When we meet at a studio in south London, comedian Greg Davies is beaming with deligh. “I can’t tell you how proud my mum is that this interview is going in Radio Times. This is The Big One.”
With that, he grins at me like a big kid. Which is quite appropriate, really. For a big kid is exactly what Davies is playing in Man Down, a new Channel 4 sitcom he has written and stars in as Dan, a teacher who is far more immature than his pupils.
Davies knows whereof he speaks. A rare example of a comedian who is as funny off stage as on it, he spent his 20s and early 30s up to his elbows in chalk. After studying English and drama at Brunel University, the comedy fan envisaged a career in stand-up. Instead, he recalls, “My dad, who had spent his life as a lecturer, said, ‘That’s all very well, but you need to earn a living, so why don’t you teach?’ I did, and 13 years later, I woke up.” Urged by his “very pragmatic” girlfriend at the time to stop complaining and follow his dream, he took the plunge as a stand-up 11 years ago.
Those 13 years’ teaching at comprehensives were not wasted, however, because they provided Davies with no end of material for his stand-up routines and now, Man Down.
At the start of the first episode, finally tiring of his puerile behaviour, his long-suffering girlfriend ends their six-year relationship. She encourages him to grow up and leave his flat, which adjoins his parents’ home. That way, his mother might stop letting herself in to wash his underwear.
Dan’s behaviour is no more adult at work. As a drama teacher, his lessons consist of him extemporising an imaginary “Space Mission”, in which the pupils travel to the mysterious planet of Todd Carty to – as a child decorously puts it – “butcher some alien scum”. If it hadn’t already been taken, a good title for this show would have been Arrested Development.
Davies, who is 6ft 8in in his socks, reflects that, “There are several scenes in Man Down where Dan is attempting to move things on in the classroom when the children won’t let him. I remember once doing a lesson about Animal Farm. It was one of the few times where I’d really prepared. I had spent ages learning who Snowball was and what the ideas meant. I had a breakthrough moment when the kids realised that the novel was not just about talking animals. Then a kid put his hand up and asked, ‘Can you do the lambada, sir?’ I was constantly hampered by children with their own agenda.”
My hunch is that Davies was rather a good teacher – anyone so naturally funny is bound to be popular with pupils – but is far too modest to say so himself.
“I had one buttock-clenchingly embarrassing moment when the head called me in to tell me one of my pupils had nominated me for the prestigious Teacher of the Year award.
“The pupil had to fill in four pages of documentation, but on the form she had simply written one thing. It said: “Mr Davies is a well good laugh, and he don’t make us do no work.” The head wiped away tears of laughter before throwing the form in the bin.”
The self-effacing Davies acknowledges that he probably would not have been a contender for that award, anyway. “Don’t say I was an inspirational teacher – my former pupils would laugh their heads off. I was grossly incompetent, but I hope I didn’t do the children a disservice.
“Kids are great. They are endlessly fascinating and bizarre. But I also think that if I had left them on their own for long enough, one of them would have been eaten. William Golding got there first with that idea in Lord of the Flies – and he’s right.”
This is definitely not the terrain of terrine with mushrooms. This plotline would probably feel more at home in another comedy in which Davies plays a teacher, the vicious Mr Gilbert in The Inbetweeners. Will that delightfully deranged teacher be returning fo the sequel of the successful Inbetweeners Movie? “I’m hopeful that the psychopath will make an appearance,” smiles Davies. “I love playing him – you can just take the character and run with it. Every school has a Mr Gilbert.”
While Dan is a very different sitcom creation, he is nevertheless equally engaging – key to this is that he never learns from his mistakes. He echoes Jerry Seinfeld’s famous dictum that at the end of every sitcom episode there must be “no hugging, no learning”.
Davies, who has also starred in the BBC3 sitcom Cuckoo, observes that, “The day Dan does learn anything is the day the series ends. But God loves a trier. At one point, he breaks into a car pound to recover a pony-shaped cake for his niece. He goes to extraordinary lengths to make things better – just the wrong lengths! “Einstein’s definition of madness is repeating the same behaviour and expecting a different outcome. That’s Dan to a tee. He thinks, ‘I’ll carry on with this approach and next time it’s bound to work.’ That was my attitude, too, at one time.”
So in what other ways is Man Down auto- biographical? Davies, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Rik Mayall (who, in a neat bit of casting, plays Dan’s father in Man Down), says that “most of the things that happen to Dan didn’t happen to me. But there is a half truth in everything. Dan hates his life and his job, but the kids still enjoy his lessons – in spite of him. He is a character who is lost at sea and has no appreciation of the positive things in his life. That is based on a certain period of my life. I had a great time as a teacher, but I was just treading water, as a lot of us do.”
He can now look back with fondness on his time in the classroom. “I always seem to be slagging it off and talking about it as if I was manically depressed for 13 years. Admin and forward planning were not my forte, but I loved the actual teaching.
In the very unlikely event of his comedy work ever drying up, Davies won’t be rushing back to the classroom. “I haven’t maintained my qualifications and, after everything I’ve said over the years about teaching, I’m pretty sure the profession wouldn’t have me back – quite rightly!”
Now 45, Davies seems very comfortable with his current position. Maybe he copes with it so well because fame only came to him later in life. “That’s what I tell myself – to forgive the younger me for not doing it sooner. That’s the lie I’ve chosen to believe. My mum always says to me, ‘Stop moaning about the fact that you were a teacher. If you hadn’t been one, what would you have talked about all these years?’ The answer is, ‘You, mum!’”
Davies concludes that, as the sitcom demonstrates, youth is wasted on the young. “Man Down is about a character attempting to change his life and being ill-equipped to do so. How many times do you hear middle-aged people say, ‘I wish I’d known that when I was younger’? Self-awareness only comes with age – sadly. It’s a cruel trick of life. “I wonder how many people on their deathbed say, ‘Oh damn, I’ve just got it. Hang on a minute…’ ”
See Man Down tonight at 9:30pm, C4