Greg Davies on Man Down, the death of Rik Mayall and losing his real father
Greg Davies was hit by a double shock last year when both his TV dad and then his real dad died – but now he’s back on top
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.
Before becoming a professional comic, Davies spent 13 years teaching drama. He says it was the one bit of advice his father gave him that he regrets following. But I’m not so sure that he would be enjoying such success today if he hadn’t taught. So much of his stand-up act is rooted in his experience, from the pathetic nicknames school kids are given (one boy was called Mumbo because his mother had BO) to the self-loathing he felt because he wasn’t doing what he wanted to. He rose up the teaching ladder, and by the time he quit, he was head of drama at a comprehensive. He wishes he could say he’d had a good time, but it wouldn’t be true.
“I was lost at sea. I wasn’t happy where I was in life. If you’re not doing what you want to do in life, you’re just like a pinball, knocking around. In my 20s I was a huge drinker. We’d go out at weekends and get absolutely s***faced.” On a first date in Man Down, we see Dan ordering a pint of wine and downing it in one. Is that taken from life? “Oh yeah. When I was a teacher and went back to Shropshire to see my friends we’d start the night by drinking a bottle of sherry. Each. Just to get drunk quickly.”
Was he as immature as Dan? “Yeah. Painfully immature. In fact my mother said to me last night, ‘Well, you’ve always been ten years behind where you should be.’ And I hold my hands up. That’s exactly right.”
Was he as hopeless with women as Dan is? “Yes. As a young man I was an absolute idiot. I think my exes would say I was a likeable baby. I had a teenager’s bedroom when I was 32.”
He knows it sounds funny in retrospect, but it wasn’t. “There wasn’t a day passed when I thought, ‘When am I going to have a go at the thing I’ve always wanted?’ ” How did that make him feel about himself ? “Awful. Absolute self-loathing. I was furious with myself for 13 years.” He bored his friends with his frustrations. He’d spend his life trying to make them laugh to prove a point. It’s such a relief that he doesn’t have to do that now, he says. “Some friends think I’m dull now. But I think it’s great that I’m no longer trying to make everyone laugh in the pub.”
Davies started gigging on the stand-up circuit and within a couple of years was making enough money to give up the day job. I ask who his comic heroes are. This is where Mayall comes in again. “Rik was probably the first person who made me think, ‘Yeah, God, if I can get paid for that!’ ” What did he adore about him? “Just the absolute madness. As a young man, it blew my mind. I ran into school the day after every episode [of The Young Ones] to talk about it.”
Davies found it hard to write after Mayall died. He had already sketched out five episodes of Man Down and didn’t really know how to start again. “Rik was the dream casting for me. He was a childhood hero of mine, and I look like him. And he was beloved, as you saw when he died. The adoration poured out for him. So never for a second did I think, ‘That’s OK, we’ll just get another dad in.’”
Eventually he hit on the idea of substituting him with an eccentric aunt (played by Stephanie Cole). This time, though, she wasn’t based on a real relative. “I don’t have a battleaxe aunty, but I know some women in Shropshire who are that sort of stoic, get on with life even if your legs get chopped off, red-faced farmers’ wives...”
Davies might be the inspiration for Dan, but he says since he became successful he has changed so much –and for the better. “I think you just calm down a little bit. It’s like an addiction. Once you’re getting your fix, you don’t need to be quite so full on. The simple thing that’s changed is that I’m doing what I never believed I’d do this for a living.”
He says he’s matured, too – even emotionally. When MP Liz Kendall (below) recently announced she would be contesting the leadership of the Labour party, Davies’s personal life was splashed all over the papers – various reports said the two have been in a long-term relationship.
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How long has he been with Liz, I ask? “Now you’re not going to like this, but I don’t talk about all that stuff in interviews. I don’t talk about my personal life at all.” It turns out that the couple split up last year. He later tells Radio Times: “We haven’t been together for some time, but it was all very amicable and she is a good friend.”
Davies himself is a Labour voter – another thing he attributes to his father’s influence. He is so glad, he says, that his father was able to see him make something of himself. “Right up to the end when he was very ill and in a wheelchair, he was getting wheeled to my gigs, yeah. I was told from the moment I dared to do this that he was incredibly proud of me.”
But even then, Davies admits, there was a competitive element. “There was a degree of irritation that I was doing what I was doing. He thought he could have done it better, and he was probably right. He was hilarious. I can’t think of anybody who’s made me laugh as much.”
Man Down returns to Channel 4 tonight (Monday 1st June) at 10.00pm