At a preview screening for his new comedy Brassic, actor Joe Gilgun is telling stories of smoking dope in posh hotels, masturbating in posh hotels, and a “geezer called Corned Beef Keith who always has his arse out”.
It is quietly pointed out early on that there are quite a few journalists in the room. “F*** ’em,” is the reply. “I’ve exposed myself.” Like the audience, his cast members are unable to contain the laughter as they sit beside him on stage.
This is not how normal screenings generally pan out, but then Gilgun isn’t what you would call a normal star. Gilgun wouldn’t call himself a star, full stop.
Unfiltered, unashamed, likeable and funny without trying, the rest of the cast are more than happy to let him hold court. Non-stop without ever being overbearing, Gilgun is never at a loss for a good story. His Chorley accent is thick, his sentences strewn with swearing, just like his best known character, affable skinhead Woody from the This Is England film and series.
Brassic is a comedy about a group of mates scamming and scraping their way through life at the forgotten end of society, but having a hell of a good time while they’re doing it. It also stars Michelle Keegan (Coronation Street, Our Girl) and Damien Molony (Being Human, Ripper Street) but it is very much Gilgun’s show. He plays protagonist Vinnie but is also the series’ co-creator, all the tales semi-autobiographical, or based on stories from friends of friends.
These characters are real people, “that sh*t went down”, he says, before adding that he won’t go into too much detail about exactly how real.
“We’re not victims, we have a different way of living,” the tagline for the show reads. “It’s about having your mates, having a laugh – and finding a way to survive.”
Gilgun says he wanted to present a different depiction of the working classes, one that “isn’t f****** miserable”.
“I want you to feel like you want to be a part of our gang,” he says on stage. “We live day-to-day, we scrape by, we barely get through a f****** week, and I want you lot to watch our group and want to be our friend.”
An incident involving a Shetland pony and a bottle of broken chloroform in the first episode sets the tone for exactly that.
After the screening, I get to speak to Gilgun and the cast with other journalists, and ask for the real-life inspiration behind the Shetland pony scenes we have just witnessed.
“I aint telling you that sh*t!” is the response. “Are you f****** mad? I aint telling you that. Loose lips! Silence is golden!
“Yeah, I can’t tell you that love. I’d love to, I’d love to. But there’s people involved. I mean, I honestly can’t, I just can’t go there with you. I feel like… this is my jam, right. There’s no mystery left anymore. I could tell you now…”
He stops, apparently veering off on a tangent about, of all things, swimming ants. “Did you know that an ant can live up to two weeks underwater without dying? Believe it or not, that’s true. That is true. Well you can check that on Google. You can have a quick look and you can make sure I’m not talking sh*t. They can also live up to 13 years. Boom!
“But there’s no mystery. There’s no mystery in any TV. Everything’s explained and force fed, and I won’t do that. I’m not doing that. You need to decide on your own what you believed was real from what isn’t. I am an ex-criminal and… there are rules. There are f****** rules. And talking to ladies like you and answering questions like that is definitely not one of the rules that can be broken.”
You get the sense Gilgun’s mind is always a few steps ahead of his mouth, sentences, the odd unrelated fact here and there, spilling out at random mid-flow, but then somehow looping back to his point.
Later, he launches into a two-minute breakdown of a 1998 series he watched called Tales Of The Gun, about the history of firearms. “It takes you through the history of guns, especially duelling pistols, it’s hysterically funny…”
He sets the scene: “‘I’ll see you at f****** dawn!’ ‘All right, motherf*****, I’ll see you at dawn.'”
The story has nothing to do with Brassic, but it is so enthusiastically told there is no attempt to steer him back on track.
“My head never, ever stops,” he says. “Never stops thinking. I’ll get in bed and dream all the way through the night of all this terrible sh*t. I’ll wake up p*ss-wet through.”
Watching YouTube videos of ants and “these things”, he says, calms his mind. As he finishes his Tales Of The Gun story, he stops for breath. “I don’t know why I’m telling you all this.”
Gilgun is extremely frank when it comes to discussing his mental health problems. Like Vinnie, he has bipolar disorder. On stage at the Q&A, he tells the audience how a doctor told him he was having a “f****** meltdown”, you’re terrified of everything”.
It’s important to talk about it, he says to us later, “especially for men”. He says working on Brassic with writer and co-creator Danny Brocklehurst, best known for Shameless, has been like a form of therapy.
“I f****** pepper his head,” Gilgun says. “He sits there and just listens and he never says a f****** word. I get very frustrated, you know, and he will sit and listen the whole time.”
He says he and Brocklehurst were aware of the “risks of exposing me like we have done” but he wants “people to see every aspect, that’s why I don’t hold back at all”.
Tom Hanson, who plays friend Cardi in the show, says the theme of mental health is what makes it a unique comedy.
“If anyone’s having a good day or a bad day, when it comes to our mental health we’re very open and we’re very serious with each other, we’re very caring with one another,” he says. “Because it’s an insane job. There are anxieties that come with that and there are worries that come with that.
“It’s top down from Joe, and the show is about mental health to a point. I think that is kind of what sets this show apart, because there is a traditional set-up of a group of boys but there’s a very clear love between all of us on and off the screen, and it grows throughout the episodes.”
Gilgun says he is pleased to be in a position to create a show shining a different light on mental health issues. But after his success in This Is England, as well as in Emmerdale, Misfits and Preacher, he says he will never fully get used to the fame and glamorous aspects of his career, his accommodation for his stay in London while he promotes Brassic a case in point.
“It’s crazy,” he says. “Honestly, this morning they put me in this apartment…. Dude, it’s unbelievable. I rang everyone up last night, I said, ‘are you sure this is the right room?'”
Jokes aside, Gilgun says there is a heavy guilt which comes with his success. “Over the last few years, my life has changed dramatically. And honestly, there’s this terrible guilt, man. F****** unbelievable guilt for like… for doing well. It’s a bit of a working class thing, feeling guilty for doing well.
“I’m not ashamed of it. There’s no shame. But there is a guilt for finally… to be able to stay a night in the hotel room I’ve got. My f****** bed, you could sleep either angle on it, you could sleep sideways and still fit. It’s crazy, man. Like, I’ve got a bath that I’m convinced if I fill it all the way up it’ll go straight through to whoever’s beneath me.”
While his life has changed significantly, Gilgun says when he returns from filming or promoting back to reality, he still goes “back to the derelict house in the woods”.
He continues: “The two most expensive things I own are two push bikes. I have f*** all and I really don’t want anything. I do a lot of therapy. I do it once a week with my bipolar, it’s healthy for me to analyse my behaviour, because it’s not always fun. Sometimes I can be a kn*bhead.
“One of the big things we’ve realised recently… I’ve never bought a house or a car or any of these things. And I think it’s because…” There’s a rare pause, a second in which he contemplates whether he wants to continue. “This is too deep, really. But I think it’s because I don’t feel worth it. When I get a girlfriend, I find someone who might fall in love with me, someone stupid somewhere who’s desperate. Maybe that’s when I’ll sort of do all that.”
He says he will always struggle with money and fame and the circles he now has the opportunity to move in, but mostly chooses to stay away from. But his mates, the friends he grew up with, are fascinated by his career.
“Yeah, they always thought I was going to end up in the nick or on heroin or something. Seriously. They really did, and there was a very high chance I could’ve done. They think it’s fascinating.”
Asked about possible comparisons of Brassic with Shameless, Brocklehurst says that the show “says something different” but there are “a lot worse things to be compared to”.
“F****** right there are,” says Gilgun. “Shameless was incredible, especially – and I’m not just saying because he’s my boy – but Danny’s series were the best part of Shameless, and honestly it’s a fantastic, ground-breaking northern show. If we can be compared to something like Shameless, amazing.
“Of course we know that we’re very different. Shameless was about families and about an estate. This is about a small town. This is not about a city, this is about the small towns, an under-served audience that have existed for a very long time.
“There’s countless little towns all over the UK that aren’t represented on TV and that’s what we’re doing. Shameless is a fantastic show and it covered what it is to be a bit lawless in the city. I’m f****** sick of seeing people from the… Top Boy, all, you know, and it’s glamorised, like, they make it cool.
“Criminals… my experience of criminality is not cool. It’s not. It’s not glamorous. You feel like sh*t and you don’t make much money and that’s the reality.”
And then, loudly: “F*** quinoa.” He pronounces it kwin-oa. “F*** keen-wa or whatever you want to call it.”
With that, publicists are telling us our time is up. That posh hotel bed is calling.
But before he goes: “Guys, I’m sorry for my talk about duelling pistols,” Gilgun throws out there as we’re being ushered away. “Make sure you get the duelling pistols in, though.”
- Brassic launches on Sky One and NOW TV on 22 August at 10pm