As the prospect of a UK general election looms, a challenge has been thrown down to Westminster’s political leaders – have the guts to be interviewed by Gary: Tank Commander.
“I would jump at the prospect… can you imagine Gary interviewing Rishi Sunak, or Keir Starmer, I would be well up for that,” said Greg McHugh, the Scottish actor and writer who created the comedy icon.
It would not be the first time Scotland’s favourite squaddie has interviewed political leaders. His televised quizzing of the heads of all the Scottish parties – including Nicola Sturgeon, Ruth Davidson and Kezia Dugdale – ahead of the 2016 Holyrood election is the stuff of legend, both for the laughs and genuine insight it brought for viewers.
‘If any politician has the guts to be interviewed by Gary I would love it’
“Nicola Sturgeon was the key to that show, because the other politicians wouldn’t do it until she agreed to do it,” said Gary. “And to be fair to all the politicians, no matter what your political stance or viewpoint, at least they were all up for it. I look at Westminster and wonder if any of them would have gone with it. I doubt it.
“But if any politician down south has the guts to be interviewed by Gary, I would absolutely love that.”
Politics, though, is a world away from why Greg is sitting down for a chat in the Dress Circle Bar of His Majesty’s Theatre in Aberdeen.
He’s here for the cast launch of this year’s panto, Sleeping Beauty, which will see him take to the stage alongside stalwarts Alan McHugh (no relation), PJ Corrigan, Danielle Jam, Julie Coombe and Michael Karl Lewis.
It’s all a bit meta as he’s on the bill as Gary: Tank Commander playing, eh, Gary: Tank Commander. For the photo call, just before we talk, he had stayed in character as the squaddie for all the interviews – complete with that instantly recognisable accent and a camouflage-infused panto costume.
Greg can’t wait to bring Gary: Tank Commander to His Majesty’s panto
Away from the cameras, though, he’s happy to chat as Greg – and clearly delighted to be coming to His Majesty’s panto this Christmas as Gary.
“I can’t wait to be honest. I’ve done such a range of things now, when I get the chance to go back and do Gary live, that’s the real buzz. Gary works so well in panto because he is an alter-ego but in terms of self-indulgence, fun and being big and huge and getting to play this incredible theatre is a joy,” said Greg.
So what will Gary bring to the Sleeping Beauty panto?
“Just ma amazin’ abilities,” said Greg, dropping back into character as the utterly self-confident and positive Gary for two seconds – complete with accent – before being himself again.
“Alan McHugh has built up an incredible audience, the audiences love him here, we have such a fantastic all-round cast, so Gary is hopefully going to be in a position to fit in around what’s already been established and bring his own kind of nonsense.”
Gary: Tank Commander was born out of ‘worst show on the Fringe’
Edinburgh-born Greg hopes Gary will delight children and adults in Sleeping Beauty. But Gary’s origins are far less magical and glamorous, said Greg.
“To be 100% honest, it came from me doing stand-up in Edinburgh in 2005 and doing a terrible show. It got voted worst of the Fringe and I had one-star reviews for my straight stand-up,” said Greg.
At the same time a friend – a fellow comedian also struggling at the Fringe – was working for a production company looking for new characters and asked if Greg had any ideas.
“No one was talking about Iraq or Afghanistan at all and I thought: ‘Well who’s the most unlikely person you’d have in the army.’ So we improvised Gary in my mum’s car, my mate filmed it and edited it together. So from a terrible show in Edinburgh came this odd character.
“I never expected Gary to sustain or become a thing. It came out of mucking about with a mate to distract myself.”
But it certainly did become a thing. With three TV series on the BBC, a Scottish BAFTA nomination and a massive fanbase, Gary: Tank Commander is a touchstone of Scottish comedy characters.
“I think he’s popular because Gary is so positive,” said Greg. “Traditionally in Scottish comedy, we’ve concentrated on dour or hardship characters, which fit the Scottish psyche in one sense, but in the other sense we forget Scotland is actually full of bizarre positivity. Gary represents a naïve, positive and different character, one I like to think we haven’t seen before.”
Greg on going from gleeful Gary to terrifying Teddy in Guilt
Greg is an accomplished actor having appeared in TV shows as diverse as Channel 4 comedy Fresh Meat and, most recently, the acclaimed BBC Scotland comedy-thriller Guilt.
He swapped the happy-go-lucky tank commander for a chilling – and extremely scary – ex-convict in the pitch-black yarn which starts with two brothers accidentally running over and killing an old man.
“The reaction to Guilt has been phenomenal. Kudos to the writer Neil Forsyth and Patrick Harkins and Neil Webster, the producers, to give me an opportunity to play Teddy – it’s not an automatic association – and I grabbed it,” said Greg.
“When you get a great script, the writer has done most of the work and I’ll take the praise for acting it. I wanted to create a character who was very still, but you had empathy for. He is a bit of psycho, but he needs a lot of help.”
Greg wants to welcome everyone to family fun in Sleeping Beauty at HMT
Greg has other TV work in the pipeline – but under wraps – and is preparing to take Gary: Tank Commander on stage at the Edinburgh Fringe next month for an already sold-out chat show, running for 10 nights, with guests ranging from Chris Hoy to authors and poets.
And while Gary isn’t returning to telly anytime soon, Greg hints he might be appearing in the world of social media.
But for our chat, he’s focused on Gary parking his tank at HMT for Sleeping Beauty.
“It’s a top-notch cast and a privilege to join this great show. It’s going to be fun for all the family and I think we should all be meeting up this year, especially after everything we’ve gone through.”
Sleeping Beauty, with Gary: Tank Commander will be at His Majesty’s Theatre from Saturday December 2 to Sunday January 7. For tickets and information visit aberdeenperformingarts.com or call 01224 641122.