As Greg McHugh and the rest of his cast abseil down onto the live stage at the Hydro, they are making an even bigger jump into the realm of making a TV programme into a live show. The progression from a programme onto the stage is something so different from what these actors are used to; they are taking a well known and loved show that people are familiar with from the confines of their comforting sofa, and attempting to create the same sense of love for this show in the confines of hard seats of the Hydro. Is this maybe too big a jump for the cast and crew of Gary Tank Commander to try and give off the same effect that the programme did, capturing the hearts of the Scottish people?
I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to witness the rehearsals and the backstage of Gary Tank Commander: Mission Quite Possible and be able to see the lead up to the live show the same week they would perform. Having the Hydro as their location meant they had to maximise everything: the show was a 2-hour long episode, they maximised snippets that were in every programme such as full choreographed dancing scenes and monologues. The sense of how formidable this reality and prospect was of performing to around 10,000 people a night was not only felt by a bystander like me, but was so clear to see amongst the cast and the crew. I was able to speak to the director Simon Hynd about his thoughts on having a massive role in this one off production. He claimed that for him this was a “steep learning curve”. Simon has never touched theatre before as a director, but in a sense this show has more in common with a television programme due to cameras still being involved, and displaying the action on two screens for people to see. However, Simon was ultimately thrown in at the deep end with pulling off this once of a lifetime show.
I soon however began to see with sneaking backstage, listening to conversations and quietly observing the cast, that this show would be a success and this mainly was built on how the cast and crew were, cliché, like one big family or community. Everyone had great comradery with one another, joking around as if they have known each other for years. Funnily enough they have, Gary Tank Commander first aired on October 2009, and they have now progressed together through 7 years to come to this moment in their careers. They had completed tireless rehearsals together, gone through doubts in their head if they would even make it to this stage, and still all believed they could do it. Bringing Gary to life, from the outside, actually didn’t seem like a mission at all. They had already made him a family favourite from the programme, all they had to do now was resemble what was so evident backstage onto the main stage.
I was lucky to get a ticket for the first night. The Hydro was lit up in army colours, and the audience were immediately transported into the world of Gary. In the Hydro, menus were altered the ‘Gary way’, selling cheesy pasta and chips, people were buying ‘Armeh’ tops, then proudly getting pictures for their social media to create jealousy amongst their followers that they were in fact about to see Gary Tank Commander Live. As we found our seats, I looked around at the filled venue and even I was filled with a wave of both excitement and apprehension as I knew exactly how they’d be feeling backstage before their first ever performance at a venue so great. As the lights finally went down, everyone was glued to the stage as if they were glued to their television screens… and as soon as Gary and the boys abseiled down from their rescue helicopter in Afghanistan, the crowd erupted into cheers… they were seeing characters that had filled them with such laughter and happiness in real life.
One of the most favourite aspects from the TV programme was Gary’s monologues, in which he would try and talk about serious current affairs, yet in his naïve way would explain it so simplistically that it somehow made sense. Greg was determined to keep this trademark of the show; it was a classic trick of Shakespearean stage craft to allow Gary to go the side of the stage for his moments of ‘philosophy’.
Meeting the cast and crew, watching rehearsals, speaking to them one on one, and being able to see them again after the show allowed a great insight into the workings of how a television programme can become such a successful live show. To me, this show was a massive dream that came true for the actors, and in a way was just a reunion for them to see their good friends for one last show. This live show heightened connection between the audience and Gary and his boys, and the affection that we created in our living rooms when it was first aired on television was certainly there too. It exceeded all expectations and more, and Gary Tank Commander on stage was definitely granted mission possible.