As Greg McHugh prepares his live show of Gary: Tank Commander, the actor and writer tells Janet Christie about the enduring appeal of his comic creation and why it’s time to get serious. Portrait by Debra Hurford Brown
Greg McHugh is hobbling towards a table in the BBC canteen in Glasgow, one lower leg encased in a massive plastic boot after breaking an ankle. This is not good as McHugh has a live stadium show in front of 13,000 people at the SSE Hydro in October to prepare for, playing his cheery alter ego, the blonde-streaked, permatanned Corporal Gary McLintoch of the 104th Royal Tank Regiment. Entitled Mission Quite Possible, it will be an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza and may or may not involve a tank or some other military hardware. And hopefully not a mobility scooter for its star.
So what has he done to his ankle?
“I slipped on some stairs and my weight went on my ankle and broke it. It’s a bad break. The surgeons have got screws and plates in there, but they said by October I should be fine. And if I’m not… well the show might feature a mobility scooter for a couple of nights, it’ll be fine… It’ll be a laugh.”
He’s joking about the mobility scooter but McHugh won’t be drawn about the details of the show, because in the words of Scotland’s favourite squaddie, it’s all “toap secret”.
“I won’t ruin it but Gary achieves something that to the rest of the world would be impossible, but to him is quite possible.” Suffice to say the mission doesn’t go to plan and Gary bumbles into something bigger than even he had planned.
“The show’s huge,” says McHugh. “We will be using big screens a lot and live cams so there will be monologues, dances, and it’s going to be non-stop from the opening. That is unforgettable – it involves something massive.”
Would that be a tank?
“Em yes. Gary’s entrance is spectacular. It’s got to be with thousands of people in an arena, you have to go huge. It’s about the army, international politics, and… I’m not saying it’s deep, but it’s Gary’s version of deep.”
Taking to the stage along with McHugh will be stalwarts from the BBC series, Leah MacRae as Gary’s doting friend Julie, and army mates Paul-James Corrigan, Robert Jack and Scott Fletcher. “It’s not a version of the TV show, it’s a big live thing and won’t happen again – my stress levels won’t allow it,” he says in an accent that’s more Morningside than Dalgety Bay, Gary’s Fife hometown.
Blond hair, smiley blue eyes with a lambswool jumper – sadly devoid of sheep like that worn by his character Howard in Fresh Meat – and Irn-Bru hued to replicate Gary’s “perk of the job” Afghan tan, McHugh is in town to interview Scottish politicians in the run-up to May’s election. Such is Gary’s popularity, from soldiers watching on laptops in Afghanistan to civilians, that politicians looking for a chance to show their human side, were keen to hang out with him. During the interviews he recorded the day before we met he was given a Curly Wurly and a packet of Cheesey Pasta by Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, references to episodes of the show.
Was the Cheesey Pasta prepared to his requirements?
McHugh flips into character and speaks with an indignation all Gary’s.
“No! It was just in the packet! Ken, how lazy, eh? But they’re a bit busy like, so fair enough.
“Very nice of them... but technically, bribes. So I’ll be reporting them to the Electoral Commission.”
McHugh has obviously enjoyed interviewing the politicians and got around any nerves by staying firmly in character.
“It’s a bit like when I’ve done Gary in stand-up. On the inside I’m absolutely sh***ing myself, but you have to just buy into this guy who doesn’t really care, and that’s a good character to have, cos he’s so self-obsessed. He thinks he’s more intelligent than everyone else anyway. And he’s child-like and gentle, and people go with that.”
Gary started life as a character in McHugh’s stand-up routine back in 2006, breezed into an E4 mockumentary short and then grabbed himself a BBC series in 2009. Created and written by McHugh, Gary: Tank Commander has notched up three BBC series and won a Scottish BAFTA.
So how much of a crossover is there between him and Gary?
“See, I’d like to say none, but there must be a crossover,” says McHugh. “He comes from an observation of people I’ve grown up around, that I’ve seen in Edinburgh. There was a guy at school who had elements of Gary and then I overheard a guy on the bus having a phone conversation. He was kind of camp but hard, and that fascinated me. He was effing and blinding, but camp with it, and that was intriguing. So Gary’s an amalgamation. But then, in the deepest, darkest, OK probably the shallowest bit of my brain, Gary’s quite evident. I find it easy to tap into his way of thinking and it becomes easier the longer you do it.”
So has McHugh ever driven a tank, been in a tank, been anywhere near a tank?
“Well… we had a tank for an episode where we lost one. But I like the idea that there’s not loads of tanks in the show. I think there’s something inherently funny about Gary the tank commander where you rarely see a tank. It’s a bit like Gary being camp and the boys never challenging it, or the army, because they respect him as a soldier, and because he’s a good laugh. He keeps morale up. Gary is asexual, that part of his brain just doesn’t really exist. He’s got a child’s brain really, and all he wants is to have fun. Plus, jokes about sexuality, cheap shots, they exclude people and it’s not my style.”
With no plans at the moment for a fourth series, McHugh is waiting to see what happens to Gary next and has no idea if the BBC will commission another series.
“At the end of series three he was still there, still loving it, still getting a tan, still having a laugh, but who knows… budgets are tight and there are other shows out there. I’m busy with other things as well, so we’ll wait and see.”
McHugh is polite, affable and quick to laugh but, not surprisingly, less garrulous and a lot more thoughtful than Gary. Why does he think people like his alter ego so much?
“Because he’s fun. Simple as that. He has very little self-doubt and doesn’t analyse himself, apart from to say he’s brilliant. He’s someone you would have a great night out with. He’s got optimism, self-belief, and an element of fun and energy. He gets up to stuff, but not with any malice. So fun, childish... and in the army, that’s a dangerous mix.”
McHugh confesses that he thinks people are sometimes disappointed when they meet him and he’s not actually Gary, and when he slips into Gary’s voice as he talks, it’s hard not to be pleased the cheeky squaddie has dropped by.
“Leah MacRae, who plays Julie, Gary’s pal, actually does love Gary and gets me to speak to her as him sometimes, even when we meet socially. She prefers him to me, honestly,” he says and laughs.
Certainly Gary is more indiscreet. For his part McHugh is private and when asked about his family – parents, siblings or wife, other than to confirm they exist, he demurs.
“Nah, I just don’t talk about that stuff,” he says.
In Scotland, McHugh is recognised for Gary but when he’s on the Tube or out and about near the home he shares with his wife in Brighton, it’s more likely to be as Howard from acclaimed Channel 4 student comedy Fresh Meat. Or more recently as Eddie from BBC’s The A Word, a drama about a family coming to terms with a child’s autism.
“If I’ve got stubble and a bad jumper on people stare at me on the Tube for ages then recognise Howard and smile. He’s another character that people like. He’s oddball, but recognisable. He’s socially very awkward but very confident in his own world.
Post Gary, McHugh has been busy with a feature film, Kicking Off, a comedy in which he co-stars with Warren Brown. Released in April, it’s been likened to Shaun of the Dead and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and walked away with the Best UK Film prize at Raindance.
“I was amazed at that. We did it on no money and there was no fanciness, it was an indie film so I don’t think your expectations are as high. But then we watched the final cut and it was like, s**t, we’ve made something here. It’s a football film, but not a football film. It’s about two idiots who kidnap a referee because they disagree with his decision and start looking at their own lives. It was the first feature I’d done and I’m really proud of it,” he says.
Sport mad McHugh was also in Marvellous, with Toby Jones, about Stoke City kit man Neil Baldwin who refused to be defined by his learning difficulties. “When I first read the script for Marvellous, I thought it was brilliant so when I got a part, it was the best moment ever,” says McHugh. It gave him the chance to work alongside Toby Jones, one of his acting inspirations and someone whose genre-spanning career sees him notch up character roles, both lead and support, something McHugh would like to emulate. As for comedic inspiration, it’s “Bill Murray, I’ve got to see everything he does, and Melissa McCarthy is one of the funniest people on the planet. And I’ve got awesome respect for Steve Coogan.”
It was Marvellous that led to a serious role for McHugh in the The A Word, as both were written by Peter Bowker. McHugh has experience of children with special needs from working as a teaching assistant in London between acting gigs but held back from mentioning it at the audition.
“I worked in behavioural units and special schools and loved it, but felt that was kind of beside the point, so I didn’t mention it,” says McHugh, who will be returning as Eddie Scott now that a second series has just been commissioned.
McHugh is keen to pursue serious roles as well as comedy, having studied acting at the RSAMD, at the same time as he was honing his stand-up. And although he loves both, he made a conscious decision recently to move away from just comedy.
“With Gary and then Fresh Meat, people start going ‘oh, you’re the comedian’, but I trained as an actor. So yes, I felt I had to stop doing comedy for a bit to get other parts.”
Born in Edinburgh in January 1980 to a civil servant father and teacher mother, McHugh has two elder brothers. Raised in Morningside, he went to St Thomas of Aquin’s High School and caught the acting bug with an education programme at the Traverse Theatre where he was introduced to scriptwriting and acting. A part in a short film, The Wee Man, followed at 17, and it was there that Oscar-winning cinematographer Jack Cardiff, who was full of tales of the likes of Humphrey Bogart, suggested McHugh didn’t jump straight into an acting career. So he studied business at the University of Stirling, before the RSAMD. “I went to do sport studies at Stirling because I loved tennis and football, but em… it was too difficult. I thought it was going to be PE but it was like science, and sociology, and really demanding projects and all I wanted to do was play sport and act. So I switched to business studies.”
At this point, McHugh claims that studying business helped him write Tank Commander.
“No, really, because in business reports you’re summarising and in sitcom you’re trying to be funny in the shortest amount of words. So they’re both about structure. Doing business helped me learn to write,” he says and laughs.
Another unexpected tangent was McHugh’s business studies thesis, in which he focused on the hairdressing industry. Here the conversation again takes a turns for the Gary.
“Yes, I did it for a bet. It was about relationship marketing and how banks were going the way of a hairdresser, being your friend and whether that was enough to forgive bad treatment, like you’d forgive a bad haircut…. I can’t believe I’m talking about this,” he dissolves into laughter, then adds, with a touch of Gary glee, “It got a first because it was original.”
Now with Mission Quite Possible to get fit for, McHugh is concentrating on getting his ankle up to speed for manoeuvres. Rest at home with his wife in Brighton is what the doctors have ordered and he’s unable to keep up with his beloved tennis or five a side footie, even if his regular fixture is what McHugh describes as “a safe game”.
“I play with other actors, some very high profile – no I won’t say who – so with the insurance value on the pitch, it’s quite careful. You’re not allowed to challenge anyone, or go near them or it’s ‘stop, stop, stop!’. The ball’s not allowed to go above head height or it’s “not the face, not the face” and he giggles like Gary.
Our time’s up and McHugh struggles to his feet, back to being Greg and delivering an assurance he’ll definitely be fighting fit by October for Gary’s Mission Quite Possible.
“It’ll be huge, everyone should come. There’s interaction, but not too much participation because it’s in Glasgow and we don’t want an audience coup,” he says. “But just come along, it’ll be a laugh.”
• Gary: Tank Commander – Mission Quite Possible is at the SSE Hydro, 20, 21 and 22 October, see www.thessehydro.com for more details