Lee Mack confesses he’s reached the age where he can usually be found beavering away in his garden shed. But you won’t find him, like a lot of men approaching 50, repotting the begonias or pretending to tinker with the lawn mower. Mack’s shed is where he spends hours writing the BBC1 sitcom Not Going Out, which returns on Friday for its eighth series in ten years.
“I’ve tried everywhere, but my garden shed is the most effective place to write,” laughs the 48-year-old writer, actor and stand-up comedian. “I like to get up early and wander out there in my pyjamas to do a full day. Nothing else seems to work for me. I once even tried a canal boat, but there were too many ducks to feed. And ooh, that wood-burning stove proved too much of a temptation. I love my shed because it’s so boring – there’s nothing in there to distract me when I’m plotting the show.”
The last appearance of the gag-rich sitcom was the 2015 Christmas special, which ended with Mack’s fictional version of himself having his first child with new wife Lucy. However, fans are in for a shock. The new series makes a seven-year leap, with their eldest, Charlie, now joined by five-year-old twins Benji and Molly.
So why the sudden fast-forward? “The truth is I just wanted to write a sitcom about what I am in real life, which is a husband and dad of three kids [Arlo, 12, Louie, 10, and Millie, 5],” says Mack. “It allows me to tap into stories that have an element of truth. It also means that when stuff happens to me in real life, I don’t get angry about it, I just write it down and use it.
Lee Mack and his wife Tara McKillop
“For instance, for one of my kids’ birthdays, we all went to the cinema before going for lunch. My wife Tara was letting the kids fill up huge cups of pick ’n’ mix sweets. I said, ‘Do you think they should be having this much sugar before lunch? Let’s leave the cups half-full.’ She said, ‘Fine, but you do know they’re priced by the cup, not by the weight?’ And these cups are ridiculously expensive at £5.99 each. So I suddenly heard myself say, ‘Right, get it to the top,’ and I began frantically pressing the sweets down into each cup, cramming as many in there as physically possible. I was thinking, ‘I refuse to be ripped off by these people!’ And as we walked away, I thought, ‘Brilliant. I’ll use that. We can do an episode about how much sugar kids eat.’”
This foot-in-reality approach also explains why the new series sees Lee sharing a hot tub with former Spice Girl Emma Bunton.
“My wife and I have always thought it odd that, on social occasions, couples play the ‘hot tub fantasy’ game where you’re allowed to pick a celebrity you’d like to share a hot tub with. It’s basically saying, ‘Who do you want to sleep with?’, but by packaging it in a fluffy little pretend game, it suddenly makes it acceptable. So I put it in an episode. In the fictional world, my hot-tub partner was Emma Bunton and she was kind enough to agree to do it.”
And in the real world?
“Ah, OK, you’ve got me,” smirks Mack. “Yes, if I wasn’t a happily married man with three children, Emma Bunton would definitely be my hot-tub fantasy date.”
Just for the record, who was his wife keen to leap into a hot tub with? “I genuinely can’t remember,” he laughs. “But I’ve got a feeling it wasn’t David Mitchell.”
Are his family fans of the show? “They’re really not bothered whether it’s on or not,” he deadpans. “My wife doesn’t really watch it and although my eldest has just started to, it’s not his favourite show by a long way – and why would it be? The only feedback I get from him is the occasional slightly arched eyebrow if he likes one of my character’s jokes. That’s high praise in my house. He did actually appear in the 2013 Christmas special, playing a ghost, but he was very casual even about that. He enjoys his weekly drama class and if he drifts into performing as a career, then fine, but I’d never dream of pushing him.”
Lee Mack and his fictional family in Not Going Out
However, it becomes apparent that Mack’s children have inherited the comic gene. “My kids love to embarrass me. They know that I’m not bothered when people recognise me, but occasionally there are days I just don’t want to be acknowledged by a single person, so then I’ll put my hat and glasses on. I even wear them in the car, which is when my kids think it highly amusing to lean out as we’re crawling through town and shout at bemused shoppers, ‘It’s Lee Mack in the car!’ That’s when stern dad commands they wind the window up sharpish.”
As funny and affable off stage as he is on, it’s hard to imagine Mack being a particularly authoritarian father. “My kids would say I’m strict, but I don’t think I am,” he admits. “Although I’m very strict on the amount of time they go online. So much so, I worry that I’m slightly Victorian about it. Because of course in the Victorian age they were only allowed an hour of YouTube a day.”
Ironically, the only time Mack does get serious is when talking about comedy. He admits that Not Going Out’sseven-year jump will require a leap of faith from its fans. “I’m under no illusion that it’s a risk because people don’t like change. But we’ve already showed the couple getting married and having a baby in consecutive episodes, so we’ve jumped ahead of time in the past without a problem.”
He’s equally dismissive of the suggestion that the show’s new family-based set-up will appeal to a different audience: “I honestly never think about the audience. I wouldn’t know who’s watching it, and frankly I don’t care, so long as enough people are. I just think, ‘Do I like the final product?’ and then hope that enough people have got the same sense of humour.”
He needn’t worry on that score. Evidently there are plenty who share Mack’s love of reality-based plotlines peppered with a machine-gun delivery of finely crafted gags. Only hours after our chat, the BBC announced that they’ve commissioned two further series of the show. It seems safe to say, Lee Mack’s shed will be occupied for the foreseeable future.
Not Going Out returns tonight at 9pm on BBC1