Great Night Out is a lively, upbeat comedy drama for ITV1 set in Stockport in the North of England. It's about a close-knit group of friends - Beggsy, Daz, Glyn and Hodge - four thirtysomethings who have known each other since childhood.
Lee Boardman plays Hodge, who he describes as "loveable and overweight!" He would view himself as the leader of the group, but nobody else does. He talks with the voice of authority on most subjects, even when his knowledge is lacking. He likes to be thought of as a man who can just get things sorted, but in reality he sidesteps responsibility and any situation that requires him to spend money. And whilst he thinks of himself as the man of the house, his wife Kath could definitely tell you otherwise.
Lee explains that he had to bond pretty quickly with Rebekah Staton, who plays Kath, to ensure they were convincing as a long term couple: "In fact none of the cast had worked together before, so we had to get to know each other sharpish. Great Night Out is a series about the history people have with each other, about long-standing friendship. The relationships needed to be believable and truthful on the screen. The first day of filming is always a bit like the first day of school, which is what an actor's life is all about - it happens whenever you start a new job. I'm quite envious of the characters as I'm not in touch with anyone I was at school with. But all of us have friendships where you know each other incredibly well and can get really irritated with each other but you are forgiven, just like in a family."
Beggsy, played by William Ash, often rubs Hodge up the wrong way when he sees through his extravagant story-telling. He's an upbeat soul, happy being single with the odd one night stand thrown in here and there. Divorced for a year, he still pines after his ex-wife who did the dirty on him a year ago, fleeing Down Under to live with her new hubby and taking their daughter Kelly with her. He's now a 'Skype Dad'. "He's the only one without a partner and he's in a bit of a relationship vacuum. He doesn't set out to sleep with women, it just sort of happens to him, but he just can't seem to get it right."
Glyn, played by Craig Parkinson, is everyone's loyal underdog: "It's nice to play the guy who's always one sentence behind, forever playing catch-up." He emphasises, however, that they aren't "ladsy lads - at the end of the day they've all got good hearts and they all try and do the right thing - they might go to the football and drink beer, but that's just one aspect of their lives."
In fact he's quite a sensitive soul; he still yearns after his high school crush Julie (Christine Bottomley) and seems to fluff every attempt to get something going with her despite his mates' regular, well-intentioned 'advice'. Ricky Tomlinson describes Glyn as "the fall guy - he wouldn't get a kiss in a brothel!" He frequently finds himself half a beat behind everyone else in a conversation, but his simplistic view of the world gives him an enviable, innocent charm. And his luck could be about to change...
Stephen Walters plays Daz, the fourth member of the gang: "Daz is an underdog, the eternal pessimist of the group." He's the first to pull Hodge up on his sometimes questionable fashion sense, and the first to put a dampener on a situation. Sometimes he's in a relationship with Colleen (Naomi Bentley), sometimes he's not; it depends what hour of the day it is. He can't live with her, he can't live without her and their constant bickering would appear to be the only glue holding them together, but underneath there's a real love somewhere.
It's his friends who give Daz the security he needs when Colleen cools things - which she regularly does: "That's what their friendship is all about; whenever one of them makes a mistake, they all somehow get involved and yet none of them seem to learn anything from the experience."
The four actors really enjoyed the fact that the series is very firmly rooted in their native North of England. Lee comes from Stockport itself: "I was born in the hospital there and the streets and the people are dead familiar to me." Will is from nearby Oldham, Craig is from Blackpool whilst Stephen is from Liverpool.
Lee explains that filming at Stockport County's stadium, Edgeley Park, brought back lots of happy boyhood memories as his dad was a Sunday league player there: "Even though the team have been on a bit of a downward trajectory, it means a lot to the people of the town. It's the heartbeat of Stockport. Several of the people we met there had worked at the club for all of their working life. They've played in the League for over a hundred years. And these lads love the club with all their heart." Craig laughs: "Ironic really as I can't stand football and I know absolutely nothing about it. Everything I know comes from this lot!"
Some strong friendships have come out of working together on the series, although during the filming process itself there was little time for socialising as Craig explains: "During filming we worked long hours, did eleven day fortnights and were up at six every day. Three of us blokes have got small children so although we all clicked as a group, we grabbed any time off to race home and see our families."
The filming hours might have been long and the weather completely unpredictable - bright sunshine one day, deluging rain the next - but the crew kept their good humour and there was a lot of laughter on set. Lee admits: "There was a bit of corpsing, but I decided to go with it as I thought "This could be one of TV's Naughtiest Blunders and another £350 coming my way..." Will adds: "That's not a joke, by the way - that's exactly the way his mind works." There was a great deal of self control needed when it came to some of the driving scenes. Glyn has been out of work for quite some time and finally manages to get himself a job as a chauffeur. The only problem is that his new boss is a gangster, complete with very unpredictable moll. Lee laughs: "Basically the lads all end up in the most massive scrapes, try and help each other, but somehow just keep on digging."
Lee adds: "Beggsy gets roped into helping Glyn out and has to deal with this drunken lunatic of a woman, played by the wonderful Daisy Beaumont, who is a beautiful girl, brilliantly comedic and completely without vanity. She has to play being constantly pissed and really letting herself down."
He continues: "For various reasons I am sent to pick her up and got to drive the most brilliant Lexus - about 100 grand's worth. I really enjoyed bombing around the streets of my hometown, Stockport. I rag it to death and it's brilliant - a lot more fun than the bright pink VW camper van I ended up driving in deluging rain in a later episode - but I'll let Rebekah tell you about that."
Hodge's wife Kath is played by Rebekah Staton: "I play Mrs Hodge. It says in the script that I wear the trousers. I like to think it's more the shirt and tie and trousers and jacket."
"It's a really nice relationship. Lee and I hadn't worked together before, but it very quickly felt as if we had known each other for ages and it was great fun to play. Kath is happily married, but she's looking to the future."
She admits that whilst working with Lee she found it very difficult not to laugh at the most inappropriate moments: "He does some extraordinary work with accents - and his tattoos! They had to be covered up in the bedroom scenes, and that made me laugh; watching him holding a duvet up whilst trying to cover a tattoo and talking about erectile dysfunction - well, that was all in a day's work!"
Naomi Bentley plays Colleen, Daz's long-suffering girlfriend: "He's just a miserable git really who's set in his ways and it drives Colleen crazy. They're like that couple that everyone knows - you can't understand why they're still together because one minute they're on, the next they're off and it's really passionate. Whether it's off or on they commit to whatever state they're in, so it's quite volatile. When we first meet them they're very much off."
She adds: "Colleen is very dry, but she's quick. She calls a spade a spade - she doesn't wrap it up with a bow for you. She lives with an incompetent flatmate Bev, played brilliantly by Isy Suttie of Peep Show fame. Bev and Daz just don't get on. Colleen would love him to learn to compromise, just a little bit, but I don't think he's capable. He's very selfish. She loves him but he drives her mad. Sometimes she has to bite her lip, at others he just melts her because she finds him so funny."
The female trio is completed by Christine Bottomley who plays Julie, Glyn's love interest: "Our characters were at high school together and he always held a torch for Julie. Then they bump into each other at a nightclub and the will-they-won't they relationship takes off - but it takes a wee while! I'd quite like to live in Glyn's world sometimes, you know. I think Julie finds him really endearing and quite refreshing. She takes a little warming up, because she's quite shy really. That was a challenge for me to play. I'm quite gobby! Julie is a warm character and instantly loyal. She's a nurse and very charitable, but she's just come out of a crap marriage - her husband went off with somebody else."
Rebekah explains that unlike the boys, who have known each other since childhood, the girls are brought together by circumstance: "The audience will see those relationships evolve. We are definitely brought together by our guys. Kath is adjusting - things don't quite work out the way she would like them to ever, but as girls go, I think she's quite chuffed with the company. And certainly Julie proves herself in a social situation at one stage and Kath says 'She can stay.'"
Naomi adds: "I think that women will like the women in this series - we're all quite female friendly characters - and if you've ever been widowed by your bloke for football or the pub you will definitely get the series."
The Nelson pub is indeed the nucleus of the series. It is described in the script as "a local for locals type place despite being in the town centre. We see some of the regulars - gnarled old geezers for whom the place is a second home." Just as it is for the not so gnarled, as Stephen explains: "It's where we have all gathered since we were teenagers and we kind of spew out our thoughts and talk about everything that is going on in our lives. We have a laugh and we take the piss out of each other. It's the constant thread."
Ricky Tomlinson, who plays Warren, the landlord of the Nelson, thoroughly enjoyed working with the young cast of Great Night Out and the cast and crew loved having him around. Will explains: "He comes in and his energy is so brilliant that he lifts us to another level and that affects everyone across the board, cast and crew. He's just a wonderful person to spend time with."
Ricky laughs: "I was made up to work with the lads. Normally when I'm performing I am working with people of my own age. I thoroughly enjoyed telling them stories and gags, and they were very complimentary, which was lovely for me. They said 'We love to see you coming in the morning, because you are going to make our day', and in a way that's how we built the relationships between the characters. Filming Great Night Out was crackers - great teamwork, lots of hugging. I love all that!"
Ricky describes Warren as "a know-all landlord who does anything he can to get them boys coming in. He wants their custom but he also has a sneaking admiration for them all and really likes them. In a way he's like their dad. He enjoys playing pranks on them and kidding around but his main purpose it to get them to spend as much money as possible. He uses all sorts of tricks, quiz nights, bingo, and he doesn't really want anyone to win! But he has to put them on because all the other pubs in the area do, you see. There are some dodgy prizes - when he has a meat raffle the sausages were already a fortnight out of date so he advises the winner "I would eat them yesterday, if I were you!"
Ricky (whose real name is Eric) was born in Bispham, Blackpool, but has lived in Liverpool nearly all his life. A gifted actor, comedian and political activist, in 2010 Ricky opened his own cabaret club in Liverpool called The Green Room: "Years ago I ran a pub of my own, a bistro, and now that I have a share in a nightclub, I know a lot about the sort of scams that go on. At one time pubs were like community centres. Everyone went there and they confided in the landlord. And the Nelson is a bit like that. The lads confide in Warren, but he's not the smartest fella in the world. Hodge has a little problem he tells him about and before long the whole world knows about it. In fact telling Warren a secret is a bit like putting it on The News At 10!"
Ricky's depiction of his character may have been just a little influenced by events from his past - his own local pub and the landlord Tom McCain: "He was just like Warren. I'm going back thirty odd years here. He used to have a little Staffordshire Bull Terrier called Butch and the pub was quite near the docks, so he'd get all the foreign sailors coming in. He had some Norwegians in there once and he told them Butch could do all sorts of tricks. He threw the dog a packet of crisps and told the dog to open it, which he did. Then he said 'salt' and Butch knocked the salt cellar off the table, and he told the dog he could eat them. These fellas were fascinated. There was a bomb site next door. Staffies love to chew, and Butch came in with half a brick and started making his way downstairs. The sailors asked Tom what he was doing and he said: "Well, he's building himself a new kennel!" He was a big influence on how I played Warren..."
Meanwhile, another national treasure, Susie Blake, plays Beggsy's Mam. She is probably best known for her regular work with Victoria Wood, her role as Beverley Unwin in Coronation Street and, more recently, for her role in Mrs Brown's Boys. "Mam's number one objective is that her son should be happy, so she is a perfect mum from that point of view. Then she realises that she could be happy too - but I'm not going to say any more about that. People will have to watch! Her son's wife has upped and left him and taken their eleven year old daughter with her to Australia where she has re-married. Mam really wants Beggsy to find someone else rather than hankering after this wife who he obviously still loves. She doesn't interfere exactly, but he is always round at her house even though he doesn't live there. They go over things at meal times and I identify with that because I'm like that with my own son. He's 33 and married but he rings me up to talk about his problems and that's lovely. And I'm about to be a grandma for the second time!"
Susie says that Great Night Out made her forget her age as she also found herself repeating a rather unusual impersonation - of Lady Gaga, as she explains: "I first played her in the Grumpy Old Women: Let's Dance For Sports Relief sketch. We did fake, jokey interviews and we were all anonymous and heavily disguised. God it was fun! And now here I am again, Lady Gaga in the pub! It's an extraordinary outfit. It looked as if I was wearing the skin of a pink shark with fins sticking out at various angles and I wore a long yellow wig, which is great fun to do at my age! But it's rather shocking because you turn round and you're a granny! But I'm enjoying moving on to that stage of my career!"
She describes the four actors as being "like the four musketeers! They are all very different from each other and they take it in turns to be the dominant one. It's very funny to watch them as a group. One day one is the life and soul and the next it's the other. I'm astounded that they all work so well together as they hadn't met each other before they started work on the series - it's amazing!"
She continues: "There was a very friendly atmosphere on set. Because there are so many of us, and we started off filming in the pub, it was lovely. We were all in the big green room upstairs and we had an opportunity to get to know each other straight away."
She adds: "The script for Great Night Out reminded me of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet - lovely people who you really want to get to know. Not a gang, but four individuals and their friends, girlfriends, wives and families. You get interested in the differences between them and their dreams and objectives. They're not nineteen - their lives are very different and more complicated and they have all got individual quirks."
The cast certainly bonded during the intense 12 week shoot, united not least by long hours and the incredible vagaries of the British weather, as Rebekah explains: "Kath works in a bowling alley by day. It's a very stressful job, worrying about chip baskets and shoes, so she decides that she and Hodge will go away for a nice romantic break, just the two of them. And it's supposed to be sunny, but in reality it was absolutely pissing it down and the fields were flooded."
Another character enters at this point - a bright pink campervan - with very long lash extensions - called Marlene. "Keith Allen guest stars as a gun-toting volatile farmer - very scary, but also strangely attractive - he and Kath definitely have a moment in the kitchen!" The glamping expedition soon goes from bad to worse, as seems to happen so often with the lads.
Lee sums up the series as "a warm hearted, uplifting, mainstream comedy for ITV1." Will agrees: "Yes, there's no cynicism there." Craig: "It's a tale of male friendship and quite refreshing. I think everyone can relate to the characters. Everyone knows a Warren or a Hodge, you know?" Stephen concludes: "Great Night Out is a positive and upbeat comedy drama series and audiences love that sort of escapism. People don't always want to sit though something dark and hard-hitting and depressing. There's a place for those sort of shows, but at a time when people are tightening their belts this series is all about warmth, friendship and pure escapism."