Actor Greg McHugh, best known for Gary: Tank Commander, can’t wait to get back in front of live audiences playing the ‘lovable big idiot’ Aladdin at the much-anticipated SEC Glasgow panto this year, discovers Lorraine Wilson.

Even in its most straightforward and traditional state, pantomime has a tradition of playing with theatrical conventions.

So it comes as no surprise that this most flexible of entertainments will, this Christmas, offer us the spectacle of one of Scotland’s most successful actor/writers playing his most beloved character, who in turn is playing Aladdin.

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Even actor Greg McHugh, who inhabits that popular character, best known as Gary: Tank Commander, admits that it borders on the existential.

“It is something that has been tackled in the script,” says Greg. “Everyone keeps calling Gary ‘Aladdin’, which is obviously really annoying to him. It hurts his ego that no-one knows who he is.”

This Aladdin will be played out at SEC in Glasgow from December 11 to 29, with Gary being joined by River City’s Leah MacRae, who he has worked with many times before, and Sanjeev Kohli in his first turn as a pantomime baddie, stepping in to take the role when Gavin Mitchell had to withdraw due to long Covid.

“Alan McHugh’s script is brilliant, but he’s always open to me changing a turn of phrase or adjusting something slightly because it sits better with Gary. He knows that no-one understands Gary like I do. Imagine that, eh?” he laughs.

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Greg adds that he was gutted for Gavin. “I’ve worked with him before but never in panto. He has a special talent for that so it would have been great to watch him work.

“I’ve worked with Sanjeev too and I’m sure he’ll bring something different to the panto baddie and he really has live stage chops, having done Still Game at the Hydro.

“Ultimately, he’s funny and that’s what we need in panto – we’re not doing Shakespeare here!”

The fact that Gary, the young cheesy-pasta obsessed corporal has endured since his first appearance in Gary’s War, a Channel 4 comedy short in 2008, is as much of a surprise to his creator.

“I try not to question it too much,” Greg says, “but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I wasn’t slightly surprised. It’s a real compliment that people still want to see him.”

Once the third and final series of the BBC sitcom was over in 2012, Gary appeared in one-off appearances, an election special in 2016, and also that year a live show at the Hydro in Glasgow.

Considering Gary’s enduring popularity, Greg adds: “I think it does matter that he’s an east coast guy and there aren’t too many characters from that part of the country.

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“I just love playing him – the big idiot. Gary is lovable – he has that simplistic confidence that means he’s a confident fool. In terms of leading a panto, the more mistakes he makes the better. I’ll be intrigued to see what Sanjeev does with his mean side and how that works with Gary. I’m sure once we all get in the rehearsal room together, the natural extras that we’ll find in the script will come out.”

The SEC panto is one of the most spectacular but the size of the room and the 3,000 capacity mean that the auditorium can take the special effects.

“At its heart, panto needs to have the characters and the interplay to connect with the most multi-generational audiences,” says Greg.

“In a theatre, you’re closer to the players but we need to scale that up for the size of the SEC. Everything needs to be that little bit bigger.”

The fact that most Scottish actors of a certain level will probably have worked with others at some point is a huge benefit to the special demands of panto.

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Greg talks about the “trust” that needs to happen in an ensemble like this. “Panto doesn’t work without that solid ensemble and being honest – that’s what makes it fun. If we’re having fun, it shows from the stage.”

That trust is also crucial when things go a bit wrong. “Even if things go really wrong … actually, that’s when it’s funniest. I’m not going to lie, when things go really wrong, that’s when things get quite trippy,” Greg adds.

The demands of carrying a panto, keeping the energy levels high when there are two shows a day, will get tiring at times but Greg says that the joy of Gary is he can get away with just telling the audience “I’m knackered” and it works. “I mean, it’s not as strenuous as a lot of jobs that don’t involve dressing up, having a laugh with great people, and entertaining an audience, so I would never complain.

“The panto must be close to the top of that collective family experience. We know how much people need that just now and we can’t wait to be with the audiences. I’ve actually had a really busy 12 months so it’s great to be ending the year with something so joyful.

Apart from his role in Neil Forsyth’s Guilt as ex-convict Teddy, someone who Gary would cross the street and run into Lidl to avoid (and he’s served in Iraq), Greg has been filming a Netflix show with Rowan Atkinson, joined the cast of The Cockfields for Gold, and returned as Hamish to A Discovery of Witches, which will be shown on Sky in January.

“A pal of mine said I should drop in a couple of looks as Teddy, but I can’t see it going down too well with the kids,” says Greg. “There’s been such a big change over the past few years in really trusting our best writers such as Neil Forsyth.

“The UK in general has such great writers, even if you think of Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain who created Fresh Meat that I did for four series 10 years ago now.

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“That hasn’t gone anyway and we’re all getting together to do a Q&A event at BFI Southbank. All of us are going, even the writers – and just think where Jesse Armstrong has gone in that time, creating Succession.”

Even though Greg wrote Gary and other work, he feels lucky to have been offered scripts by such great writers. “I would love to get the chance to write again but I keep being offered these brilliant scripts. I think it’s taught me a lot too. When I originally wrote Gary: Tank Commander, I was still very young.

“I don’t think I made the most of the ensemble – I didn’t write good enough lines for the rest of the cast. That changed a bit when we got to the Hydro shows but I would love to write a really brilliant ensemble piece one day.”

There’s time. Greg is still just 41 and the past few years have also welcomed two small children into his life with wife Katie.

They’ll be coming up to Glasgow from home in Hove to see their dad on stage. “They have seen me before but that’s a couple of years ago now and a couple of years is huge at their age. They’re six and four now so have a greater awareness of what’s going on. They ‘know’ Gary and realise that Gary and I are different people. Thank goodness for that. Still, they have told me that when I walk out on the stage they’re going to boo me. Definitely me – not Gary.”

Aladdin is at the SEC between December 11 to 29, matinee and evening tickets from www.sec.co.uk

Twitter: @gregjmchugh