Alan Davies’s “very funny show”. Who says so? Alan himself!
One of the most instantly recognisable faces on British television both as an actor and quiz show panellist is returning to his first love: stand-up comedy.
Alan Davies, the man with the straggly, tousled hair who has built up a huge following as Jonathan Creek in the mystery comedy crime drama of the same name and as a permanent member of the panel on the quirky show QI is touring the country with his new show Little Victories.
In a wide-ranging chat, Alan told me why he is doing only about three shows a week rather than a full-blown tour; the biggest challenge of putting his new show together; why Jonathan Creek may be coming to an end; and why he has little time for the people running television channels.
Anyone who goes to see him in Buxton or Nottingham can expect to see a “very funny show”. Who says so? Alan himself!
“I’m a straightforward stand-up comedian and the show is funny from the first minute to the last.”
He says Little Victories – which sums up his relationship with his father and being a father himself – is in good shape because he has been on the road since March and it has evolved since then. So where does he get his material from?
“I accumulate it by keeping a note of anything funny that I think of or overhear or remember. It’s about getting all those notes together and then doing what we call work-in-progress gigs. You read through a handful of notes, see what gets a laugh, see what’s got promise, combine one thing with another and gradually you’re panning away for nuggets. Eventually it starts to form into material that you can actually remember.
“Remembering the order of stuff is the biggest challenge for me now at the age of 48! What I’m doing is the best part of a two-hour monologue. There’s no script – it’s just from notes. It’s all in my head.
“I didn’t have to do gigs to earn a living”
“It’s anecdotal, it’s autobiographical, it’s personal, it’s adult, at times it’s near the knuckle. I get a broad range of people coming in from all walks of life and all ages.”
Alan explains why he, unlike some of today’s comedians who go in for huge tours at major arenas, likes to do no more than three shows a week.
“I could cram it all in and do it in six weeks but I think I’d lose my voice and also I wouldn’t see my children. It’s important to me to keep a balance. I’m rarely away for more than two or three nights and I get back for the kids because they’re only three and four. It’s a special time when they’re so small.”
Alan married writer Katie Maskell in 2007. They had met backstage at QI two years previously. They have two children, Susie and Robert.
His previous tour, Life Is Pain – now available on DVD – was his first UK tour for 13 years and he was pleased to return to stand-up.
Series of setbacks
“There are a lot of people out there doing tours and selling a lot of tickets and having a good time on stage. It took me a while to re-join that world and I’m pleased I did.
“I didn’t really fancy touring, I had a lot of other work on, I got married and had a kid. I didn’t have to do gigs to earn a living.”
But a few setbacks caused him to reassess his career.
“I was in a series called Whites (a BBC comedy in which he played the executive chef at a country house hotel) that got canned after one series; I spent six months writing a book (the autobiographical My Favourite People and Me 1978-1988) that no one bought; and I did some podcasts but there’s no money in that.
“After a while I started to think I was spending a lot of time doing a lot of stuff and I really should combine it all into something that I really enjoy, am good at and can earn a living from as well.
“Stand-up is the thing that I’ll do when everything else falls flat on its face.”
“I was quite lucky really to come straight out of university and find myself on that comedy circuit”
Alan Roger Davies was born on 6 March, 1966 in Loughton, Essex. His mother died of leukaemia when he was six and he was brought up by his father.
He graduated with a drama degree from the University of Kent in 1988 but had always wanted to do comedy. He got onto the London comedy circuit at the same time as Lee Evans, Eddie Izzard, Jo Brand, Bill Bailey, Steve Coogan and Frank Skinner.
“I think the circuit at that time was very nurturing and safe,” says Alan. “It was a very vibrant time. I was quite lucky really to come straight out of university and find myself on that comedy circuit.
Jonathan Creek auditions
“I had a great time in my 20s. By the time I got to my 30s I was on television a lot with Jonathan Creek and I was doing adverts for Abbey National, so I was recognised a lot and I was getting press attention that I didn’t like. I found going down to the Comedy Store wasn’t really viable.
“Now I’m back doing what I like. I’m doing it because I want to do it and just want bums on seats in the theatres that we book. That’s all.”
Alan was invited to audition for Jonathan Creek when the BBC were struggling to find someone to play the part. Nicholas Lyndhurst and Hugh Laurie both turned it down.
“I think I was the 38th person they auditioned,” says Alan although the official figures say almost a dozen actors were considered including Nigel Planer and Angus Deayton.
“They went for a virtual unknown at the time. I hadn’t been seen as an actor. It was a big move for them to do that and I’m very grateful.”
“For the last series of Jonathan Creek I got paid less than I did in series three in the late ‘90s”
David Renwick who had just penned One Foot in the Grave wrote Jonathan Creek and Alan describes the scripts as “fantastic”.
Jonathan Creek spawned five series and three specials but Alan is hugely critical of the gruelling filming schedules involved.
“You do work very long hours, long days. People say to me ‘what are you moaning about, it’s a great job’. I’m not speaking on my behalf particularly, it’s for everybody who works on a film crew. Everybody’s got a family and children whether they’re in the art department or they’re sparks (electricians) or drivers.
“I don’t really understand why it has to be so demanding. The perk used to be for the crew to work seven or eight months a year and the rest of the time they’d be off because the pay was good. Nowadays the budgets have been slashed.
“Because of the financial crisis there was an opportunity seized to roll back everyone’s fees. I know this from chatting to crews. For the last series of Jonathan Creek I got paid less than I did in series three in the late ‘90s.”
But QI is not so intensive: two-hour sessions which Alan feels are held together brilliantly by Stephen Fry. How does Alan feel about being called the show’s “much-loved resident dunderhead”?
“Charming! It was always my role to answer the question if no one else would. For the first three years no one would answer anything because they didn’t know what was going on and no one wanted to look stupid.
“Nowadays people don’t mind falling into the odd trap. No one cares who wins. No one understands the scores anyway.”
As for new work on television Alan has little time for executives who commission programmes. He was particularly upset that Whites lasted for only one series and it disappeared from the screen at about the same time as the BAFTA Award-winning, unconventional panel game, Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer’s Shooting Stars.
“Commissioners don’t know what they’re doing. It’s a miracle there’s anything half-decent on television.”
However, Alan will continue appearing on QI and will be making another series for the satellite channel Dave of Alan Davies: As Yet Untitled in which he invites four comedians to have an unscripted, often hilarious chat.
There should be many people eager to see his new show and his gigs in Buxton and Nottingham will no doubt be heralded as big victories.
* This article appeared in the October 2014 issue of Country Images magazine