As he stars in a macabre new sitcom, the comedian talks about writer’s rage, his years of depression and why he still feels like he’s in his twenties.
Greg Davies is late but, of course, he has a tale to tell. “I’ve just been throwing my niece through a window,” he says, slightly wild-eyed and out of breath.
“Well, feeding her through it. Like a Victorian child.” He is on holiday in Cornwall, went out for a walk first thing and locked himself out.
“Because,” he sighs. “I am an incompetent human being.”
That may be true, but he is a deliciously proficient storyteller. He just loves it, really, as anyone knows who has ever seen him do stand-up, or maybe watched him on The Graham Norton Show regaling an appalled Ryan Gosling with how, in his past life as a teacher, he once wore his mother’s knickers to school (a compilation titled The Funniest Greg Davies Moments on The Graham Norton Show has 3.5 million hits on YouTube).
Today almost every answer comes with a baroque anecdote – about the time he had such bad writer’s block he ran away to a forest in blind fury, say, or the mind-melting boredom he used to feel in the classroom. He must be very good value down the pub.
Anyway, getting locked out and having to throw the nearest child through a window sounds very much like the kind of pickle Davies would write for one of his characters.
In his Channel 4 sitcom, Man Down, which ended in 2017 after four series, he played Dan, a teacher in his forties who is resolutely single, lives with his parents and gets into scrapes involving lost trousers, dead pets and largely unsatisfying sexual encounters.
He has now written a new six-part BBC comedy, The Cleaner. He plays a crime scene cleaner who turns up at people’s houses to clear up the messy aftermath of a death (or accident) and frequently finds himself in a mess of his own.
The series is based on the German comedy Der Tatortreiniger, which ran for seven series: Studio Hamburg had the idea of a BBC adaptation and suggested Davies would be the ideal man to do it.
Paul “Wicky” Wickstead (as Davies has named the lead) is in his late forties, resolutely single and unencumbered by ties, barring his commitment to curry night at The White Horse and the occasional, unsatisfying sexual encounter. You can see what Studio Hamburg was thinking.
Davies combed through the back catalogue of original episodes and picked six stories, which he then rewrote. Each unfolds essentially as a theatrical two-hander, with an impressive roster of guest stars, including Helena Bonham Carter as a murderous wife, David Mitchell as a precious writer, and Stephanie Cole as a deranged aristocrat.
Bonham Carter is a particular revelation for one, audibly scatological, bathroom scene. “That was actually the scene that persuaded her to do it,” notes Davies.
Wicky acts as a kind of ingénu and sounding board, mopping up gloopy pools of blood as he absorbs the confessions and neuroses of people who are on the edge – of grief, trauma and loneliness. “I like to put things right,” he says of his job. And in the end, he usually does.
It is a refreshingly odd premise. “I found myself asking, ‘how the hell did he end up doing this?’” says Davies. In the final episode, “The One”, his client turns out to be an old flame (played by This is England’s Jo Hartley), through whom we find out more about his past. Wicky has not really moved on from his youth – he listens to the same music, drinks in the same pub, with the same friends.
“The man-child is a theme of anything I’ve written, for very obvious reasons,” says Davies. “It’s personal to me. Arrested development is always going to be an obsession.”
Davies is 53, but he definitely doesn’t feel it. “The notion that I’m an adult is just preposterous. The idea that there is a point when one becomes a fully functioning adult is endlessly fascinating to me. I just don’t think there is.”
I wonder what age he feels. “Well, when I’m talking to late twentysomethings, I feel like I’m talking to my peer group. And it’s only every now and again that you see the way they…” he trails off.
The other day, while filming the new series of Never Mind the Buzzcocks, he rapped a Dr Dre lyric off the cuff and was appalled to hear the audience cheer. “I was like, ‘Don’t f**king patronise me!’ They’re looking at a grey-haired old man and thinking, ‘Isn’t that cute? He knows some rap lyrics!’”
He is the new host of the music panel show, which was axed in 2015 and is now coming back to Sky with Daisy May Cooper and Noel Fielding as team captains.
Davies, a music fan, whose tastes run from the Boo-Yaa TRIBE to Nirvana (“If you looked at my starred playlist you would think me insane”), took the job partly out of nostalgia, he says.
Like Taskmaster, which he also hosts, and in which gangs of competitive stand-ups are driven to the brink of madness by bizarre challenges, Buzzcocks offers a sideways glimpse at the famous. “Pop stars who are managed in a very slick way, packaged very cleverly and sell their wares very effectively – if they come onto a show like Buzzcocks, they can’t continue that. You have to give of yourself somewhat.”
He will be a softer host than he is on Taskmaster, where he doles out points, criticism and ridicule with sadistic relish. “I can’t be a dictator,” he says.
So this won’t be a return to the high snark of ex-Buzzcocks host Simon Amstell? “I quickly realised that’s not the best way to get musicians, who can be nervous, to chat and let their guard down. It’s more relaxed and silly.”
As for his unlikely role as a commanding figurehead, he finds it, like many things in his life, absurd. “I’m just a silly fat man. The idea that there’s any natural authority in this human being is ridiculous,” he says. “It’s pantomime authority, which is what I lived on for 13 years of teaching.”
Davies was born in St Asaph, Wales but grew up in Wem, Shropshire. He wasn’t a particularly funny child, “but I learned very early on that I liked the response that making people laugh got.”
His father, who died in 2014, was the funniest person he has ever met, and he spent much of his childhood (and perhaps beyond) trying to impress him. “You held his attention when you were being silly, for sure.”
He has a distinct memory of telling his primary school teacher a joke from a cracker and that teacher laughing. From that moment on, he became obsessed with comedy.
“I think we make a decision very early on. I don’t buy into ‘funny bones.’ To me, they are the comedians who just practised longer, who worked it out from an early age that they needed it.”
He studied English and Theatre Studies at Brunel University where the only course he could get on was a deeply serious physical theatre course.
For his finals, he had to produce a piece of work and having spent half an hour telling his lecturers what it would entail – an attack on American imperialism, no less – they responded, “Just do a comedy, Greg.”
So, he wrote a spoof autobiographical one-man play, and that should have been the beginning of his comedy career. Except that he had no idea what to do next.
So he became a teacher – of secondary school English and Drama and stayed a teacher for 13 long years. He remembers sitting in one lesson, marking the minutes off, one by one, on a piece of paper.
“I didn’t hate it, I hated myself for staying with it. I was forever angry with myself, because all I ever wanted to do was comedy. If through sheer cowardice, you’re not doing the thing that you would most want to spend your life doing, then no job is going to be a happy place to be.”
Once he was nominated for the Teacher of the Year award. His headteacher called him into discuss the application by a pupil, which read simply: “He’s a well good laugh and he don’t make us do no work”. Does he ever miss it? “Not for whatever the smallest part of a second is.
“I was miserable. Looking back on it, depressed, frankly. I think if I’d spoken to somebody even remotely qualified, I would have said I’d had many years of depression. I was just aware I was only happy on Saturdays and Sundays.”
In the end it was his then-girlfriend, a “very pragmatic Australian”, who forced him to do something about his misery.
He Googled ‘comedy courses’ and found Logan Murray’s stand-up workshops in London, which, in 11 short weeks, changed his life (and, incidentally, that of his course-mate and Buzzcocks predecessor, Rhod Gilbert).
He was 33 years old at the time. “I thought there was absolutely no chance it would go anywhere. But I really felt like I would go mad if I hadn’t tried.” He took to it instantly, winning the Laughing Horse New Act of the Year award on his third gig in 2002.
It turned out, he had a lot of stories to tell. In his last tour, You Magnificent Beast, which was filmed for Netflix, his anecdotes run from his mother’s brush with sex toys to manscaping and finding moments of joy in his father’s illness.
It feels like he has absolutely no filter, but at the same time, he does not like to talk about his private life, at all. He was in a relationship with the Labour MP Liz Kendall for several years but they split in 2015.
“One of the things that appeals to me about stand-up is the selective honesty of it. That you have absolute control to present whatever sides of you, you think are palatable,” he grins. “Or selectively unpalatable.”
He is now writing Safe Space, a new comedy drama for Sky in which he plays a psychotherapist who starts to give deliberately bad advice. It is darker than anything he has tried before, he says. “But if you want to try new things, you often have to drive it yourself.”
That said, he suffers terribly with writing, which he describes as a kind of madness.
He used to find crafting the plots of Man Down so tantalising that he would break things.
“Like my sock drawer. I opened it so it was fully extended, and then I kicked it off its hinges. Like a psychopath. That drawer is now glued shut, a monument to my fury. I often look at it when I’m cross.”
Once while writing, he made himself a cup of tea and spilt a drop of water. “And I said, out loud, ‘Oh that’s the way it’s going to be, is it?’
Then I poured the whole kettle of hot water onto my floor like a lunatic. And I got in a car and I drove to Norfolk.”
The story continues at length, with him going for a walk, chasing a couple down the beach and getting lost in a forest for several hours before driving home to London again, to start writing once more.
“It was, ” he says, “very much a case of wherever you go, there you are.”
It’s a typical Davies anecdote – self-lacerating, elaborate, with a genial fury bubbling under the surface at how absurd he is.
He’s clearly delighted that this is his life now, pinballing from one TV show to another, with occasional flurries of creative madness.
“There’s a compulsion that comes from leaving it so long.
I’m trying to think of a less clumsy analogy, but if you’ve spent a long time staring at a cake, and you suddenly get the cake,” he says. “You really want to ram the cake in your face.”
The Cleaner starts on Friday 10 September at 9.30pm on BBC One. The full series will be available on BBC iPlayer from 10pm.
(Article source: Inews)