“I got to 27 and I thought “Fuck. There’s got to be more to life than this.”
At over two metres tall, with a gravelly voice that rumbles up out of his chest before skittering around in the thick beard that populates his face, Tom Davis could be an intimidating figure.
But he isn’t. In a soft cap, and chunky glasses, looking dapper and approachable, the Bafta-winning scaffolder-turned-comic reflects on an unusual career trajectory that has brought him to his most recent role: Court Bailiff in Dave’s new series Judge Romesh.
“I came from an environment where I had no education, I’ve not got any qualifications. I’d seen Mickey Flannagan in a pub in Bethnal Green, and I thought ‘I can probably get up on stage and tell five minutes of jokes…’”
“[Even] if it goes no further, I’m doing something for myself that isn’t scaffolding or isn’t building.”
Five-minute sets became 10, and Croydon became Manchester – where he travelled in pursuit of a girl. However, the work stayed the same.
“I was working on a building site during the day [until] I met some guy after a gig. He said, ‘Have you ever thought of doing drag?’”
Drag was Davis’ first real foray into the surreal, a comedy genre that he has very much made his home since he first appeared on screens in Bo’ Selecta.
"When you look the way I do, and sound like I do, as soon as they see you people go, like Shrek, ‘Is he going to try and eat everyone?’”
“I had this massive beard and I’d come on to The Little Mermaid” - at this point he breaks into a short rendition of 'Part of Your World' – “but then I’d talk about my life as me, but dressed with that ginger wig.”
Surreal comedy allowed him to turn his size into a strength. Earlier this year Davis won a Bafta and RTS nomination for his role as DS Sleet in BBC Three’s Murder in Successville. “When you look at Sleet, it’s not a big shouty performance. It’s always funny that you’re a big man but play it small. In the first series Sleet was more gruff, but for the second series the idea was that he was really lonely and his wife had left him.”
Comedy has been a part of Davis’ life since his youth, and comedians like Leigh Francis (aka Keith Lemon) and Steve Coogan have become his role models. “Watching how those guys were at the top of their game but it still felt like they were working so hard. Their ethic wasn’t like ‘I’ve made Alan Partridge so I can take my foot off the gas.’ No matter if you’re Tom Davis starting out, or Leigh Francis or Steve Coogan, you’ve still got to graft.”
Leigh Francis gave Davis one of his first TV breaks and, as his star has risen, he’s been able to return the favour to the next generation of comics.
“I was really fortunate that when I was coming through I did things like The Morgana Show, worked a bit with Coogan and Leigh Francis, but it feels like it is now harder and harder to get through the door and get yourself on television – because that’s where you learn.”
“I’ve done eight years of little bits of other people’s stuff to be where I am now, so having people come through [his shows] and do stuff, letting them do their thing and be funny, that probably been the thing that I’m proudest of: giving people airtime for new talent.”
His latest project sees him take a break from character acting, as he plays himself as a Court Bailiff on Dave’s Judge Romesh.
He and Kerry Howard play along with Romesh Ranganathan, who casts down arbitrary judgments on everything from a husband who can’t turn away from a bargain, to a best friend who bailed on her (award-winning) friend and pop sensation.
“Justice called. The wrong man answered,” the posters cry.
The entire series was filmed over just a few days, with Judge Romesh seeing several cases a day. “We really bonded,” Davis laughed at a recent screening of the show.
“It was like sharing a cell together,” Ranganathan responded.
Judge Romesh is available on UKTV Play and on Dave on Wednesdays at 10pm.