sun 19/09/2021

theartsdesk Q&A: writer and comedian Tom Davis | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: writer and comedian Tom Davis

theartsdesk Q&A: writer and comedian Tom Davis

From singing Disney songs in drag to 'Murder in Successville' and BBC One's 'King Gary'

Tom Davis: 'trying to always look forward is the best way to be'Main picture and black & white shot of Davis by David Reiss

After leaving school at 14, Tom Davis spent 10 years working as a scaffolder on building sites, while always harbouring what he thought was the impossible dream of getting into comedy. Hailing from Sutton in south London, he had a go at standup and for a time found himself in drag, singing Disney songs.

His luck changed when his childhood friend James De Frond got a job on Leigh Francis’s sketch show Bo’ Selecta. The two of them shot some of their own sketches, and impressed Francis enough to prompt him to invite Davis to appear on the show.

He progressed through spots on series such as Bad Education and Plebs before he made a major breakthrough with Murder in Successville (BBC3), again partnering with De Frond. Here, Davis’s lumbering detective DI Sleet improvised ludicrous solutions to absurd cases in a town packed with celebrities, with the aid of a succession of unlikely guest stars including Emma Bunton, Martin Kemp and Deborah Meaden. It was crazy but it worked, and Davis made three series between 2015-2017.

Now, the towering Davis (he's 6ft 7in and built like the Albert Hall) is riding high with King Gary (BBC One), another collaboration with De Frond. He plays the titular “geezer diva” Gary King, the self-styled “crescent warden” of Butterchurn Crescent who tries to be the boss of every situation but usually fails. Now on its second series and with a superb cast including Simon Day, Neil Maskell, Laura Checkley, Romesh Ranganathan and Camille Coduri, it may be in danger of becoming a comedy classic.

ADAM SWEETING: How did Covid affect the making of the new series of King Gary?

TOM DAVIS: Like anyone else in our industry that’s been hit so hard by this, there was a time when you’re writing this and other things and thinking “are we ever going to be able to make these?” So for the most part I think people, cast and crew, really walked the line and just felt very fortunate they could work again. I think it’s about having good people who can explain the rules and explain what you’re doing.

Did you have an intimacy coordinator on set?

For me and Laura Checkley? [laughs] Yeah it’s Laura Checkley. No… I think on the basis of me and Laura, it’s always what feels right with the characters. The level of affection you see with Terri and Gary is the sort of affection that you see with two people who’ve been together for about 25 years. A kiss on the cheek feels like a million bucks! (pictured above, Davis with Laura Checkley).

I like the relationship with Terri and her mother-in-law Den, it’s very antagonistic.

They’re incredible! The clash between wife and mother-in-law is an eternal one and I think we really wanted to push those two characters. One of the objectives this series was to get as much Camille Coduri [Den] as we could because I think she’s a phenomenal actress and she’s someone we love, we feel very blessed to have her as part of the show. She’s almost the toughest, hardest character really, because of the world she’s been brought up in. It’s a really brilliant portrayal of the sort of matriarch that we all know.

She has that brilliant expression that conveys complete scorn…

Yeah! It’s a credit to her as an actress because she’s probably the most fun person to have around the set. Everyone loves her and she reads palms – well, reads palms from afar during Covid. It’s a testament to what a brilliant performer she is, in that she really makes that part very fearsome (pictured below, the King Gary cast with Camille Coduri front left).

Are there particular people that you’ve based Gary on?

It was a number of my forebears and my personality traits that I’m not too proud of in there. There’s a bit of James [De Frond, co-writer and director], and then there’s people that we’ve grown up with. The basis for it all was to try to put two characters in the centre of a sitcom that felt like they were real. Also that they were big characters, as real as you could make it. We wanted them to feel like the people that you’d meet on holiday that sort of take over your holiday, that was the sort of test we set ourselves. Once you get Laura in the mix it brings out a side of Gary and those guys who more than anything love their family, their sole focus is making sure that everything’s alright there. It’s probably Gary’s best trait and probably one of his only redeeming qualities.

Butterchurn Crescent could be in the East End or Essex, but you’re from south London?

I think there’s an obsession with everything being Essex. Essex has got such a rich history within the industry one way and another, from Gavin & Stacey and TOWIE. We shoot it in Essex. I stay in Brentwood when I’m filming, I’ve got a lot of dear friends in Brentwood, but we’ve never said it’s Essex. It could be Kent, James lives in Kent now, it could be Hertfordshire, could be Surrey. It’s very much that M25 commuter belt, but especially in the second series more and more people are getting in contact from all round the country, and they know these people. Manchester or Birmingham, the actual observation is very much the same wherever you go. But I’ve got to say when we’re shooting this thing the people of Essex are incredible. They all get together – we tried to write an episode about it but it didn’t come off. But they had a hotel where they all got together and they’ve got a hairdressers, they’ve got a builders, they’d use each other and I found that a really nice side of it as a place. And they’ve taken us to their hearts there in Essex.

So Gary is a big bloke, always trying to make a big impression, and it always goes wrong.

A lot of people think of size as a real positive trait, but a lot of the time you want to almost hide. I can speak candidly, I’ve spent quite a lot of time when I walk into an environment and try to slump down and make myself as small as I possibly can. So I don’t get noticed. I’ve been doing that my whole life.

How do make yourself look smaller?

You duck your head a bit, you don’t necessarily wanna be the centre of attention… like becoming a meeting place for people at festivals. The connotations aren’t always positive ones. My thought of Gary was always that he would be that height and he would use it as much as he could to create an impression of someone who was very, y’know, a leader, and like “this is me” and come in with his chest up. I developed a walk that was almost peacock or pigeon-esque, with his chest out. I would never wear clothes as tight as Gary, but there was always a thing of making sure that you did, so that he’s seen. But then what comes with that is he hasn’t really got the minerals to be a leader, and quite a lot of the time as you say he falls flat on his face because he isn’t that guy, as much as he tries to be. He’s not his father, and he’s not even his son – his son’s probably more of a leader than he is.

There’s that episode in the first series when Lee is making trouble and Simon Day (as Big Gary) tells Gary he hasn't got what it takes to sort it out (pictured above, Davis with Simon Day as Big Gary).

It’s such a true reflection on the world that I come from and the world that we’re set in, and I believe that you’re born with that way of being able to deal with problems like that or you’re not. It’s a real nice thing that Big Gary has been that guy and then through his own fault probably, through spoiling him or not giving him enough confidence or whatever he’s done wrong as a masculine figure in his life, he’s not passed that down to Gary. It’s left Gary sort of becoming quite indecisive. At a deeper level, Gary’s always looked at the man he thinks he is or the man he wants to be, and there’s times when you realise that it’s a far cry from the person he’s turned out to be.

Which is sad really.

Yeah, and that’s comedy. We always have to find the truth in everything to make it as real as we can, and with Gary yeah that’s the truth, it’s a very sad situation. I think in this series you see it more and more, he’s trying to control things. To control a situation you have to have a certain amount of strength, and it’s not really what Gary’s got in his locker.

In episode 3 of the new series they go orienteering, and Gary is shown up by Aaron the ex-paratrooper?

That’s that thing of the eternal problem of age. I dunno how old you are Adam, but it’s a sad moment when a friend of yours has a son or daughter who’s 16 or 17, and you meet them and think oh yeah, I’m in my late 30s-early 40s now and they’re gonna think I’m cool because I’ve got it all worked out. It quickly dawns on you that they think you’re an absolute plum, and think they know more than you do and they probably do. They’ve got you sussed as the person you probably were at school, and that hierarchy doesn’t really change, age is just a bit of an illusion isn’t it? Gary tries to use that experience but it doesn’t work and Aaron isn’t having it, and I think Aaron’s probably lived more of a life than Gary ever has. So it’s a constant kicking.

Is there much room for improvisation while you’re shooting?

Yeah, always. I think that’s the thing we always try to encourage really. As James [De Frond] says, it’s funny people being funny. We have the script and there’ll be times when it’s essential that we get that script, but we’re never too prissy. We wouldn’t sit there and say “no you can’t say that”. If someone comes into the mix and has got a funnier line or got a funnier way of saying something then that’s the way it’s gonna go, we’ll go with that. That’s down to James really. As a director he’s incredible. Everyone knows their place and James steers the ship with real aplomb.

Is it hard to get original story ideas?

The hard work is linking them all. At the start of a series you’ll have a ton of stuff that’s almost in standup notes, and some of it is stuff that I would have worked out and done a bit onstage to see if that works, but then you have to work out how we correlate this stuff. We set out our stall this year to try and make three storylines, like in episode 3 we’ve got the camping, the cleaner and the family tree stuff. It’s one of the ones I’m most proud of because it all sort of feeds into each other. The family tree thing is something that my mum and dad have been doing. We don’t know who my grandfather’s dad was, we have no idea who he was or where he was from. As a family, when you’ve had a few drinks everyone chats it over and speculates, and you can get quite excited that you were from here or from there. Someone said to my dad once, aren’t you going to look into it? He said yeah, but what if we’re just English? It’s almost like the imagination of where you might be from is more exiting than the actual outcome.

Are there classic comedies you relate to?

Something like Only Fools and Horses is in the lifeblood of me and James and where we’re from. It’s more than just a TV show, it was a way of life growing up, it was everywhere and we were from that world really. More modern stuff like Eastbound & Down and Modern Family I’m obsessed with, and what Ricky Gervais did in The Office. I think David Brent is a work of sheer genius. When people used to slag him off, I thought actually he’d be quite a fun guy to work for. I’d think he’s never really been that horrible, he’s just trying to fit in, and if you could put up with that he’d be a pretty good guy to be with. I’ve worked with some really horrible people and I thought David Brent would be better. But it’s about grabbing your influences from the right places, but also making sure that the voice you use and the world you’re constructing is one that’s yours. That’s the most important thing.

Will DI Sleet [from Murder in Successville] ever make a comeback?

I often say, and I bore myself saying it, we took an idea that was sort of crazy and I don’t think anyone ever thought it would go anywhere, and we won the best accolade that you can win for a television show, just making something that we all loved making. It was a testament to an amazing group of people that came together to do that. So yeah, at some point it would be great to do something with that character again, but for the moment my focus is on creating new stuff. I think trying to always look forward and doing the stuff that’s in front of you rather than looking back is the best way to be (pictured above, Davis as Sleet, with Deborah Meaden).

How long will King Gary last?

I dunno, as long as they have us I guess. It’s a weird one because it’s not in our control. This series the feedback from the public has been phenomenal, it really has blown me away. I’d sort of thought the last series was pretty special but it seems to have got more and more people talking about it which is great, and long may it continue. It’s a dream of a show to make with some of my favourite people that I’ve ever worked with, so hopefully we can continue making it for a while.

And finally... you're a football fanatic, so describe your feelings when England beat Germany in the Euros.

I think it was pure out-of-body elation. The Raheem Sterling goal I was in tears, and from the Harry Kane goal to about two hours after the final finished was just a bit of a blur. It was a hell of a week. Hell of a party, I’ve just recovered five weeks later. I’ve not had a drink since, which is great. The dust has settled and I think it was a truly remarkable group of young men, and led by I think someone who’s a credit to this country in Gareth Southgate. I’ll always think of that Germany game as being a very very fond memory of all the best things about football.

  • King Gary continues on BBC One at 9.30pm on Fridays and is available on BBC iPlayer

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