Interview: Greg Davies

It’s fair to say that Greg Davies is something of a late bloomer in the world of comedy. Having spent the first thirteen years of his career teaching English and Drama to secondary school pupils, he finally made the switch to comedy and acting aged 34. A decade on, Davies is now a household name on the stand-up circuit. Following his success as Mr Gilbert in The Inbetweeners, Davies went on to a thrice-extended and sell out national tour, Firing Cheeseballs at a Dog, and is now a regular on shows such as Mock the Week, Never Mind the Buzzcocks and Live at the Apollo.

“I love live stand up, and I really can’t wait to get going again,” he tells me. “I feel completely exhilarated being on stage, absolutely at peace. You can get to the end of a tour and think, God that was exhausting, but if you’re a ‘love-of-life’ performer, it’s really not long before you get itchy feet and start thinking, ‘I really need to get back on stage, stand in front of some strangers and just talk bollocks at them.’ It’s quite intoxicating.” This buoyancy and enthusiasm is something which defines his act: Davies’ material is not always the strongest, but his sense of euphoria is infectious, and it would take a cold heart to fail to be lifted by such a personality.

Having watched him mock and ridicule his life as a teacher in previous acts, I put it to him that this joviality stems from a sense of relief at finally making it as a stand up. “I absolutely agree with you. It’s a wonderful feeling, being on stage, and it gets rid of the need for…other stimulants, As a teacher, I was always a frustrated comedian. It’s something I’ve always known I wanted to do.”

I’m puzzled, though. Russell Howard began his path to stardom aged 19, while Jack Whitehall and Kevin Bridges were creating names for themselves before they could even buy a pint. Why didn’t Davies start making inroads to comedy earlier in his career? “An act of sheer cowardice,” is his blunt reply. “Whenever you fantasise about a dream job, there’s always a difference between fantasising and thinking, ‘Do you know what, I’m going to try and make it happen.’ Fear of failure is a remarkable thing. Lots of my friends who are my age are still sitting by the phone, hoping that they’ll get a call from a record company.”

And yet, Davies’ stint as a teacher seems to have provided the backbone for some of his best material. His first tour centred around anecdotes from his days as a student and as a teacher, and while he assures me that this new tour, The back of my Mum’s head, will instead “look at that stage in life where you’re officially an adult and can no longer blame anyone else”, it would seem that, whether playing the ferocious Mr Gilbert in the C4 hit The Inbetweeners, or performing on stage, Davies cannot escape from that ‘frustrated’ profession.

Aside from forming much of his material, did life as a teacher help prepare him for stand-up? “I think it really did, particularly in the early days on the stand-up circuit, because I spent thirteen years of my life trying to keep the attention of a not necessarily willing audience. Yet then again, perhaps it did me a disservice, as everyone thought I was better than I was, just because I was confident and I could speak in public. And that teacher-stare, the ability to grab the attention of a class in an instant, never leaves you.” He laughs, though at 6ft 8, I imagine that few would have dared to cross him. “I wasn’t like Mr Gilbert at all though,” he adds. “No, no I wasn’t a psychopath. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I didn’t take any shit, but the people who were in my care would confirm that I was certainly not incredibly strict.” If not strict, then funny? “I wouldn’t be so arrogant as to describe myself as funny, but I certainly spent far too much of my time trying to entertain them. I eventually made the switch (to comedy) as I thought to myself, if I don’t do it now, it’ll just be one of those things that I’ll forever regret.”

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Not for the first time, despite Davies’ mirth, a philosophical air seems to pervade the conversation. Surely, I propose, he must view himself as an example to others, that, no matter how trite it may sound, one should never lose sight of one’s ultimate goal in life. I’m a little surprised at his response. “Not really. I would never profess to offer anyone else life advice. I can’t even do my own shoelaces up. I’d try to sort my own life out before offering advice to others. But, you know, as Oasis said, ‘You’ve gotta make it happen,’ and that’s something I’ve learnt. In fact, that’s probably one of the few things I’ve ever learnt in life: It’s no good sitting around and thinking, ‘I wonder if someone’s going to call.’ You have to get off your backside and give it a go.”

Despite his endearing and modest denial, I can’t help but feel that there’s something of a reluctant philosopher in him. Watch his last tour from start to end, and you’ll find it stays with you a lot longer than the work of many other comedians. Towards the conclusion, as the audience gear up for a final laugh, Davies announces, “I want to tell you a story about a moment in everyone’s life, and if this hasn’t happened to you yet, then I’m sorry, but it will. It’s the moment when you realise your parents are not superhuman…” He goes on to recount the tale of how his mother suffered “a massive heart attack”, and talks of how he had to comfort his father as his mother lay in hospital, her future uncertain. Davies woke up the following morning to find he had “shat the bed”, and was spotted by his father as he tries to wash away the evidence. Patriarchal authority resumes. But it’s the grim realisation of our mortality, and the ability to laugh in its face, which resonates most.

Elsewhere, Davies recounts the event which gives the show its title, Firing Cheeseballs at a Dog. Whilst abroad with friend and colleague Marek Larwood, Davies’ car was blocked by a dog refusing to move out of the road. “I opened the bag of cheeseballs we had just bought, Marek pulled out a catapult, and one by one, we fired a whole family sized bag of snacks into that arrogant prick’s face. That was when I had my epiphany: I thought to myself, Oh my god, this is as good as life gets. I wasn’t worried about the past, the future, my health, my parents… I was just thinking, if I hit him on the nose often enough, it’ll turn orange. We were laughing for three hours after.  I’m generally a ‘glass half-empty’ person, and it’s the worst way to live. When I was catapulting those crisps, I was just doing something, and I thought, this is how I want to remember my life. I want to look back on my life and remember the moments only when I was lost in time.”

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The rest of the show continues in the same vein, with Davies promising to look solely at the moments in life where he was “living for the moment”. Yet perhaps I am doing him a disservice in quoting from only the more thought-provoking parts of the tour – he is, at times, hilarious, and his section on school nicknames is as good as modern comedy gets, brought to life by his inability to hide his own laughter and a childlike jauntiness. Does this buoyancy follow Davies off stage? “Not at all, I’m a whinging prick. I am certainly not skipping around my flat, I’m as depressed as anyone else day-to-day.”

Nowhere is this concoction of lassitude and resentment more clearly manifested than in his portrayal of Mr Gilbert in The Inbetweeners, and it’s a topic I’m keen to quiz him on. The film was the highest grossing British comedy of all time, while the series has received 11 awards since it first began in 2008. Yet it’s a topic that Davies seems ready to distance himself from. “It really was a very short period in my life. Don’t get me wrong, it had a huge impact on my life and on my career, but in total, I think I did about three and a half weeks of filming for it.”

His sole appearance in the film comes in the credits, as he rides a quad bike down the Malia strip wearing nothing but a small pair of briefs and a tie around his head, and lasts less than ten seconds. Considering his second stand-up tour is now underway, and that he is now the star of a new BBC3 series, Cuckoo, it’s perhaps understandable that Davies is taking the Emma Watson approach to fame and is keen to highlight his versatility as a performer. Yet the character seems somewhat stuck to him, and he readily quips that he still performs stand-up to cheers of “Gilbert!” every now and then. “I suppose people just love the character. The show’s so beloved. People love that grumpy psychopath and I’m very proud to have played him.” And is a sequel on the cards? “I believe so –the writers have gone on record as saying there are plans. I think it would be a great shame if they didn’t do one more.”

As our interview draws to a close, I ask Davies who his favourite comic is. “Well, my favourite joke came from an audience member – I was doing a routine on nicknames, and asked the audience for theirs. Someone replied, “Mumbo,” and at first I thought, well, that’s not a bad nickname. He then replied, “No, it’s because my mum had BO.” He bursts into laughter, even after what must be the hundredth recounting of the tale. “But the funniest person I know is my Dad. He’s isn’t afraid to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. He’s always provided a lot of material.” And is he proud of his son, finally making it in his dream profession after hiding away in teaching? “I think he wishes he was doing it instead of me, to be honest.” Davies chortles once more. “But yes, I suppose he’s proud.”

Greg Davies will be performing The Back of My Mum’s Head at Oxford New Theatre on the 22nd November: www.gregdavies.co.uk