Just before returning to shoot the second season of Code 404 last year, Daniel Mays got a phone call from his friend and co-star Stephen Graham. “God, it feels so weird,” the Time star told him. “This feels like our first job we’ve ever done!”
The reason for the apprehension was simple: this was the first time in seven months that either actor had gone back to work. Code 404 was the first UK series to go back into full production following the first lockdown, and after such a long gap it felt unusual to be preparing to be on set once again.
“You’re a bit ring-rusty,” Mays explains. “And you’re standing there on your own thinking ‘God, I’ve got to play John Major again, how does this go?’
“I mean, it was a tough thing to do. But at the end of the day, everything is there in place to get you to your mark, and sort of once they shout action, you know, you’ve just got to do your job again!”
It’s easy to see why Sky was so keen to get Code 404 back into production so fast: the first series, which debuted towards the beginning of the pandemic, was a huge hit – becoming Sky’s most watched comedy in eight years, and Mays said his phone wouldn’t stop pinging with supportive messages from fans. So what was it that made the show such a success?
“I think it was a perfect time for it to be released,” Mays says. “You know, we were in lockdown. And I think Code 404 to me represents a pure kind of unadulterated entertainment. You know, it’s slapstick funny, there’s great drama in it – and there’s even more stunts and gadgets this time around.”
Much of the comedy’s first series revolved around a love triangle between Mays’ character John Major, his wife Kelly (Anna Maxwell Martin), and his police partner Roy Carver (Graham). The premise of the show is that Major – the best officer in the Met’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU) – is brought back from the dead using Artificial Intelligence after being shot during an investigation, and it transpires that in the time he was dead, Carver and Kelly had begun an affair. This fact was only discovered by Major towards the end of series one, and the fallout from the revelation continues to play a big part going into the second run.
“The very beginning of the second series takes place one month later, and none of that has been properly resolved,” Mays explains. “Certainly the relationship, the betrayal, that Major feels to Roy, none of that has been worked through yet. And so there is a lot of animosity and bitterness and hatred.
“So it’s about them really going at each other hammer and tongs, they’re arguing, but John, because of the emotional betrayal, he’s kind of completely messed up, which is affecting his behavioural patterns even more.”
Throughout the first series, one of the main sources of laughs was the faultiness of Major’s artificial augmentation: although the AI had proven successful in bringing him back from the dead, he wasn’t quite the same man he had been before his accident, which led to both some excruciatingly embarrassing moments and some great opportunities for physical comedy. That physical comedy has gone nowhere in season two, and Mays says that the shoot could often be a little punishing given all the stunts he had to pull off.
“At one point, I’m hanging off the top of SIU, so they have me on a wire like Peter Pan,” he says. “And at the end of the third episode I’m involved in an MMA fight. So I had a lot of training with that.
“So I mean, it was kind of exhausting. You think it’s a nice little comedy, and it’s only six episodes, then we get halfway through and it’s like, it just doesn’t stop!”
The relentlessness of these stunts aside, Mays has always felt as comfortable doing comedy as doing straight drama, and he voices his amusement that some people have registered surprise at finding him in a more light-hearted role. He points out his stints on the sitcoms Plus One and Top Buzzer (the latter of which also starred Graham) and says that he’s always wanted to “mix it up” a little when it comes to selecting his roles.
But one thing that Code 404 does have in common with a few of Mays’ recent performances is that he’s playing a police officer – something he’s done on numerous occasions in the last few years, from the 2017 film The Limehouse Golem to his short-lived spell on Line of Duty. So does Mays deliberately look for these roles?
“No, I mean, that is just how it panned out,” he says. “I think I was playing hoodlums and thugs when I started out, and now it’s moved on to policemen and who knows what it will be next!
“But it’s just how it panned out. I mean, I think this country… they love true crime drama, don’t they? So there’s always cop shows on the telly all the time.”
Perhaps the most notable copper he’s played recently is Peter Jay, the police officer who led the investigation into the crimes of Dennis Nilsen, in ITV’s chilling true-crime drama Des. The show was another huge ratings success and has gone on to win a host of accolades, including the RadioTimes.com Award for Best Drama, and I ask Mays if he was surprised by just how much audiences embraced the series.
“I mean it wasn’t embraced by BAFTA that’s for sure,” he responds, referring to the surprising lack of nominations for the show at this year’s ceremony. “Which I’ll be honest with you, I was sort of surprised at that.
“But it was an amazing project to be part of. And it is so gratifying when it finds an audience and the reviews it was getting. I mean, it was just an absolutely stellar performance from David Tennant. It was absolute honour and privilege to sort of sit there and watch him do his thing – and Jason Watkins as well.”
Mays says that director Lewis Arnold described his character as the “heart and soul of the piece” and he adds that he felt an extra responsibility to get his portrayal right, given he was playing a real person investigating an extremely hard-hitting case. He describes meeting Peter Jay’s widow and son for lunch, at which they discussed how much the case had taken its toll on him, and says that the insight he gained from them was invaluable.
“It was just a fascinating lunch to sit down and talk to them about how much the Nilsen case consumed, not just him, but his team, you know,” he says. “Because the great thing about Des was – what they depicted really well in the drama – was how, you know, back in the ‘80s when it happened, there were no sort of police psychologists or counsellors that they could sit down and talk to.
“I mean, it was a time in the early ‘80s where men didn’t share their innermost feelings and what they were going through. So to kind of depict how it really emotionally and psychologically affected Peter, I wanted to get that exactly right.”
Beyond series two of Code 404, Mays already has a number of other projects on the horizon: he will soon be appearing in the second season of another Sky Original series, Temple – which is based on the Norwegian series Valkyrien and also stars Mark Strong. Mays says he is “buzzing” about the second series of the show and reckons that it’s going to “really surprise a lot of people.”
And he’s got other, grander plans going forward as well. He says Code 404 – which got the green light after he had already attached his name to the project – gave him a sense of what it might be like to be more involved on the producing side of things, and this is something that he’s interested in looking into further.
“I guess I’m kind of thinking about, you know, I sort of admire those actors that set their own production companies up and kind of like forging their own way, in terms of the roles that they want to play,” he says.
“I think that’s possibly something I really want to start thinking about now, as opposed to waiting for the work to come to me. I feel like I’ve been in the industry for 20 years now, so it’s about, you know, using the connections that I’ve made and thinking of scripts I want to do or characters I’d like to play. I’ve got a few ideas and it’s just about sitting down with the right people.”
All six episodes of Code 404 series two are available to watch on Sky Comedy and NOW. Read more of our Big RT Interviews.