Interview: Greg McHugh, comedian (Gary: Tank Commander)

CHEESY pasta. Two words that this time last year meant nothing more than just plain old macaroni cheese.

&#149 Greg and co-star Leah MacRae, who plays Julie, in the hit TV series, and performing on stage at The Stand, above

Fast forward 12 months and one series of Gary: Tank Commander and suddenly "cheesy pasta" has become a national catchphrase, vying with Rab C Nesbitt's "I'll tell you this, boy" and The Rev IM Jolly's mournful "Ah've had a helluva year".

Get the cheesy pasta joke and you're obviously one of the many to follow the exploits of our army hero in Afghanistan, with the glowing suntan, bleached blonde locks and the well-intentioned theory that all we need to do with potential terrorists is invite them to the UK, treat them to a McDonald's meal deal and let them see how nice we all are for them to change their murderous minds and want to live in Dalgety Bay.

If ever there was a more unlikely combination of comedy, war, camp - and we're not talking the army variety - and cheesy pasta, than Gary: Tank Commander must be it.

Today, his creator, Edinburgh comic, script writer and actor Greg McHugh, is still reeling from a watershed year in which the offbeat character he'd nurtured for a good three years before he ever hit the BBC Scotland screens has evolved enough in the national psyche to earn his own instantly recognisable catchphrase.

&#149 Greg McHugh

Soon, the hapless squaddie hero of the fictional 104th Royal Tank Regiment could be even further entrenched in our minds. For to herald the screening of the character's second series, a Gary: Tank Commander iPhone app with the show's best one-liners has just been launched, including "cheesy pasta" of course - the first phone app of its kind for a Scottish comedy show.

"Yep, it's been a brilliant year," says Greg, 32, as he happily reflects on a whirlwind 12 months.

"I'd say 2010 has definitely been a turning point and it would be very nice if 2011 carries on the same way."

Indeed, he couldn't have asked for more this time last year. The show, made by the same production company behind Chewin' the Fat and The Karen Dunbar Show, launched on BBC Two Scotland and, as Greg basked in the glory of the favourable reaction it received, he set about the challenge of penning a second series with news that it was to be "promoted" to BBC One.

Despite juggling the potentially inflammatory concept of a comedy set in a theatre of war, never mind its curiously camp central figure in a typically macho setting, soldier Gary McLintoch won hearts and minds as far flung as Australia, where the series has been snapped up for viewers, to Russia, where a deal to buy it is also on the cards.

No wonder by the end of the year Greg was off on a well-earned break in South Africa - where, bizarrely, he is the face of a hugely successful whisky advertising campaign in which he plays a hopeless, arrogant whisky buff - followed by a jaunt to the Nou Camp to watch "El Clasico", the fiery Spanish football clash between Barcelona and Real Madrid.

This is the big break he's been waiting for since his first taste of theatre and drama back as a well-raised Morningside lad, the youngest of three brothers, at St Thomas of Aquinas High.

"Wanting to do this kind of thing kicked in at school. I did Higher drama and I knew then it was exactly what I wanted," recalls Greg. "Maybe it was being the youngest of three, maybe it was about trying to get myself heard.

"But I suppose I always thought I was a funny guy. I loved watching comedies, I loved Harry Enfield and I loved the Mary Whitehouse Experience. I could quote all the lines from the shows.

"I liked comedy, I liked performing, so the thing then was to try to put them together."

He was helped along his way by Class Act at the Traverse Theatre, an education programme that gives high school pupils a taste of theatre skills from scriptwriting to acting with professional mentors by their sides.

Greg took part in 1997 and was hooked.

He went on to work on a short film, The Wee Man, with Oscar-winning cinematographer Jack Cardiff, who thrilled him with tales of working with Hollywood giants Humphrey Bogart and Sophia Loren, but also cautioned him to take time to live a little life before embarking full on into a theatrical career.

It was good advice and why, in between stand-up comedy stints at The Stand, writing, creating characters and learning drama at Glasgow's Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, he notched up a first-class business degree at Stirling University thanks to a thesis on, of all things, hairdressing.

"I wasn't mature enough at 17 to go into all of this at that time," he admits. "Everyone's different and I'm glad I went and got some life experience first."

Life experience involved heading to London where he spent days teaching drama to children with special needs and nights on the comedy circuit which, he now admits, was a low point.

"I was jumping all over London at night and working all day. There was a time when I thought, 'no, this is all too much, it's not going to happen for me' and then I got a wee break."

During it all he kept his eyes and ears open, picking up on quirky characteristics of the people he came across and moulding his comedy creations.

Gary finally emerged several years ago, initially as just a voice in Greg's ill-fated Edinburgh Festival debut which didn't exactly have the critics baying for more and could have been the end of Gary's tour of duty before it even began.

But, like any good soldier, he refused to surrender.

"It was 2005, I was doing The Stand and someone from the Comedy Unit was in looking for new characters. I had this voice of a character that would become Gary in my head but I was still wondering where to put him in terms of comedy. That said, I knew with that voice, it would work somewhere in 'alpha male' territory."

The rest, he laughs, was down to good old-fashioned "luck".

"I ended up with Gary, Channel 4 saw it and commissioned a funny 'short' and things took off from there."

Gary's War, a one-off special for More 4, earned him a Scottish Bafta. Next, BBC Scotland was looking for the character to be developed for a new series.

Greg and his hapless, camp creation have never looked back since.

"The best bit is like on Saturday night, when I was out and a couple of Scots Guards squaddies came over and said, 'Hey you, are you that Gary: Tank Commander bloke?'" he grins.

"There's this moment when you gulp and say, 'Err' and try to decide whether to just run or stand there and take it.

"Luckily they loved it. Their only complaint was that the tank we used in the episodes is a reconnaissance tank and not a Challenger," he laughs.

"That's the moment you go 'Aah . . .' and relax.

"They don't teach you how to deal with that in Morningside," he adds with a laugh. "Maybe they should . . ."

&#149 Gary: Tank Commander is on BBC One Scotland on Monday evenings at 10.35pm.

A big cheese in TV comedy

IT'S rapidly evolved from cult comedy to national catchphrase material. So what is Gary: Tank Commander all about?

The first series saw Corporal Gary McLintoch of the 104th Royal Tank Regiment home on leave after serving in Iraq.

He barely fulfilled the stereotypical image of a squaddie however, as with his camp manner he carried out menial tasks required by his superiors.

Each episode is interspersed with "documentary"-style interviews and each begins with a "YouTube"-style clip of soldiers entertaining themselves - usually parodying popular songs.

The second series is set during and after tours of Afghanistan.

The "cheesy pasta" catchphrase emerged after Gary returned home from Iraq with a hangover and tried, unsuccessfully, to buy cheesy pasta - a staple diet of squaddies - from the local shop. He later compared the Iraq conflict to a bowl of macaroni cheese.