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Circuit Training 147: Simon Day's Big Nights Out

Simon Day

Yes indeed, today is Simon Day day, here at Circuit Training. The Fast Show hero, music hall stalwart, King Gary parent and Peter Gabriel nemesis is heading out on tour, but which of his many characters will make the cut? Ever since the aforementioned old-stager Tommy Cockles baffled Wogan's audience back in 1992, Day has been trojan-horsing some splendidly idiosyncratic stuff onto our screens and stages.

He'd popped up before that, in fact. We'll get to how Vic & Bob - then Paul and Charlie - helped smuggle Day into the nation's living rooms; plus online builder weirdness, his background in South London's unsung rock hotspot, and why he doesn't do Competitive Dad these days. And there's a surprise cameo from his dogs.

That tour starts on September 14th, for a few months. Now pull your knickers on and make a cup of tea, it's time for a Day break.

How does this live show work then, Simon? Do you come on as yourself along the way?

No, I just strictly do characters. I mean, I have done myself, but I found I couldn't bring anything new to me; when I do the characters there's a bit more to it, I think I'm giving the audience more as the characters, and maybe saying things as them I can't say myself.

Simon Day

Did you do any regular stand-up in the old days?

I always did characters, right from the first ever thing I wrote with a friend of mine. I did a show in front of Jim [Moir] and Bob [Mortimer] and they said you can come on tour with us: I did Tommy Cockles, an American guy, and scenes from TV.

So it was always other people. I saw Harry Enfield on telly and I thought 'I want to do what he does.'

You were on Big Night Out first - did it feel pretty radical, back then?

Yeah, at the time it was quite original, it was very different. And them being northern, that was different, having their voices on TV. The Fast Show, Vic & Bob, we were all seen as the new thing. It doesn't stay like that, unfortunately...

I hadn't realised you're from Blackheath, which must have been an interesting place in the 70s - Squeeze, Danny Baker doing that punk fanzine. Or were they a bit before your time?

I actually followed Squeeze around, from the age of about 12, we used to watch them play in the pubs. I've seen them about 20 times, it was very much like, 'wow, they've got famous.' Then I was in a band, there was quite a thriving scene then, round south east London.

Right, a bit of a music/comedy crossover? Jools Holland from Squeeze ended up working with Jim too...

Yeah, Jim was in a band, Paul [Whitehouse] was in a band, Charlie [Higson] was in a band, that's what you did. Being a stand-up was not really seen as a thing. I mean, now people choose stand-up as a career, because you can get loads of money and don't have to share it out. That's why there's often a dearth of people in comedy with funny bones, just a well worked-out show. That's my issue with it.

James Acaster comes to mind, of modern comics, who was all about bands originally.

Now he's someone I would say has got funny bones.

I was watching an old clip earlier, of Terry Wogan saying you had a comedy face - bit harsh - and there's an earlier Wogan where you did the whole thing as Tommy Cockles. Terry was clearly a fan...

Yeah, that was funny that interview, the old ladies didn't know who the hell I was. I don't think The Fast Show had been on then, so in make-up he said 'you'd better do some stand-up first, and they'll work out who you are.' The other guest on the show, from Bedknobs And Broomsticks [David Tomlinson], when he got the character I thought 'great, if he gets it, then I'm going down the right road.'

I was half expecting him to take offence - 'I knew Lord Delfont!' - but Tommy is hard to dislike. He's in the new show?

I do Tommy, I do Billy Bleach, who's the pub bore guy, he gives me the chance to really talk about anything I want really, as he's the everyman. I've got Tony Beckton, a criminal who's done 30 years in jail; I love that because it's quite near the mark, very tense the whole time. And then Geoffrey Allerton, who's a Yorkshire poet. So it's quite a nice balance from sort of straight stand-up to more theatery bits.

How are you doing the transitions between them? That can be tricky.

I've got some film, for the first time. I've been doing this character The Builder on Instagram and Twitter, which people seem to absolutely love. I've got like 500,000 views for the first one; people saying 'this is my mate,' women saying 'this man is in my house!'

One woman, she pelted me with messages, 'Simon, please, I've got a court order against him. He took out all the lead piping, replaced it with plastic and said "This is a drink for the lads."' Everyone knows those builders don't they?

I remember finding Tommy Cockles confusing at first, as most characters around then were a lot broader. He was quite brave, as it's not gag, gag gag.

No it's not, and my stuff never has been. I've been lucky really, that I had Jim and Bob to sort of say, 'no, it's brilliant.' Them validating me made other people [accept me], because TV people don't really know; they'd go 'Jim and Bob know what they're doing, so maybe this is really good.' And then, of course they had Matt Lucas, and Angelos [Epithemiou], they've obviously got an eye for what's funny.

So they were really behind me, 'this bloke's the future of comedy!', and Paul and Charlie liked it. I was very lucky in that respect, because I'd been in sort of a vacuum, I did lots of stand-up gigs where Tommy was on his own in pubs, with just stand-ups, and sometimes he would just not work.

People never heckled me, but they would just talk louder and louder, because in those days you did used to get funny old men [doing stand-up]. I'd often stay in character and go [Tommy Cockles voice] 'now come on, listen up, or I'll go!' 'Go on then!' But you have enough good ones to make it worthwhile.

I loved The Life Of Rock With Brian Pern - he's not in this show?

I did Brian on my last tour; I had a band and music and stuff. But it's expensive to do that. I like doing him, but you need the songs. And then you need a musician with you and you need tapes. And it becomes more of a thing, you know. I'd like to tour with him again, I love him, Brian.

Brian Pern. Brian Pern (Simon Day). Copyright: BBC

Did that series take a lot of arranging, too?

It was Rhys [Thomas], he was the one that got all the people in it, produced it, drove it forward. It was a pisstake of all those BBC Four shows, Classic Albums and so forth, but we gave it more of a sort of life.

It's a lovely character. Are there others you've killed off over the years?

Well, I don't do Gideon Soames, from The Fast Show. I don't do Competitive Dad, because, again, you need a kid with you; can't take a kid on tour, especially these days...

Competitive Dad, I'd come back every year for The Fast Show, and the kid would say 'you been up to much?' 'Not really, I've just done a few gigs, and I'm doing this.' And he'd say 'I've done three films, been in LA, just guest-starred in a German drama...'

Ouch. Are there projects you wish you'd got made, that never happened?

I was going to do a Dave Angel thing; I would have done had I realised how popular he was. I didn't really see it as having a life, I wanted to do Billy Bleach or Competitive Dad. We did a series of Grass, and we did write a second one about him moving next door to a sort of fascist Tory councilor, which would have been a bit before his time. But you know, it was a BBC show, Little Britain had come out and Nighty Night, and they can only recommission so many shows.

Come on girls, downstairs! Sorry, that's my dogs, running all over the place... go on.

Dave Angel: Eco Warrior was ahead of his time too - does he get into the current climate issues?

I don't talk about global warming anymore, because it's not really funny is it? So he talks more about what he's up to now, doing therapy. But I mean, that character, I did the phone birthday message things during lockdown, and it's like 98% Dave Angel. He's the most popular character I do, which is weird, because he doesn't say a lot. It's just the walk, people just love that character. It was basically Mike Reid.

The Fast Show was renowned for catchphrases, are there particular ones that still come up?

I never really came up with a catchphrase. Charlie used to get really angry and say 'you've got to write a catchphrase for it!' - he came up with 'put your knickers on and make me a cup of tea,' for Monkfish. If you put that in a meeting at the BBC now, they'd go 'I don't think you can say that...'

But yeah, I never really did the catchphrase thing, I sort of quite stubbornly tried to crowbar my long wordy characters into The Fast Show.

The Fast Show. Image shows from L to R: Paul Whitehouse, Simon Day, Arabella Weir, John Thomson, Caroline Aherne, Charlie Higson, Mark Williams. Copyright: BBC

That's the funny thing about The Fast Show - some of it was quite slow, and quite odd, lots of different styles in there.

Yeah, because Mark [Williams] was a trained actor, not a comedian, he said 'right, Fast Show,' and wrote 'You ain't seen me, right?' and 'This week I have mostly...' Whereas me and John and Caroline, we were all coming from a more wordy character comedian place.

Caroline first did her characters live, so she had to make them at least 20 minutes long. Which gave them a life, as I did and John did. The popular one from John was of course 'Nice!' 'Great!' Which Charlie wrote.

So that's why it all worked, I think, was the blend of people. You had two from up north. Charlie went to university, or poly, so did Paul and Mark, the rest of us didn't, I think that was basically why it was successful. Prior to that, sketch shows were about judges, the police, it was all authority figures, by public schoolboys. And brilliant - Monty Python is the best show ever - but if you had a working class bloke it'd be 'allll-right!', the coal man.

Do you reckon The Fast Show would get commissioned now?

The trouble with sketch shows, they're expensive, they're like bringing garlic and a cross to Dracula, with commissioning editors, they're terrified - costumes, the make up, locations. When you think about it, a good sketch show, a character show, gets a lot of viewers, but they haven't got the money now.

Do you miss that camaraderie? I suppose you've had it with other TV work?

Yeah, it's nice to work with a team. I did King Gary recently, which was great fun.

King Gary. Image shows from L to R: Teddy King (Riley Burgin), Terri King (Laura Checkley), Gary King (Tom Davis), Denise King (Camille Coduri), Big Gary King (Simon Day). Copyright: Shiny Button Productions

I suppose King Gary and the online stuff, that's introducing you to younger people?

I doubt it, but who knows? I mean, people do show The Fast Show to their sons; whether they'll come along and see me, we'll find out.

You were saying you did birthday messages during the lockdowns, too?

I did a few of them yeah, most people umm and ahh and go 'so undignified!' But at the end of the day, why not? Actually, you start doing it and there's people on there saying 'my husband's been ill, he's really down, if you could give him a message as Dave Angel, he's in the hospital.'

You know, you start getting a bit emotional. That's exactly what it's all about. I'm a comedian, that is my job. I'd love to be in the National Theatre, be in a drama and then have a hit show. But the reality is, we're just making people laugh, aren't we?

Published: Monday 12th September 2022

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