I’m ushered into a minuscule hotel bedroom where Steve Pemberton is waiting for me. “You’ve come on a nice week,” he says, without a hint of menace. I don’t know what I was expecting, but as I shake the man’s hand, I can’t help being aware that I’m in the presence of Tubbs from the Local Shop, job centre Pauline, toad collector Harvey and tour-guide paedo Herr Lipp. But of course the man who created those unforgettable League of Gentlemen weirdos (and others in Psychoville and Whitechapel) is an extremely amiable man. And he’s here to talk about Benidorm series six and his long-running character, Mick Garvey.
The Garveys are coming in one by one today. Next into the room is Siobhan Finneran who plays Janice. “Hi Patrick, I’m Siobh.” I like to think she spells it “Shiv”. That’s what it sounds like. She’s wearing a bright floaty sundress but somehow still has a hint about her of the formidable lady’s maid Miss O’Brien. The first thing I want to ask her is whether she had to choose between Downton Abbey and Benidorm (which were shooting at the same time). The answer is a firm no.
She says it was an easy decision to leave Downton “because I’d only ever wanted to do three series”. (Back in the summer when I did the interview, we hadn’t seen her character’s abrupt exit.) How will O’Brien be written out? “No idea,” says Shiv, sounding like she really does not wish to discuss Downton.
“I’m hoping she’s flung off the roof of the Abbey. I don’t think I’m gonna get my wish. She may well nip out for a pint of milk and a bag of sugar and nobody ever sees her again.
“I loved playing her but I don’t miss wearing black, neck to floor.” O’Brien was a severe Mrs Danvers-like lady’s maid. Did she ever smile? “Oh yeah,” says Shiv, “if she was getting her own way, she smiled a lot. And she was always inwardly smiling, no matter what she was doing.”
Now Sheila Reid comes through the door, dressed as Madge in a leopard-print top but without her mobility scooter. A tiny lady, she radiates a benign aura, so unlike her waspish screen character, and in real life speaks without a Northern accent.
“They used to say things like, ‘Ooh, you talk posh,’ but no one says that any more. I suppose because I’ve had a bit of stuff on telly being myself more.” Yet Madge has become an iconic character for the show’s fans. “It’s weird. The scooter thing has taken off to such an extent. There are hen parties. They all come out dressed up as Madge and scooter around Benidorm.”
So would she say she was very unlike Madge? “My God, polar opposite!” snorts Shiv. Sheila doesn’t even smoke in real life: “I used to. Madge says she doesn’t like pork in this series but she loves bacon, ham and sausages so she quite likes pork really. I don’t eat meat.”
If Sheila and Madge met in real life, would they be pals? Sheila likes this idea: “I think I’d find her quite scary but I’d love her honesty and directness, calling a spade a spade, which is refreshing.” “And,” says Steve, “you’d want borrow some of her clothes.” Sheila chuckles, “C’mon, excuse me. What could be better than that!”
All three actors have extremely busy careers. How difficult is it organising everyone’s schedules to all be available together? “It’s increasingly tricky,” admits Steve, who had to miss a whole episode in series five. This time Derren Litten was able to write around Steve while he was finishing work on ITV’s drama, Whitechapel. “I missed the first two weeks and that’s why Mick ends up in prison at the airport. I couldn’t be around the pool. That’s going to start to stretch credulity going forward.”
Shiv points out the practicalities: “If you’re filming round the pool, everyone has to be there. And if you’re in the nightclub, everyone’s there. So like today, we’ve not got much to do, but you’ve got to be in all day to be in the background of everything else, so that’s why it’s so hard for them to do.”
“I was also working,” says Sheila, “and I also had some time off, just to breathe, before coming out and that was a headache for our brilliant first AD [assistant director] to plot it all.”
They all say they find it easy to slip back into character. “We know them incredibly well now,” says Shiv. “It’s like putting on an old overcoat really,” says Sheila. “In my case a very old overcoat.”
[Sheila pictured left, poolside with RT’s Patrick Mulkern]
Sheila’s main requirement for Madge is a very dark, fake tan, which takes an age to get off. “I do a lot of scrubbing and exfoliating. It takes a while to seep out of the pores. I’m the only one who’s not been in the pool yet in the whole series.” Steve roars: “She’d turn the water brown!”
This series there’s a lot of friction between the Garveys and the new family, the Dykes. Shiv explains: “Yes, their teenage son leads our delightful, angelic teenage son into lots of trouble.”
Young Michael comes back with a tattoo on his arm. “We won’t reveal to you what it says.” Will he be stuck with it for ever? Steve says: “What we’ve said is when we go home we’ll have it removed. Although how the Garveys can afford to have tattoos removed…”
The Garveys are from Lancashire while the Dykes are from Watford. Is this a deliberate North/South divide? “There’s definitely a North/South divide,” says Steve, and Shiv adds sharply: “In the real world, oh yes!”
Steve explains: “The Garveys love coming to Benidorm and we come every year whereas their family has just arrived and they’re kind of, ‘Urgh, where are we?’ Especially the wife who is like, ‘Why are we in this horrendous place?’ You need that in this show. We’ve always had characters who don’t really like being here.”
I ask Steve what it’s like playing Mick, who’s quite a normal guy, compared to his League of Gentlemen or Psychoville characters who were so weird and needed heavy disguises. This must be more relaxing. “Absolutely. I love coming in and the costume is just lying on the bed there, and it’s often just a pair of shorts, with the sun block on the side.”
He enjoys the break from the other shows where he has greater creative input. “Here I’m not thinking about the script, the schedule… I’m in the safest hands acting with these guys. We just have a ball. That’s why we’ve come back and done six series of it because we have a tremendous amount of fun. I wouldn’t want to give all that other stuff up. I’m still doing it in parallel with this.”
His next project, with former League associate Reece Shearsmith, is Inside No 9, which he describes as “dark, self-contained comedies for BBC2, a bit Tales of the Unexpected”. He’s filmed three episodes already and is filming three more when back in the UK. “What’s brilliant is having these very dark, cult, odd things and then having this running in parallel. The change keeps you energised.”
How do they account for the enduring appeal of Benidorm?
Steve: “Miranda and Mrs Brown’s Boys on BBC1 get a lot more attention in a way but Benidorm constantly gets those viewing figures, rising each year, but we don’t do lots of chat shows and the party scene. You need a bit of publicity and Joan Collins coming in to generate interest but it’s just quietly gone about its way. Word of mouth – that’s what’s made this show what it is.”
Shiv agrees: “We had a really firm fan base when we started with series one and then people started buying it on DVD, and for friends who hadn’t seen it, so by the time we got to series four we’d got all those viewers. They love the banter, the family dynamic. It’s like watching people we know or ‘That’s like our family on holiday.’ They’re quite happy to go to the extremes with us. And the sun is shining. Sometimes you’re sitting at home a bit miserable and fed up and you put the telly on and there’s somebody having a laugh and they’re in the sun. I hate January, so it’ll be perfect.”
Sheila: “They love it, and it’s all ages, all sexes. It’s extraordinary. It seems to have touched a vein, a funny bone. What’s good is when you go out and meet people, like we do in this hotel corridor, their faces just break into a smile. It’s real and genuine, and you think, ‘That’s nice – we make people really happy.’”
Catch up on our Benidorm Diary
Benidorm series six starts Thursday 2 January, 9pm ITV