Alan Davies interview

We speak to the curly-haired star of 'QI' and 'Jonathan Creek' about his return to stand-up

Alan Davies is putting himself in the spotlight and going back to live stand-up. Has he got something to prove, asks Ben Williams, or just some unresolved issues? Portraits Muir Vidler

© Muir Vidler

Alan Davies is about to go on stage at the Hexagon Theatre, Reading. A thousand people are waiting for him to make them laugh. Although he’s been away from stand-up for more than a decade, if his CV’s anything to go by the expectant crowd should be in for a good night.

Davies started performing in 1988, when he was 22. By the time he was 25, Time Out named him London’s best young comic. Three years later he was nominated for the comedy world’s equivalent of the Oscars, the Edinburgh Festival’s Perrier Award.

However, although he used to be one of the biggest draws on the live circuit he’s now better known as a television face, either parked alongside Stephen Fry as the bumbling foil to the host’s patrician bonhomie on ‘QI’, or as the luxuriantly tressed lead of the hugely successful and long-running ‘Jonathan Creek’ detective series.

Backstage, he’s affable and disarming, yet behind his jovial everyman public persona there are glimpses of another Alan Davies who feels his failures and losses every bit as keenly as his successes, and whose work draws, like that of many comics, on a well of unresolved pain.  

How long since you last toured a stand-up show?

‘Fourteen years, though I did a show at Edinburgh in 2001. I got a call from the Assembly Rooms up there, who said, “Someone’s dropped out,” and I said, “I haven’t got a new show,” and they said, “Doesn’t matter, come and do your old show from ’98, we’ll say you’re ‘returning’.” But they didn’t say that to anyone else, and I got an absolute bollocking from the critics. Thanks a fucking lot!’

So why return now?

‘A few things happened. I wrote my book [‘My Favourite People and Me – 1978-1988’] – six months of really working hard, writing a lot of words and generating a lot of material – unfortunately no one bought it. Then “Whites” [Davies’s 2011 kitchen-based sitcom] got canned, which really pissed me off. At least with stand-up you can’t be cancelled after six episodes and you don’t have to be nice to a commissioning editor.

It got good ratings and it was good quality. I just couldn’t understand it; I thought I’d really landed on my feet. It was a great part for me, but the saddest thing is the two writers, Ollie Lansley and Matt King, haven’t written together since. They were worth nurturing. That’s what the BBC should be doing. I wanted to have a meeting but the BBC said, “We’ll only meet with Alan to reiterate our faith in his talent, not to discuss the programme.” It was like something out of Kafka.’

‘QI’ is in its tenth year. You could have stayed in the comfort zone of being Stephen Fry’s sidekick and getting the answers wrong…

‘Yeah, the idiot. It’s less of a thing than it used to be. People used to come on the show and not press the button and answer so I’d jump in; they were frightened. Quite brilliant people: Hugh Laurie, Richard E Grant, even Phil Kay, who I love. The shows starts and they sit there and just sort of watch it like they’re watching at home. You never know who’s going to freeze.’

Your onscreen persona is exceptionally laidback, but do you suffer on-stage nerves?

‘I’m fine now the tour’s started. I used to be nervous all day. By three in the afternoon I was good for nothing. Once I agreed to do a spot at the Teenage Cancer Trust gig at the Albert Hall and I couldn’t remember my show. I followed Jimmy Carr. I mean he just stands there, says six words and the place goes boom! – massive laughs. Then he says another eight words and, boom!

They’re like hand grenades of comedy, and brutal comedy: he’s saying, “I gave my wife an orgasm, she spat it back in my face,” and I’m at the side going, “Fuck!” and the audience are going, “Yeah!” I was standing with Jason Manford watching when Stewart Francis came over and said, “I’d hate to be the guy who has to follow this!” You fucker! I was in the toilet three times before I was on that night, it was awful.’

But you pulled it out of the bag?

‘For the first five minutes I couldn’t really get any flow. I was supposed to do 15 minutes. I thought: It’s not funny enough, it’s all right, but I know I can do better. So I started doing some of the really strong stuff, and that’s when it started to kick in. You can’t leave them like that – you can’t go off if you haven’t killed it.’

© Muir Vidler

Have fellow comics come to any of your work-in-progress shows?

‘No. Comics don’t go and see other comics. They all encourage you, but they secretly hope it’s a fucking disaster. Well, not even secretly. You’ll do a two-hour show in front of 1,000 people, and afterwards they’ll say something like, “Yeah, there’s some good stuff in there.” Fucking hell, thanks!’

The title of your new show is ‘Life Is Pain’, does it refer to your own past?

‘I touch on some things that are painful but I choose not to dwell on those things. My mum had leukaemia, and until ten years after she died we weren’t told anything about it. I didn’t even know where she was buried until I was 16. In fact, that was when I found out she was cremated. I knew it was up in Harlow in Essex, so I went and looked at the headstones, and couldn’t see her name anywhere. Then a caretaker got the keys and showed me the book of remembrance, and there she was. That was in 1982, and I’m still on the subject 30 years later. It’s something that’s going to be hanging over me all my life, I think.’

You’ve said previously that losing your mum when you were six made your later relationships quite dysfunctional…

‘If you don’t come to terms with bereavement, you develop a terrible anxiety about loss. If you become attached to somebody you assume that they’re going to leave, and when they do, the emotional memory that’s triggered is appalling. I carried this fear around, and ended up behaving in a way that inevitably made it come true.

It took me a long time to get through it. I didn’t get married until I was 40. This year was the fortieth anniversary of my mum dying and I forgot about it. And that’s the odd reality of it. I think about her most days but the anniversary doesn’t matter; where she is in the ground doesn’t matter. My therapist called it “the presence of absence”, which is a very apt description.’

Is the new show a kind of therapy too?

‘It’s not cathartic in that way. But in the audience there are people who have experienced bereavement and illness. Everybody has. When you’re young you can end up thinking: My life’s awful. Why doesn’t everyone understand that it’s worse for me than it is for them? When of course it isn’t.’

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