It’s been a tough 12 months for Greg Davies. Last June, Rik Mayall, who played his father in the Channel 4 sitcom Man Down, died. Soon after that, his real father died. Not only were their deaths a shock to Davies, but they caused the stand-up comic a creative crisis.
We meet in a pub close to his home in south London. There’s something staggering about seeing him close up. He’s six foot eight, 21 stone, with size 14 feet – more of an obstacle than a man. He cast Mayall because, despite the size difference, they bore an uncanny resemblance to each other – permanently raised eyebrow, quizzical mouth, a face made for mischief.
At the time of Mayall’s death, Davies was halfway through writing the second series of Man Down. He pretty much had to start again. Then he was hit with the double whammy. “My dad died a couple of months after Rik. Yes, it was a difficult year.” He comes to an uncomfortable stop. Neither of us knows what to say.
To lose your TV father and real father within months, I start to say… “Yeah, it’s a unique set of circumstances. It was incredibly sad.” He sips at his water. “I was very close to my dad.” Last year’s Christmas special concluded with a touching dedication to the two fathers he had only recently lost.
Man Down is about drama teacher Dan, who is more childish than his pupils. (This isn’t the first time Davies has played a teacher; he’s possibly best known for his lunatic teacher Mr Gilbert in The Inbetweeners.) When faced with emotional crises, Dan will inevitably “man down” rather than man up – he tries to win his girlfriend back by doing “the helicopter” with his willy (best left to your imagination) or cooking her a bulk load of bargain mince (with nothing else). Rather than an alpha male, Dan is more of a delta.
The relationship between Dan and his father in Man Down is bizarre – Mayall, as his dad, was always trying to humiliate him or brutalise him in one way or another, whether by whacking tennis balls at his goolies or mocking his uselessness. It is partly autobiographical, but Davies stresses he couldn’t have loved his father more. His real father wasn’t cruel, he says, though he was a little strange.
“The dad in the show was exaggerated. My dad wasn’t a psychopath. He didn’t physically attack me, but he did constantly wind me up.” In what way? “When I was in my 30s he hid in a bush for two hours with a sheet on his head waiting for me to come back from the pub, so he could jump out at me.” To scare you or to amuse himself? “To scare the s*** out of me primarily. Apparently, he came from a family where practical jokes were de rigueur.” Did he humiliate him? Well, he says, only for a laugh. “When he met my first girlfriend he said, ‘You know I used to have to wash his b******s for him?’”
Davie’s real father was also a terrific liar, constantly lying to his children to keep himself amused. “He had a goitre removed when he was in his 20s and he had a cartoon scar across his neck, and to the day he died he never admitted it wasn’t the result of a shark attack off the coast of Wales. He swore to us as children that’s what it was. My sister used to say, ‘Why d’you lie, why d’you lie?’ and he would say, ‘Because, my dear, the truth is so dull’ – which I think is lovely. I keep meaning to get that into the show, but I haven’t yet.”
Raised in a working-class Welsh mining family, Davies’s father was a high achiever – he eventually became a senior lecturer in comparative education. But he retired early due to ill health, and wanted to have fun with his son. The 47-year-old comedian says it’s funny talking about his father now. “I haven’t spoken publicly about him since he died.” But you sense he wants to talk about both him and Mayall. In a way, it’s the only honourable thing to do when discussing Man Down – after all, the father-son relationship is at the heart of it.