Rhod Gilbert was driving on the motorway, on his way to perform a comedy gig in Barnstaple, when he got the call. He’d been to the doctor a few weeks before with concerns about a lump in his neck, and now his GP was ringing with the results. The doctor advised him it might be best to pull over, so he did. Then came the news: Gilbert had neck, throat, tongue and tonsil cancer. He hung up the phone, turned around and drove straight back to Wales. Gilbert cried a lot on that journey, tears clouding his vision on the road. Then he cranked up the music on his car stereo, as loud as it could go, and sang his heart out all the way home.
The Welsh comedian swings between these extremes of emotion – from crumpled despair to an almost maniacal giddiness – throughout his Channel 4 documentary, A Pain in the Neck. As in all of the network’s Stand Up to Cancer programming, this 50-minute film has appeals for donations before each ad break, along with stark stats: half of us will get cancer in our lifetimes. In his gravel-voiced opening gambit, Gilbert says, “When I got cancer, to be honest, I was terrified. So I wanted to do something to take my mind off it, make the whole thing feel less scary, and maybe help other people, too. So I decided to film it all. I really hope that my story gives you a little hope.”
He shows us the private Rhod, the man behind what he calls his “Mr Shouty Showbiz” persona, who lives between Wales and London with his wife Sian and dog Rosie. Sian opts to not appear heavily in the documentary because, Gilbert tells the cameras as filming begins, “like me, she’s s***-scared of what lies ahead”.
A Pain in the Neck spans just under one year – from Gilbert’s diagnosis in June 2022 to getting the all-clear in April 2023. It was a gruelling 10 months. The side effects from chemotherapy and radiotherapy are especially brutal for head and neck cancer treatment. Gilbert’s whole mouth and throat erupted with ulcers, making swallowing very hard, and he found it impossible to keep food down due to nausea. At one point, he couldn’t eat for four days so was taken into hospital. He lost two stone during his treatment. We see him weeping as he thanks doctors in the radiotherapy department. We see him sobbing a few times, actually. “I’m not laughing anymore,” the comic tells the camera at one point. “Not sure I ever will again to be honest.”
But there is laughter in this film. In Gilbert’s first chemo session, the male nurse warns him about side effects, saying that if he’s sexually active he must use protection. Gilbert guffaws. “I’ve got one tonsil, no teeth, a f***ing feeding bag in my stomach and I’m on chemotherapy – the last thing I’m thinking of is going home for a shag.” He jokes about his hair loss and having a “chemo goatee”, and he picks fluff from his belly button as he shows off the tube that’s feeding him through his stomach. “Nothing to do with the treatment – just poor hygiene,” he deadpans. “If there’s one thing I can’t be arsed to do, it’s shower.” Tracey Emin flaunted her stoma on Instagram after experiencing bladder cancer, and here, Gilbert is breaking the same taboos. We also see him and Sian getting a new dog “to breathe life into ours” and swimming in the sea on his birthday. He’s a warm, honest host.
There’s a strong irony to the whole story. Gilbert has been going on treks all around the world for the past decade, fundraising for Cardiff’s Velindre Cancer Centre. It was on a charity trek in Cuba that he first felt the lump in his neck. He suddenly went “from patron to patient”, as he puts it. To add insult to injury, when he had chemo at the centre, he was sitting under a huge smiling picture of himself on the wall. “All those 10 years as a patron,” he says, “I’ve heard time and time again how this place is incredible, and how people who work here are bloody angels. I’ve heard it so many times, and I never thought I’d experience it myself, but I have. And this place has got me through.”