Comedian Jason Manford: 'Someone falling over will always be funnier'
Fresh from a stint on the road with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Jason Manford has landed a prime-time slot, with ITV's new fun-filled series, Bigheads. He tells Gemma Dunn why the game show's already been given the thumbs up by the only critics that count - his kids.
Jason Manford has learned a valuable lesson during his 20 years in comedy: he will never be as funny as somebody falling over.
"You can write the best joke in the world, but somebody will fall over or fart and that will always be funnier!" quips the 35-year-old.
With this in mind, his latest venture, Bigheads, is quite the comic dream.
Giving a whole new meaning to the idea of inflated celebrity egos, the brand new, six-part series takes the form of a high-energy game show, which sees eight members of the public, per week, transformed into celebs by donning giant heads.
Filmed in front of a live arena audience, the Bigheads will then compete against each other in a string of celebrity-inspired challenges (think selfies and red carpets), culminating in a grand finale.
Will it intellectually challenge the viewer? No. But that's not the point. The point is to bring brilliant belly laughs to prime-time family TV.
"It's so light, it's floating off!" states Manford, who will host proceedings alongside commentators Jenny Powell and Kriss Akabusi.
"At no point is anyone on this show saying, 'This is the greatest spectacle you've ever seen in your life, this is going to change lives'. We're literally going, 'For an hour, let's have a laugh at people falling over with massive heads on'.
"If you like that, that's what it's about. If you don't like that, you need to have a long hard look at yourself."
For the Salford-born comic, at least, it's an appointment that's come at the right time.
"I've done a few things for ITV over the years, and I was getting to a point where I was feeling a bit despondent," admits Manford, whose past presenting credits include Comedy Rocks, The One Show and Show Me The Funny.
"I thought I was just going to go on tour and not really worry about trying to do telly, but then Kevin [Lygo] took over at ITV. I've known Kevin for a long time, and [entertainment commissioner] Peter Davey - and they were keen to spread the love a bit.
"Ant and Dec are so good, why wouldn't you just give them everything? That makes sense from a business point of view, but it was nice they were like, 'Look, we're going to try and do a few different things here'."
The real stars of the show are the 25 Bigheads, however. And from Simon Cowell, Mo Farah and Victoria Beckham, to William Shakespeare, Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, there's certainly an eclectic selection of famous 'faces' in the line-up.
But while their new accents might come as a surprise - "Let's have a Geordie Winston Churchill and a Welsh Posh Spice!" - Manford insists he's not in the market to offend.
"I'm very celebratory," he announces. "The lesson I learnt week one of doing 8 Out Of 10 Cats, nearly 12 years ago, is if you're going to do a joke about somebody who might be famous, then life has a way of making sure you meet that person at some point in the weeks following.
"It's far too awkward to have that conversation and for me, it's not worth it. Just because you're on the front page of a magazine, does that open you up to...? I'm not that sort of comic."
Manford certainly makes for easy company, too - friendly, engaging and naturally witty.
Despite hinting that his 'nice guy' image may have gone against him in the past, the father-of-five - dressed in jeans, a casual shirt and trainers - is as likeable in the flesh as he is on stage.
He's pleased to be working on something more family-friendly, too, so his kids can watch.
"You get to a point where you think, 'I can't keep doing Live At The Apollo and things where they don't know what daddy does'," says Manford - who has three daughters and a son with his ex-wife, Catherine, plus another daughter with girlfriend, Lucy Dyke - chuckling as he recalls a recent cameo on CBeebies' Twirlywoos.
"Gradually, I've been trying to move a bit before nine o'clock, so I spent last year doing Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on tour and they came and saw that, and they've seen a few other musicals I've done.
"But I brought my parents and my kids to watch an episode [of Bigheads] and they were crying laughing - my dad's 63 and my daughter's seven."
Are the little ones impressed by their showbiz dad then?
Remembering a conversation with one of his daughters after "showing her the heads and the sets and explaining as we watched a few of the games", he says: "Then they left at about nine o'clock because it was getting late, and I said, 'Did you enjoy yourself'? She said, 'Yeah, you're not really like other daddies, are you'?
"I think that's a compliment," Manford declares, beaming. "I'm at that point where we have a great time together, we have a right laugh and they think what I do is fun, but obviously, at some point, that will change.
"I think what I'll do is get on all their favourite shows! That's what I do with their music; they really love Little Mix, so often when I drop them off, I keep the songs on and learn them, and then next time they're in the car, I'll sing word-for-word - It's All Black Magic - and then they don't want to listen to it any more."
With a CV already spanning stand-up, presenting, radio and acting, is there anything else he'd like to try his hand at?
"What I like about my job is it's so different. Once people can see you can do lots of things, you're not too pigeonholed; they will let you do stuff.
"Obviously, there's a lot of stuff you can't do," Manford adds, with a grin. "I don't think I'll have my own cop drama and no one's going to see me in Les Mis at any point, but with the parameters that you set yourself as well, the opportunities do come up.
"I feel very lucky, I enjoy presenting, I enjoy doing the stand-up, but then I'm back to singing and dancing and flying cars."
- Bigheads airs on ITV on Sunday, 7pm