Channel 4 Press, 25th October 2013.
Your new series is Man Down. What’s it all about?
I suppose it’s about a man lost at sea. Well I don’t really want to say it’s about a teacher as it isn’t really. He happens to be a teacher because I was a teacher but it’s just about a silly man who’s never quite managed to grow up and his equally ridiculous friends. I suppose it’s about somebody being trapped in a cycle. It’s a story of a man whose own behaviour holds him back but he’s incapable of changing.
A lot of people’s material is, in some way, autobiographical. Is that the case, in any way, with Man Down?
I think it’s hugely autobiographical yes because I was a very unhappy teacher for a long time – for 13 years and I think I’ve mined that period which felt like a directionless period. I mean obviously I had an awful lot of fun and I hope that’s where the fun in this show comes from watching a man disintegrate a little bit as a lot of us do in our lives at some point. ‘Directionless’ is the best way I can think to say it. That’s what happens to this silly man who prioritises the wrong things so it’s autobiographical in the sense that I did have a period where I was all over the place really. I didn’t really get very far but you know I had a lot of fun! Please don’t think it’s a depressing piece it’s not, it’s just silly.
You were a teacher in a former career – did that make it easier inhabiting the roles of Dan and Mr Gilbert?
I think being a teacher helped me to play Dan because he’s the sort of a person who’s in the wrong job and I had a lot of fun when I was teaching but I was never…I wasn’t a very organised or thorough teacher. I think probably the kids who I taught will agree that we probably had quite a lot of fun but I’m not sure how much I really taught them. It’s more about that he has to get through it. You’ll see from the lessons in the show we show one of his lessons every episode and they’re just terrible.
What did you used to teach?
Drama so it’s the same. The school that we filmed at was the school that I taught at. That was my classroom the one that’s in the show is my classroom.
How was that?
Weird! Like therapy
A lot of dramas and comedies seem to revolve around schools and teachers. Why do you think that is?
I suppose because all human life is there in a school I think that’s probably why. School resonates with everyone – teachers resonate with everyone because we all did it didn’t we, we all went to school. It’s one of the few things that unites everybody is that we were all there so I guess that’s why.
What was it like filming with the children? Did you find yourself reverting back to teacher mode?
A little bit when they got tired I found myself cocking an eyebrow and someone in the crew, when I told them all to be quiet and stand against a wall once, went “you’ve still got it”. But they were lovely kids, they will do great. They were far more focussed and mature than me during the shoot. Incredibly ambitious 11 year olds.
How many of them were there?
30 I think we had. Well I used to teach 30 an hour when I was teaching so it was easy peasy and they were so willing, they were so up for it – it was great. Some of my favourite scenes were in the school but most of the sitcom isn’t in the school and we have one scene with the kids and then the rest of it is all set outside.
Do you like the character of Dan? Is that important when you’re playing a role?
I do like him as he’s so close to how I was – I mean he’s not – he’s a grossly exaggerated version and I think he’s incredibly selfish and irritating but I hope there’s a fundamental kindness to him. He’s just quite sad; he’s quite a sad character really. In every episode he tried to change and he just picks the wrong way of doing it. In every episode he thinks – my life will get better if I do this thing but you know straight away
when he picks it, no that won’t make it better. I think in every episode from the get go the audience are told this is going to end badly and it does! There are no secrets it will end badly so if you watch the first two minutes of one of our shows and think “oh god this doesn’t look like it will end well…” no it will end horribly!
Does it feel different when you’re filming a show that you’ve written and created?
Yes it feels far more frightening.
Is it more stressful?
Yes it is, oh my god it’s so much more stressful. I sort of can’t think about it for very long or my head will explode. I thought it was enough to put my head about the parapet doing stand-up comedy 10 years ago but when you’re then offering up a series and saying this has come out of my brain as well as me being the main character in it, it’s er and incredible act of ego mania really. Hopefully, I mean the other characters are so brilliant and they brought them to life so well I hope that there’s something for everyone in there.
How does the writing process work? Do you have a set routine?
I think it works for different people in different ways. For me, the way it works is I would stumble out of bed and I stay in my pants all day in my flat then I’d fall asleep then I’d write for five minutes then I would fall asleep again then I would have to go outside, go for a walk then I’ll come back and have a massive meal then fall asleep again and I’ll eat eight packets of biscuits and go to bed. The next day I’ll get up again have a shower, play on video games watch some tele, fall asleep on the sofa, write a bit more – are you getting the gist? There’s no pattern to it whatsoever. If you were in my flat when I was writing this, if people had put cameras I think anyone who watched half an hour of that footage I’d be put into an institution. I poured a kettle on the floor during the writing process. I made myself a cup of tea and I spilt a little thimble full on my trousers and I was so stressed that I couldn’t break the back of this episode that I just emptied the whole kettle on the floor of my flat like a nutter! But I did feel better for it although it was an act of madness it released the pressure.
You cast Rik Mayall as your dad. Was that the easiest bit of casting in TV history?
It was easy in that I thought before I’d even started writing the sitcom wouldn’t it be amazing if Rik Mayall was my dad because I’ve been compared to him for the last 10 years and of course he’s one of my comedy heroes. It was a fantasy casting in my head before I’d even started writing it and then to find out he was interested was beyond exciting. I mean I didn’t used to look like him. It seems in the last 10 years I’ve morphed into him for some reason so it seemed an obvious thing and then he came into meet me and I knew straight away that we’d have a great time together and we have.
Had you ever met or worked together before?
No, no. He gave me a hug and that was his opener. Just straight in with a hug it was lovely and I knew this is my dad even though, as I’m sure Twitter will go mental with pointing it out that he’s only 10 years older than me. Here’s a pre-twitter message to you all I fucking know get over it – it’s a comedy.
A couple of last questions now and the first one I wanted to ask about is ‘beef’ – where has this come from?
Ah yes. There’s an episode where my character goes to a running club and there’s this extraordinary running mentor played by Ramon Tikaram and he motivates all the runners and Ramon is brilliant playing the character. When he’s motivating people just in the background of all those scenes we had someone screaming the word ‘beef’. I don’t know why. I wrote it in the script because it made me laugh and I can’t tell you why it made me laugh but because it made us laugh on the set with someone screaming beef…When you spend an intense amount of time together as we all have as a crew it just became an expression for everything. Whenever someone shouts ‘beef’ everyone will respond ‘beef’
When you were filming did you often find then that you would crack up and laugh a lot?
Yes I thought it was really good fun to shoot we had a brilliant, lovely crew. Sometimes it doesn’t work 35/40 people together to try and make something creative, what are the chances of it clicking but it really did click with this group. I don’t think you’d meet anyone who’d tell you we didn’t have fun. There was a lot of laughing on set and I just hope that transfers to the screen.
Final question, what’s next for you?
Well I’m doing a stand up tour, I’m sort of half way through a stand up tour. I started it earlier in the year and then thank god Channel 4 said I could make this series so the tour was shelved until the Autumn then I’ll finish the tour off in the Autumn. I’m promoting this and I’m doing the rest of my tour then I’ll do some deep breathing and have a break. I’m having the best time I’ll tell you that! Everyone has been so great on Man Down.
Your latest project is Man Down tell us about your character?
I was first attracted to the part through Greg who I’ve always admired and thought was great because he is. Then the pilot came up last year and I had a spare week and he was looking for a psycho to attack him so I thought this looks lovely. And that was always one of the dreams of my life is to beat the shit out of Greg Davis and of course he is my love child – as many people are aware – we look like each other. I’m grown up now and I’ve been hunting for angles to sort of express the age I am now and here was a lovely one! To be a dad, I mean I’m a dad and I’m somewhere in my fifties but I’ve always wanted to do something a little more grown up. To have this particularly peculiar dad who’s in unusual circumstances because his son is so grown up. Greg and I had the same rhythm so we worked well together and he’s a great writer so the script excited me.
So the character of dad has a habit of showing his love in slightly unconventional ways?
Yes I think that’s the best way to describe it. If I was to give away the gags the audience may fail to be surprised when they saw them. I think they should watch it because surprise is one of his hobbies.
So you’ve been working for over 30 years do you still have the same hunger for it?
Yes I adore it, it’s my life it’s what I do. It’s always been the passion and I adore it, it’s my everything. As you know a big chunk of my art came to a holt when my partner Adrian decided to give up comedy and we’d done Bottom and The Young Ones and stuff but now I’m in my fifties and I want to work out what I’m going to do for the next 25 years so this is the next chapter. This character is very Rik Mayall and it’s what the punters would expect as I think the essence of my work is that I’ve always taken the mick out of myself.
Have you done any other parts where you’ve had a beard?
No that I’m aware of, well there was the mutton chops that I had for some very good adverts that I did for Bombardier beer and of course Lord Flashheart from Blackadder but that was blond and it was really more like a moustache and sideburns. This time though my beard has come out white – something’s happened over the last couple of years where my hair’s gone white!
Has there ever been a character you’ve played that you’ve either loved or hated?
Hmm no because if I’ve ever had trouble with a character then I’d wrench him and stretch him and fix him, it’s like car if you’re very good at cars – some blokes like to beat up old cars that don’t work so they can fix them. Also in doing that you can make it into a good character who you can use and work with so no I don’t have a character that I’ve hated. Occasionally there might have been ones that I haven’t been able to tinker with correctly but then if that’s the case I would ask can I do this and change that. Sometimes people say no and so I continue to talk to them until they realise why they should say yes to me.
Is that what you like to do – really invest in the character or feel like you know the character and feel like you’ve put a lot into it yourself?
In order to live in contemporary life I have to submerse aspects of my own character in order to live because I like excitement, I like exploring and I like adventure and that’s what acting is. I don’t have to go to war say or assassinate presidents because I can do that in acting. It allows me to experience things you might not get to otherwise. My parents gave me an upbringing that was full of permission with care and my dad gave me a taste for life
How do you think comedy has changed over the 39 years you’ve been working?
I think it’s become less theatrical which I miss. I always like a studio audience. I like all forms of entertainment and that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy filming with a camera without an audience because the thing is I know how techniques work and I know if you want to get a laugh in a big theatre you do it in a different way than if you’ve got a camera right up close just looking at your two eyes and your mouth. I understand the disciplines and I’m good at my job. I mean it’s a different era. I don’t think for example that the audience are quite so amazed by the shock of something these days, in a theatrical sense say because everything can be done a computer. Another example twelve years ago Adrian and I wrote another series of Bottom and took it to the BBC and they said no it’s too violent so we took it on the road and changed it in a live show. I think these days obviously there’s a lot more restrictions in place than there might have been.
Have you got any further ambitions?
Yes I would like this series to be a success so that it gets another series and another. I would really like the opportunity to explore the character of Greg’s dad fully.