough about things to manage when it ends. In music, the turnover of talent is frightening.” Ironically, so samey are the types that Edwards is left void of an example; “the most telling thing now is that I can’t remember who they are”. It’s not just his memory this time.
Yet it seems presenters too are affected by the ephemeral nature of the industry. Miquita Oliver, part of the same T4 gang that spotlighted Edwards’ name, and who he still regularly sees, is just one example of someone who dropped out of the television scene after financial trouble. “It’s not really my place to comment, but as an outsider looking in, I think it was really good for her”, Edwards offers. “It gave her the impetus to get herself together, and I think things will work out much better for her now as a consequence; which is odd because it was a horrible thing to go through.”
It seems presenters, as well as musicians and models, have to face the fact that they might have a short shelf-life, but it’s at least something Edwards is humbly aware of. “The attitude I try to have – and it’s easier said than done – but I’ve had a really amazing time presenting and it could end anytime. They might just decide they don’t want to give me any more presenting jobs. You just have to be…” He trails off, thinking (“I think a lot” he later tells me on Twitter): ready, accepting? “Yeah, both of those things; you have to just be prepared to do something else. And I would be; I hope I wouldn’t try and desperately cling to presenting.” I wonder whether the thought of being axed from television is a constant worry to anyone in the media, but Edwards doesn’t seem too anxious. His take-it-as-it-comes attitude is back. “You could get yourself into a right state worrying about your next job and it’s definitely not going to help. It’s the same with everything; desperation is unappealing. I hope I don’t come across like that.”
Most recently, television has seen Edwards presenting a motely crew of ‘tools’ to the camera in E4’s Tool Academy. Cheating Tool, Weepy Tool, Cocky Tool, Neander Tool; the show sounds more like an X-rated Snow White shown in the garish light of an Amsterdam window. These “socially-inept” boyfriends have been enrolled by their hysterical girlfriends in a relationship boot-camp aimed at fixing their laddish ways. One girl complains that her boyfriend is so obsessed with his image that they are only ever allowed to eat boiled chicken. And she hates boiled chicken. Edwards asks: “Are they birds, are they planes, no, they’re fucking tools”.
But, disappointingly, Edwards says the tools aren’t all that bad. They should perhaps just be patrolling the grotty shores of Malaga rather than throwing themselves from the cliff-edge of commitment with their other halves. Undeniable, is the hysterical nature of the set. Rick’s tool name? He’s going with the obvious choice: Tall Tool, but he admits he would be bitterly disappointed to be enrolled on the show by his girlfriend of many years. “It’s not the kind of relationship that would make for good Tool Academy fodder. We’ve been together for quite a long time and she’s never intimated that I need to go on the show.” Despite its fairly ridiculous nature though, Edwards’ likes the show because he feels he’s allowed to express his personality more than he has been able to before. “And that’s being a bit of a dick”, he confesses with a laugh.
There are a few programmes, though, which Edwards would avoid in fear of pigeon-holing himself to one style of work. “Generally I don’t really want to do anything youth-skewed anymore because I’d only be making future broadcasting harder for myself. I think it would probably feel like a step-backwards, or at most a step-sideways. When you’ve done something so embedded in youth television, the transition from that to broadcasting is really difficult because you’ve got to change the viewers’ perception of what you are like and what you’re interested in.”
When Edwards presented Channel Four’s coverage of the International Association of Athletics Federation World Championships, the major criticism of the viewing public was that Edwards was a T4 presenter; he couldn’t like, or know about, athletics. “It was annoying because I’ve loved athletics since I was a kid, and it was an amazing thing to be a part of. But it was an interesting insight into being pigeon-holed. It really blinkers people, and it makes you wonder how many people it happens to. It’s frustrating when it happens to you but I understand why it does occur; all you can do is try to show people that you are right for those jobs. By taking up different presenting roles you’re trying to manipulate the public, and the TV commissioners, into accepting you in a different way. It’s all a game really; but that’s why I have an agent.”
Part of this attempt to change Edwards’ image as a broadcaster was his involvement with the Paralympics. He describes the experience as “fascinating”; considering it a real privilege to bring such incredible sports men and women to the attention of the public. “It was such an intense thing to be involved in, and the nation got so behind it; it was by far the best thing I’ve ever been a part of. After the Olympics and the Paralympics was the closest I think I’ve ever come to feeling depressed.”
With such a diverse range of interest and employment; journalism, television, comedy, fashion, sport, it’s impossible knowing which Edwards is most passionate about, but for the moment, he’s happy not to have to decide. “I quite like that I don’t have a favourite because I want to continue doing all of them. That might be unsustainable, but I’d like to try. If you’re bored doing something, you’re doing it wrong.” At the minute he’s concentrating on writing though, and has just handed in the first draft of a comedy drama for Channel Four that will be shot in January and announced later in the year. It’s all part of a dream to one day own a production company that would allow him to continue making the television and film that he loves. Oh and there’s that unfinished Maths degree lurking in the background that Edwards wants to complete just for his peace of mind.
I laugh. What would be the reaction to that: Rick Edwards goes back to Cambridge? He sniggers, but for a different reason. “I really don’t think anyone would care” he says modestly. But I have an inkling Edwards has a few fans who would argue otherwise.