Following a successful month-long stint at the Fringe last year, controversial comedian Jim Davidson is returning to Edinburgh for one night only to perform an extended version of his ‘No Further Action’ show. The gig recounts Davidson’s ‘year of hell’ and redemption: he was arrested en route to the 'Celebrity Big Brother' house as part of Operation Yewtree, and his name wasn’t cleared until a year later. Following his vindication though, he proceeded with 'Celebrity Big Brother' and ended up winning the series.
I didn’t request this interview as an avid fan of Davidson – my entire awareness of him comprised dim childhood memories of ‘Big Break’ – but I was intrigued by the idea of this old-school comic finding success among a new generation (and at the world’s largest liberal arts festival, no less). He’s been married five times, he’s a fervent supporter of the military, and he’s dealt with numerous accusations of racist, sexist and homophobic material. It’d be easy to paint him as a relic of ‘70s and ‘80s political incorrectness, but I figured it might be worth exploring whether there was more to him than that.
Throughout our phonecall, I found Davidson exceptionally easy to talk to (I said as much on a few occasions – sorry if it sounds like I was sucking up). He did have a tendency to emphasise his triumphs (such as getting one up on Stephen Fry); he was also adept at sidestepping or shutting down any nuanced discussion of things like racism (‘I don’t get involved in the argument’). On the other hand, he could also be incredibly self-effacing, especially when talking about his comedic process or the content of the show. He also displayed great self-awareness – there were audible pauses as he considered whether something he was about to say was worth the trouble it’d get him into, and he held back just as often jumped in feet first. Lastly, he had a fully operational sense of irony – the final exchange, when his publicist tried to step in before he said something stupid about feminism, was conducted with good-natured (if typically crude and likely to offend) humour. It should not be taken out of context.
Tell me a bit about ‘No Further Action’ – it’s an extension of last year’s show, right?
‘Yeah. It’s not a bit that’s bolted on the end, it’s in both halves – I’m doing two and a quarter hours instead of just one hour, so there’s more fun to be had with it. What’s in the show is talking about my Scottish family, which is quite good fun ‘cos everyone can relate to that, and then talking about how I got involved in show business, and how I’ve always slightly screwed up; talking about the marriages, er, the failures as a sex symbol; and I’ll be talking about life in general.’
I wanted to ask about your experience with Yewtree – how did it feel for you when all these names kept on coming up? These were people you would’ve moved in the same circles as back in the '70s and '80s – not necessarily socially but professionally, at least?
‘Well, professionally, I met Jimmy Savile once, and socially I met him once. You tended to run away from him. You’d hear him coming along the corridor – “Now then, now then” – and you’d just run off, cos you didn’t wanna be in his company. He very rarely spoke to anybody like he was a human being, he kept that character on. Who needs that shit?
‘I met Jimmy Savile once; you tended to run away from him’
‘I was fascinated, like everybody else, when everyone started getting arrested. These black silhouettes would appear in the Daily Mirror and they’d ask me in the pub, “Who’s that? Come on, you were in show business, who’s that?” And the next thing, I was arrested. But it’s strange, cos I was one of those arrested as “Others”. “Others” meant that you had nothing to do with Jimmy Savile and it wasn’t for underage sex. And although my headline was “Paedo Cops Arrest Jim”, on page seven, in writing you’d need a microscope to see, it said, “Women that accused Jim Davidson were in their 20s at the time of the alleged…” So there was a bit of that, people realising that I wasn’t arrested for underage sex, and then they were like, “Well why has he been arrested then? I thought the Savile thing and Yewtree was for underage sex!”
‘I think in a way I was the straw that broke the camel’s back; there was a lot of sympathy about me being arrested. [Winning “Celebrity Big Brother”], it was as if the public said, “We want you to have a present, Jim, for the shitty year you’ve had. We’re all gonna vote for you.” They probably hated my guts, but mine was a protest vote.’
I don’t think that was entirely it – in spite of past controversy, you’re quite easy to talk to, quite personable, you got on well with Dappy...
‘I did get on well with Dappy! I loved him! I thought he was a great little guy. I think he’s very good. And I hate rap. There’s two things in the world I really, really hate: Ade Edmondson is the other one.’
Why do you hate Ade Edmondson?
‘Cos he thinks he’s funny – he should be locked up under the Trade Descriptions Act, he’s awful. And I’ve just sort of sat back and listened while he’s had a go at me a few times.’
‘There's two things in the world I really, really hate: rap and Ade Edmondson’
I wanted to ask about reviews from last year – you got a lot of two-star ratings for the material, but those reviews still contained begrudging praise about your skill as a performer and a stand-up.
‘I did get begrudging praise about that – one woman said, “The problem with Jim Davidson’s show is it’s geared to get laughs”! Fantastic, isn’t it?'
Jerry Seinfeld was talking recently about a ‘creepy PC’ sensibility and how it’s making people scared to laugh – do you think that’s true?
‘I think so. I don’t think political correctness is all bad. If you have a look at some of the stuff Manning used to do, Manning was a good comic, but I’d say to him, “Bernard, you can’t do that joke!” [slips into perfect Manning accent] “D’aw, what’s the fookin’ matter with ya?” “It’s terribly racist.” “It’s only a jowke!” So, there is that attitude…
‘Then there’s the other thing, like with me: I do a joke, or a story, that I’m stood in the line at Lidl’s and in front of me is a black man and behind me is a Chinese man... Is that all you can say? Can you not mimic accents, mannerisms and stuff, the way people talk? If it was a Frenchman and a Belgian behind me, and I did exactly the same to them, it wouldn’t be deemed as racist, which is ridiculous. I remember speaking to Dominic someone or other, some comic, the one with the glasses, and I said, “Is it alright to take the piss out of Americans? I can’t understand the double standard.” He said, “Oh yeah, cos they’re big and powerful.” So not only is it political correctness – it’s basically political. It’s socialistically, Labour party, “let’s hate anyone that’s got money” – it’s Russell Brand, wrapped up and cosy. And I don’t believe in any of that.’
I’d say the argument is that...
‘I don’t get involved in the argument. I don’t think it’s for me to be involved in, I just tend to not go along with it.’
You were saying earlier on about people judging you based on perceptions of you.
Do you think you’ve changed at all as time’s gone on?
‘No, not really. Perception is when you think you don’t like somebody and when you meet them they’re quite nice. I remember that Stephen Fry, I read somewhere that he was talking about perception and he said, “I’d hate to meet Jim Davidson and find out he was a nice bloke.” Which meant he didn’t like me but he’d never met me. He summed it up quite well. And I sneaked up behind him once, and tapped him on the shoulder and said, “I’m quite a nice bloke, really.” We sat down and had a natter, once he’d stopped going white and sweating!’
That seems to be something that comes through in interviews – where they might not agree with your political beliefs or your opinions, they actually find you quite personable.
‘Well, that’s very kind of you! When people listen to my beliefs on stage, it’s very similar to what Al Murray would say, but I don’t wear the jacket that gets me off – the get out of jail free card, the blazer. He says he’s playing a character. Why play that character? That character gives him the opportunity to do all that material under the title of irony. He’s playing a bigoted character. Are they laughing at the character or are they laughing at the jokes? Does he stand and analyse that? No. And the answer is because it pays well to keep doing what he’s doing. You only have to change yourself if you look down and see those stalls are empty.’
‘Al Murray says he's playing a bigoted character. Are his audience laughing at the character or the jokes?’
I wanted to ask you about your charity work with Care After Combat and the Phoenix Project – how’s that going?
‘Yeah, the Phoenix Project, with the prisons – that’s quite interesting. We’ve got a team that goes into the prisons, which includes me at the beginning, and we ask the veterans to come forward – a lot of veterans don’t like to say they’re veterans because of upsetting other people in prison who don’t like the idea of the British military. Each one of the prisoners gets a mentor, who’ll become his mate, and he’ll tell his mate what he wants to do when he leaves, and the mate will tell us and we’ll try and arrange that. The crucial thing is that we don’t try and alter their life in prison – if they’ve done the crime, they do the time. It’s when they come out, we try and get them not to go back in.’
I’ve got a couple of quick fire political questions to finish up – how do you feel about gay marriage?
‘I think gay marriage is great – why should straight people have to suffer on their own? I’ve always been a great believer in it, even from back in the '80s – my friend Victor Spinetti, and his friend Graham, who died, the problems they went through, with probate and will and god knows what – there wasn’t a level playing field for gay partnerships. And so that got sorted, but it wasn’t enough. You know, “Ok, you can have a partnership but you can’t get married” – well, to hell with that. I’m glad.
‘But the funny answer is “why should straight people have to suffer alone?”’
How do you feel about the current resurgence in feminism?
PR: ‘Sorry to interrupt, could we just keep to the Edinburgh show?’
Jim: ‘It’s alright, Amy, I’m fine, thank you!’
PR: ‘You’re alright Jim? Is that cool? Alright.’
Jim: ‘That’s Amy being protective – being just a mere woman that you are! Know your place! Fuck off Amy, get in the kitchen! Does that answer your question?!’ [Laughs]
Er, in a way…
‘No, my problem with feminism is that I don’t understand women. If they came with a manual on how to work them I’d probably be married a bit less. I love ‘em and I think they’re great people but I just don’t know how to work ‘em. Frightened to death of ‘em.’
Well I think that’s all the questions I’ve got.
‘Oh, alright then.’
I figured I better finish up – I know you’ve got loads of these.
‘I know, I’ll fire Amy and get a bloke!’
Jim Davidson: No Further Action, Edinburgh Playhouse, Fri Aug 14.