For the uninitiated, what is Man Down all about?
Very simply, it’s about a middle aged teacher, Dan, who is lost at sea. Not literally. That would make it a very different programme.
Where did we leave Dan at the end of the last series?
We gave him a little bit of hope. He’d been dumped by a girlfriend, but he had a lady at work who he thought might make his life complete. He was unlikely to be impressing her with his behaviour, but miraculously she suggested to him that she might have been interested in him.
I think it’s safe to assume Dan’s life is not going to be a bed of roses anytime soon, is it?
I think the day that things really go well for him is the day that the show will come to a conclusion, really. It’s very much a voyage of discovery for him. You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, and he breaks more eggs than most people. One of the joys of doing the show, for us, is that we know that he’s ill-equipped for every situation that we put him in. That’s when you know that your characters are bedded down – when you clap your hands with glee when you think of the shit you’re going to put them through. Which is terrible. I’ve started to feel genuinely sorry for him.
Not so sorry that you’re going to write him a happy life…
No, because I don’t think people want to see him being happy. They want to see him working things out. The difference between this series and the first series is that at least he realises that he might not be doing things to help himself. There’s an element of progression with the character. At least he knows it’s him making the mistakes. In this series he attempts to address certain aspects of his personality. Obviously he does it incredibly badly, but he does attempt it at least.
Playing Dan, there’s not a lot of room for vanity, is there?
No, there isn’t a lot of room for vanity. But the reason for writing it, and the driving force behind it, always, is to make it as funny as possible. Man Down is not a serious study of the human condition, it is a balls-out attempt at making people laugh. So nobody in the show can afford to cling on to any vanity, because we’re always going to push the humiliation levels.
Do you like Dan? Do you need to like him, to play him?
I don’t know whether I would need to like him, but I do like him. For me he represents a time in my life that I remember only too well, when I was pretty much ill-equipped to have the title ‘adult’. I was struggling with day-to-day life – never to the extent Dan does – but I recognise in him the desperation to try and make life work, and the total lack of skills to do it. So I like him, because he’s trying to get better, he’s doing his best, and his best just isn’t good enough. I think he’s a very flawed but human person. Even though I know he’s not going to come out of a situation well, I’m sort of willing him to. Which is ridiculous, in that I’m in charge of his fate! I know he behaves selfishly, and I know he’s an idiot, but I like him. He wants to be better, and you’ve got to admire that in anyone.
This isn’t the first teacher you’ve played. You’re known for playing world-weary teachers who aren’t exactly passionate about the job. Was that the kind of teacher you were? [Davies was a teacher for a short time].
No. I hope I never did the children in my charge a disservice. I certainly wasn’t as horrible to them as either of the characters I play. I’ve never disguised the fact that I wasn’t happy in teaching. But the reason was that I wanted to do comedy. I would have been a very unhappy security guard or a very unhappy greengrocer. It’s to do with that nagging feeling at the back of your mind that you really want to try something and you haven’t got the courage to do it. I wasn’t a happy teacher, but I also wasn’t an absolute psychopath like the teachers I portray on screen.
Obviously there is one big name missing from this series, that of Rik Mayall. That must have made filming an emotional experience at times.
Yes. It’s a strange thing, when someone passes away. It’s always when you’re not expecting it that you’re affected by it. When we first started filming, we were filming with existing characters in a location that we’d never been before. It was only when we all got back to filming in the family home, where we filmed so many memorable scenes with Rik, that everyone began to be affected by it. We had a really great time filming with the legend that is Mr Mayall, so it was always going to affect us. I think he would like the ongoing mayhem. I know he was really excited about what we were going to do in series two. I’m very sorry that he’s not there. We all are.
Man Down seemed to suit him very well – it had that anarchic element that he was famous for. It was a good fit, wasn’t it?
I hope it was. He certainly seemed to be enjoying himself very much. He was still very ambitious and full of beans, and couldn’t wait to built the character and progress the relationship between father and son. I’m sorry we didn’t get a chance to do that.
This series we meet the redoubtable Aunt Nesta. She’s quite a force of nature, isn’t she?
Yes! When Rik wasn’t with us, the writers Sian and Steve and I, we knew that we could never replace Rik, to put another father in, or even have another male authority figure in there. But we still thought it was important to have someone from a different generation who was going to call Dan on his pathetic personality. So we knew it had to be someone from an older generation who was going to continue to torment him. But we didn’t want them to be the same kind of tormentor that Rik had played so beautifully. And I have met formidable ladies – I’m from Shropshire, and there are formidable ladies in the farming community. Dan is such a ditherer, so to have an extreme pragmatist like Nesta we thought was going to be fun. It was such a clash of approaches, we thought there was fun to be had there. I think Stephanie Cole is amazing in that role.
She’s an amazing actress. Do you remember Tenko?
Of course I do! I’ve been aware of Stephanie Cole as long as I’ve been aware of television. I’m in my 40s.
What’s it like working with someone who’s been in so many classic TV shows?
It’s been great fun, and a real privilege. An actress of that calibre agreeing to come along and muck in with this madness is so exciting. Stephanie is really great fun, she’s a great laugh, and is up for anything. She’ll never say no, she’ll say “Yes, let’s go.” She’ll laugh and say “You’re insane,” and then she’ll clap her hands with glee and muck in. She’s great, and a very welcome addition to our show. Her and Gwyneth Powell, who plays my mother, are such an exciting combination, both ladies work brilliantly together. If there’s a series three, the fun I’m going to have with those two is boundless.
Occasionally they’re given lines of utter filth to say. Do you quite enjoy putting those words in their mouth?
Yes, of course. It does feel very naughty to be giving Stephanie Cole OBE filthy things to say. But I think it’s in keeping with her character, because she’s absolutely honest and blunt. I think she does it with remarkable aplomb.
It’s very much an ensemble cast, and looks like it’s great fun to film. Is that the case?
Yeah, I’m glad that comes across, because it’s tremendous. The writing of anything is a unique kind of torture, but once you’re on set with that group of people, it really does feel like a troubled family having an awful lot of fun. There’s a lot of laughter on set.
Is corpsing a problem?
God yes. Yeah. I am a terrible corpser. I’ve had to be told off like a little child by more than one director now. It’s funny, it’s always the things you’re not expecting that get you. There’s a scene in series one where all I had to say was “I’ve shat myself,” and we must have had to do 50 takes. In series 2, there’s a scene where Roisin Conaty is doing a Michael Jackson impersonation, it’s just in the background, not something you’d necessarily notice. She must have had to have done that dance 30 times because of me. She does this thing where she claps her hand beneath her leg, which I don’t think Michael Jackson ever did. Every time I saw that clap I went. There were a lot of extremely irritated crew standing around that day.
Man Down returned on Monday 1st June 10pm on Channel 4