Simon Day

BN1 Chats with Simon Day

Legendary character comedian heads out on tour

All my characters I write myself, so they’re quite easy to pick up,”

Simon Day tells me, considering the challenge of performing several different comedy roles in a single show. “I’ve done Tommy Cockles for 25 years now, so it’s like putting on an old jacket.” Right now, he’s in Greece, enjoying a relaxing holiday before starting his brand-new tour.

Charging up and down the country for 25 dates, Simon Day & Friends brings together some of the Brian Pern and The Fast Show veteran’s most celebrated characters, with a few new twists. Calling in at The Hawth in Crawley on Weds 14 Sept, Hove’s The Old Market on Fri 30 Sept and Kino-Teatr in St Leonards on Sea on Sat 19 Nov, he says he’s excited to be getting out on the road again. “And I love Brighton, I used to live there, in the good old, bad old days. The town always used to look like it’s helping the Police with their enquiries.”

A stand-up, Radio 4 regular and recognisable screen presence in productions as varied as Shakespeare In Love, Red Dwarf, Pennyworth and King Gary, it was with the BBC mega-hit The Fast Show that brought Day’s comic creations to international attention in the 90s. The catchphrases of his creations, like the relentless pub bore Billy Bleach or the eternally shouting John Actor, soon punched their way into the British zeitgeist. The latter offered almost limitless opportunities, much like its real-life inspiration. “That was based on that formula that came in, where they got someone like Nick Berry. After Heartbeat, they thought; ‘I know, let’s put him in Dorset and make him a dock worker.’ They’d choose a location and an actor. It’s not really an organic process.” Similarly, John Actor was astonishingly versatile, appearing as a tough, uncompromising doctor, a tough, uncompromising vet and a tough, uncompromising police inspector.

Offering creations which are founded in satirical tropes is a big part of Day’s comedy. But none of them come from a scornful place. You need a genuine affection for your point of inspiration, or it can’t become truly amusing. “That’s what Charlie Higson said. You’ve got to love the character, otherwise they’re not funny. You can’t look down on them. I really do like all my characters.” He says often they’re based on people he’s come across in real-life. The inspiration for The Fast Show’s uncompromising Competitive Dad, a patriarch with an almost sociopathic need to be best at everything came from a visit to Day’s local swimming pool. “He was racing his kids, who were very young – one of them had water-wings. He virtually killed himself trying to get to the other end. Then the kids eventually caught it, and he’s sitting there triumphant. That was before I had kids, but I was still thinking it was a bit sick.”

Three of his best caricatures are coming out on tour this year. There’s the be-blazered music-hall almost-ran Tommy Cockles, dangerous criminal Tony Beckton and the evergreen eco-geezer Dave Angel. And each of them has undergone an evolution. Often accompanied by the rarefied sounds of Mike Oldfield’s Moonlight Shadow, Angel was perhaps the least likely candidate for an environmental activist. “I don’t do him that much live, but he’s really popular. So, he’s coming out for this tour. He’s now got his own treatment and therapy thing. He doesn’t get involved in global warming anymore, because it’s not funny, is it?” He suggests people like the character’s walk, and he just takes it from there. Moving aways from drawing attention to lost tribes or the ozone layer, his approach to people’s often valid problems is a little extreme. “It’s very popular with the parents because he employs a kind of 1950s army discipline. Having got two kids, one is 15 and one 13, it’s very different now. You can’t just tell them to shut up and get on with it… Which would be really helpful now and again,” he says with a big laugh.

His portrayal of reformed criminal Tony Beckton is very much based on celebrity gangsters who write books or appear on mawkish Danny Dyer documentaries. “He has just been released from prison, he’s an old violent armed-robber, and I was just looking at how he’d cope with coming out. It worked very well for stand-up because everyone knows those characters…” As with so many of his creations, the habitual offender seems threateningly plausible – even when he’s striving to keep out of jail and confront his foibles with some inspirational talks.

“Creating the characters is something I find very easy. It’s weird. I might do acting, and there might be a part written which I have to go along and audition for which I find difficult when trying to personalise it. Maybe I’m not very adaptable to other people’s writing. If it’s mine, I’m fine. I can be a lot more confident and steam straight in.” He says that coming from a comedy background can help with timing in more serious roles. “But you’ve still got to know the character. And some people might disagree. All the best 70s sitcoms didn’t have comedians, they were all trained actors.”

A more recent addition to the repertoire is Geoffrey Allerton, who appeared on Day’s long-time collaborator, Rhys Thomas’ Down the Line and Bellamy’s People shows. Yorkshire’s most famous unpublished poet, he’s enthralled and inspired by the strangest of things, his peculiar poems offer poignant observations on the nature of life – almost to the point that you’d be forgiven for believing he was being earnest. It’s a devilish cross between Alan Bennett and a pompous Radio 4 pseudo-intellectual.

Day has spent the last couple of years appearing on BBC’s King Gary. A hilarious slice of suburban life, it centres on the misadventures of a grown-man struggling to establish himself in the world. Day plays his father, Big Gary, whose love of banter consistently ends up being another trigger for his offspring’s petulant outbursts. “I really enjoyed doing that because that was a character I really inhabited. The mum’s horrible too. She’s like ‘you’re always picking on him.’ But she’s picking on him as well.” He says role was fun to do because of writer and star’s Tom Davis’s ability to draw from personal experiences. “He’s from Croydon and knows people like that. He’s a good writer and put loads into those kind of characters.”

Arguably, Day’s greatest creation is the hapless rock superstar, Brian Pern. Across three seasons, Day and Rhys Thomas built a vivid world of daft guitar solos, middle-aged relevance, and strange addictions. This labour of love is a glorious pastiche of solemn, almost-whispered homages to long-forgotten guitar bands. “It was based on all those documentaries with those really dull producers, and people taking it really seriously. They’re not particularly interesting…” It started as original online shorts for BBC Comedy but quickly grew into a cult favourite. A mixture of awkward cinema vérité, mock archive material and increasingly bizarre talking heads from stars like Vic Reeves & Bob Mortimer, Roger Taylor, Chrissie Hynde, Rick Parfitt, Rick Wakeman and Melanie C, this labour of love has produced one of Day’s most enduring characters.

“Every time you have a musician on TV, they’re always like Keith Richards. So, it was good to do the opposite of that, with this shy, educated nerd.” Ostensibly, the character is a pastiche of Peter Gabriel, who Day says he’s a huge fan of, but has evolved to embrace 70s rock excess in all its strange majesty. The superbly oblivious Pern has a crippling inability to deal with even the simplest of situations, despite being a global icon, which offers a rich vein of comedy. His band-mates in the million-selling Thotch, played by a thoughtful, gentile (and former The Fast Show colleague) Paul Whitehouse and a startingly debauched Nigel Havers, aren’t really much help. It’s clear that the only thing binding them together is the music and the promise of even greater riches. Runing the whole circus is Michael Kitchen’s robust portrayal of John Farrow, the group’s foul-tempered manager – who occupies a hellish space between legendary Hollywood agent Ari Emanuel and Led Zeppelin’s manager, Peter Grant.

Pern might not be coming back, especially after a final instalment which hinted at his demise. But who knows? “We might do a special one day. But, we did three series, and it was always a very niche show on BBC Four. I thought it was really good. And I didn’t have to do a lot because he was so shy.”

Like any serious actor in the modern age, Day’s own onscreen exploits have been brought to a comic book franchise. Pennyworth is a spin-off from the Batman comics, transplanting Bruce Wayne’s faithful butler, Alfred, into a gothic reimagining of Swinging Sixties London. “It was really cool to do that. I’ve never done one of those big American things.” Day plays Sid Onslow, licensee of the Severed Arms – a local pub frequented by the show’s protagonists. “It was just lucky for me because it was a character I can play. A grumpy landlord!” he chortles. “And the guy who directed it, who also did CSI, remembered me from The Fast Show!”

Simon Day & Friends comes to Crawley’s The Hawth on Weds 14 Sept, Hove’s The Old Market on Fri 30 Sept and St Leonards on Sea’s Kino-Teatr on Sat 19 Nov.

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