If there’s one word that sums up Greg Davies’ time hosting Never Mind the Buzzcocks, it’s “chaos”. He employs it so many times during our chat, it could be an interview drinking game. The BBC pop panel show ran from 1996 to 2015, and he says Sky’s upcoming reboot retains the original’s anarchic, piss-taking spirit.
“I enjoy the chaos (DRINK!) and chaotic side of what we’ve produced,” says the comedian, over Zoom, fending off a post-wedding hangover in his London home. “What I love is that musicians are not arriving with their slick PR machines – they can’t hide behind a way that they’ve previously presented themselves. Mercifully, all the guests we’ve had on were great – so natural and fun and I hope they relish getting to show a different side of themselves.”
Throughout its 28 seasons, Buzzcocks was responsible for unfiltered water-cooler moments galore. There was the time Amy Winehouse dismissed working with Mother’s Day favourite Katie Melua, declaring she’d “rather have cat AIDS”; or when Kelly Rowland tossed a glass of water over then-host Simon Amstell with a cry of “may the power of Christ compel you!” – only to be met with his lightning fast comeback: “But I’m a Jew!” There was ‘Superstar’-singer Jamelia’s satisfied revenge of seeing an ex-lover who’d sold a kiss-and-tell on her in the Identity Parade (where guests had to pick out a faded pop star from a line up), Fun Lovin’ Criminal Huey Morgan having a meltdown and smashing his mug in frustration at Rizzle Kicks and, most infamously, Ordinary Boy Preston walking out in 2007 when Amstell read out passages from his then-spouse and Celebrity Big Brother winner Chantelle Houghton’s autobiography, before team captain Bill Bailey fished a doppelgänger from the audience to take his place.
Davies, best-known now for his stint on The Inbetweeners and as Taskmaster’s titular chief, was a huge fan of the show throughout its 20-year run. “Even though things are hectically busy for me at the moment, it was a no-brainer when the call came through asking me to do it,” he says. “I mean, let’s not pretend we’re a chin-stroking muso show, but what other show allows musicians to come on and cut loose in the way we do?”
“At its core it’s the same Buzzcocks”
In many ways, the eight-episode-plus-Christmas-special return hews scrupulously close to the classic format. The infamous ‘Intros Round’ (where teams perform the intros of songs), ‘Identity Parade’ and ‘Next Line Round’ (where teams have to guess the next lyric of a song) are all back, albeit with new tweaks. For example, rather than just determining who the pop star of yesteryear is in the Identity Parade, celebrities will see a well-known band and have to identify the imposter. “We’re bringing back a show that we all love, so messing with it would be counterproductive,” says Davies. “It would be silly for us to reinvent the wheel, so although there are an abundance of ridiculous new rounds – one of which is so childish, it makes me clap my hands every time – at its core it’s the same Buzzcocks.”
Acting as goth-bridge from the previous series is Noel Fielding (“He continues to weave his magic that he’s done in previous incarnations,” praises Davies), who’s joined on team captain duties by This Country’s Daisy May Cooper. “She’s an absolute storm of a woman – who makes me corpse all the time,” beams Davies. Comedian Jamali Maddix acts as regular weekly panellist, switching teams each episode. “He’s like a comedy owl,” says Davies. “He’ll sit there thinking quietly for a minute and then say something that absolutely decimates the place.”
A mixture of heritage musicians and rising talent will also be flexing their comedy muscles on the show, including Little Mix’s Jade Thirlwall and Yungblud. “The excitement for me as host is that I get to meet up-and-coming musicians I didn’t particularly know the work of like Aitch the rapper, but then there’s nostalgic moments for me like having Shaun Ryder and Bez on, where – as a huge Happy Mondays fan – I was transported right back to the ‘90s.” Also, the panellists have been inviting him to their gigs. “They’re probably being polite and think I won’t turn up,” he laughs. “But why shouldn’t a 53-year-old, 6′ 8″ man go and see Little Mix?”
However, in an avowedly deferential celebrity culture where fan armies can be mobilised, are hair-trigger PRs not hovering around ready to pull the plug? Not so, says Davies. “I didn’t experience any musicians trying to manage their image – and if they did, they didn’t do a very good job of it!”
“Daisy May Cooper is an absolute storm of a woman”
Also helping oil the gears in the ‘90s and early 2000s was copious amounts of alcohol being funnelled into those Never Mind the Buzzocks mugs. As H from Steps once memorably told NME of his experience on the show: “They ply you with drink in a mug which is why I ended up calling Dido a cunt.”
“I don’t know if it was ever a policy to get people hammered before the show – you’ll have to ask previous producers,” laughs Davies. “But I know it wasn’t water in those mugs in this series, I can tell you that! And quite a few musicians were very, very far from sober!”
When Buzzcocks appeared in 1996, its initial host was Mark Lamarr, who stayed with the show for 17 series, and compared to other staid, prefect-like shows at the time, it felt like the impudent snotty kid smoking behind the bike-shed. It entered another Imperial Phase when Simon Amstell took over in 2006 and was merciless with guests like Towers of London’s Donny Tourette, whose punk image he tore to shreds. After four years, Noel Fielding said that Amstell’s “cruel jibes” made guests reluctant to appear, while Phill Jupitus nearly threw in the towel because he felt “people were being booked to have the piss taken out of them.” After experimenting with guest hosts – including Davies himself for one episode in 2011 – final series host Rhod Gilbert was given the permanent chair role in 2014, and his mild surrealism couldn’t compete with the caustic comedy cage-fighting of the Lamarr and Amstell years. Davies’ presenting style is, again, different – Taskmaster fans will know him as the messianic throne-perching ring-master – so was he worried about escaping the shadow of his predecessors?
“Of course, I was wary of taking on the role of host because I’m a fan of the show and those are big boots to fill,” he says. “I would say the overarching feeling now is one of chaotic silliness rather than confrontation. I don’t really do confrontation especially well. But there’s plenty of piss-taking, believe me, that comes back and forth from everybody. It was a real fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants experience. I didn’t have a conscious way of approaching it. I just like music, having fun and messing around – and that’s what you’ve got within the format of Never Mind the Buzzcocks.”
“Noel Fielding continues to weave his magic”
Consciously or not, we’re in a different celebrity culture in 2021, and the show arguably has to straddle a high-wire act. In a post Caroline Flack climate, it can’t get away with some of the crueller excess of previous seasons (rewatching some of the episodes where guests are goaded can be uncomfortable). At the same time, a fully defanged Buzzcocks risks sinking into the mud of the countless banter cruise-control panel shows. “For my role as host, all I did was what I consider to be acceptable and there’s plenty of piss-taking baked into the DNA of the show, but there’s nothing consciously vindictive that comes from me, and it’s all tongue-in-cheek,” says Davies. “I’m not in the business of making people unhappy, but audiences will have to be the judge of that.”
Although it’s a TV institution, we perhaps shouldn’t be clouded by the cataracts of nostalgia. A product of 1990s Loaded laddism, Buzzcocks was often accused of misogyny and homophobia. The TV presenter Gail Porter, for example, whose naked image was once beamed onto the Houses of Parliament by FHM, was once told by Mark Lamarr: “If you are not going to show us your arse or slag [R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe] off, there’s no reason to be here.”
“I think we’re all changing,” says Davies, of whether the show’s tone has had to switch. “We’re all evolving. I certainly am, and there are things that a few years ago you would deem acceptable to say or use as a vehicle for comedy and perhaps now some of those things have evolved – just as we’ve all evolved. But I loved Buzzocks for what it was and didn’t think: ‘Oh we’ve got to change the way they did things.’ My comedy is based on things I have decided it’s acceptable to say. It’s a matter of personal conscience.”
Of course, if anybody can handle the job of marshalling celebrities in various states of ridiculousness, it’s Davies. On Taskmaster, he found a sleeper hit that helped people through lockdown with its interactive challenges. The BAFTA-winning show sees comedians attempting ever-more-ludicrous tasks, whether it’s creating a watercooler moment out of an actual watercooler, painting a picture of a horse while riding an equine, or getting a ball through a basketball hoop without using their hands, like The Crystal Maze on crystal meth. “It’s testament to [creator and co-host] Alex Horne’s twisted imagination that the show doesn’t get same-y or repeat itself. And it’s so wholesome. I mean, I ruin it with my foul man act,” he laughs. ”But the premise underneath is so inclusive and reassuringly old-fashioned while being progressive. It’s quite a neat trick the boy pulled off, although I will never say this to his face of course!”
“Jamali Maddix is like a comedy owl”
“It’s funny for me coming from an entertainment show like Taskmaster, where I’m a despot handed power, to Buzzocks where it’s chaos (DRINK!), and I barely felt in control in a pleasingly silly way. It was an explosive start out of the gates that continued, and I think we’ve found a bizarre alchemy.” It helps the rapport that he’s worked with Noel Fielding, Daisy May Cooper and Jamali Maddix before on Taskmaster. “As soon as they told me who the Buzzocks team captains were, I just went: Fucking great!”
At 53, he’s older than the previous regular Buzzcocks hosts (Rhod Gilbert, at 44, previously held that title), but he didn’t pursue comedy until his late thirties, instead working as an English and Drama teacher at a comprehensive school for 13 years. “I often refer to those teacher years as a wasted period, but I don’t think they were,” he considers. “I was far too thin-skinned to start comedy in my early twenties when a lot of my contemporaries did. I wouldn’t have been able to cope with it. My teaching years made me mentally able to callous up a bit so I could handle the cut and thrust of it. It was a difficult period of my life because I knew there was another job I wanted, and what stopped me having a go at comedy was a fear of failure. That’s not good for you and I’m pleased I eventually put my head above the parapet.”
His first major role, aptly, was arsey headmaster Mr Gilbert in The Inbetweeners, but since then, he’s flourished and is currently on a career white-hot-streak: Taskmaster is a smash, his 2013 sitcom Man Down is being rediscovered on streaming services and his new BBC comedy series The Cleaner has kicked off too to positive reviews. He’s genuinely evangelical about Never Mind the Buzzcocks, a show he used to watch as a teacher “through gritted teeth as it looked like the most fun job in the world.”
But the question that will be on everybody’s lips is: has he had a Preston moment? He shakes his head. “No. There are plenty of moments that people will be talking about – ranging from rows to hugely unprofessional conduct – but nobody got offended or threw their toys out of the pram. No-one walked off, as I recall! That’s something that happened in the moment and to try to recreate it would be folly.”
Instead, “we just rolled the dice, concludes Davies. “And it was….” – you guessed it – “chaos.” DRINK!
‘Never Mind The Buzzcocks’ returns September 21 at 9pm on Sky Max