Interview: Gary: Tank Commander – 'It's a heightened version of the show, it's a real-time mission played out in front of an audience'
Greg McHugh explains how he turned small-screen success into an arena-filling mega-show
'It's not a musical, thankfully. There are musical numbers in it but it's not like when I went to see Les Mis at the cinema and no one had told me they sing every fucking word of it. It's not going to be Gary: The Musical.'
Actor and writer Greg McHugh is finalising his battle plan ahead of a three-date residency at the SSE Hydro in October. As Corporal Gary McLintoch, he'll take to the stage for a two-hour 'mission' assisted by the other members of his regiment. 'It's increasingly bonkers,' he admits. 'I started off with a slightly bizarre idea that I've run with, and my hopes and aspirations of writing a very poignant piece have turned into "Gary's World of Madness", which in many ways is the best scenario to be in. It turns out I've written a really nuts story that suits Gary's role, so I'm really happy with it.'
Although he firmly asserts that the show is definitely not a musical, there will be some songs and dancing from his friends on stage. 'It's like a stand-up show with a big long narrative with monologues and dance, then a couple of surprise numbers which I won't give away,' he explains. 'It's going to be a heightened version of the show except it's a real-time mission being played out in front of a big arena audience.'
McHugh himself will have to go easy on the dance moves after he injured his ankle, suffering a double break and dislocation. 'I slipped down some steps and a guy saw my ankle and from the look on his face I thought he was going to be sick. But the people who operated on it were fantastic; our dying NHS did an amazing job so I'm very lucky.'
British sitcoms have experienced a resurgence on the big screen in recent years, albeit with mixed fortunes. Has McHugh ever wanted Gary to make the transition to the movies? 'I could not think of anything more fun than doing a Gary film,' he enthuses. 'If Scottish Screen or any of the cultural bodies or any big-earning producers want to back a film I would do it in a heartbeat. In fact, the storyline for the live show is kind of based around an outline for a film I wrote a few years ago.'
In 2014, McHugh played Smee in the Glasgow King's production of Peter Pan and he inflected his performance with more than a hint of Gary McLintoch, something he'd quite happily expand for a future pantomime. 'I think Gary is a bit of a panto character: he's big and broad and bold. It just depends on the writing,' he reasons. 'Any job I do, whether I'm writing it or it's someone else's script: that's obviously the key. So if someone allows me the freedom to do a panto then we could make something really good of it.'
There are currently no plans for a fourth TV series, although that hasn't kept Gary McLintoch from our screens entirely. In the run-up to this year's Scottish election, he famously interviewed the leaders of the Scottish political parties. It might have given everyone concerned good reason to be nervous but the result was a painfully funny series of conversations bringing some much-needed humour to an otherwise typically po-faced contest. 'The Scottish political leaders showed themselves to be really brilliant and unfazed by it, confident and up for a laugh,' he says. But having started his interviewing career with such high-profile subjects it would seem to be a very tough act to follow. 'Where do you go after you've spoken to the six leaders of the political parties?' he says. 'I want to avoid speaking to the – dare I say – celebrities of my level; I want to keep the stakes high.' He'd relish the chance to speak with Donald Trump or Boris Johnson although he knows that would likely never happen.
McHugh is remarkably calm at the prospect of performing to an arena audience of up to 13,000 per night. 'I've looked out to two and a half thousand on my own, doing stand-up several times at the Edinburgh Playhouse, and no nerves on this earth – apart from a bad flight I had over the Atlantic many years ago – compare to stand-up nerves. But I feel far more secure on a stage with my buddies.' While Gary McLintoch's TV role may be fluid (sometime tank commander/occasional political interrogator), the character himself is unlikely to go through much change. 'The rules of sitcom state we have to reset the character after every episode so that he never learns – that's how everyone keeps making the same mistakes. But in this two-hour show Gary has to go on a bit of a journey.' McHugh laughs as he admits, 'It's debatable at the end of that journey whether he has really learned anything.'
Gary: Tank Commander – Mission Quite Possible, SSE Hydro, Glasgow, Thu 20–Sat 22 Oct