Interview: Alan Davies brings Life Is Pain to 2012 Edinburgh Fringe
Jonathan Creek and Abbey National ad star on stand-up, therapy and Hillsborough
This article is from 2012.
Writing about the death of his mother and being in therapy have helped make the boyish Alan Davies a more mature comedian. Jay Richardson hears from a man who has recently survived another media storm
Prior to recording, QI’s elves flash interesting facts up on monitors for the audience. What they don’t reveal, as Alan Davies is explaining to me at a café in Highbury Corner, is that budget cuts have meant they’re now shooting two shows a day: ‘a hell of a strain on Stephen to remember everything’. And that when he and Fry performed QI live in Australia last year, tickets cost the equivalent of £135. ‘We didn’t know that when we signed up, it’s just fleecing people,’ he admits sheepishly. ‘If you put it on at Hammersmith Apollo for £135 there’d be uproar!’
Wry, honest and upholding the notion that comedy ‘should have a point of view’, Davies isn’t given to romanticising his career. Ostensibly the show’s resident dunce, the Essex-born comic has entertained doubts about its longevity. But, ‘Stephen is like a deity’ in Australia and the reception they got ‘gave everyone a shot in the arm, so we’re upbeat going into our tenth year’. They’ve even transplanted a few Antipodean guests, with Kiwi comic Cal Wilson joining Jimmy Carr and Jack Whitehall at the recording I saw.
A shared love of cricket notwithstanding, Davies and Fry ‘have nothing in common. But there’s a mutual respect and a willingness on both of our parts to make QI work. There have been a couple of times I’ve felt his wrath when I’ve been particularly flippant. But then he apologises and I admit I’m a prat. It’s his perfect role, the schoolmaster. He’s definitely channelling something from childhood.’
Still endearingly boyish at 46, Davies is exploring his own miserable pre-adolescence for the first time on stage. His new stand-up show, Life is Pain, focuses on married life with two young kids but also touches on his mother’s death when he was six and a difficult relationship with his father. Away from stand-up since 2001, he debuted the show in Australia after staying with Colin Lane, who won the Perrier Award with Frank Woodley in 1994. ‘Lane and his wife dug out the Perrier and put it on the table next to where I slept,’ he chuckles. Alongside Harry Hill and Jeff Green, Davies was nominated that year.
‘The title is very tongue-in-cheek,’ he continues. ‘My mum’s death is not a huge part of the show, but I’ve always been conscious of wanting to talk about the things that matter and the traumas of my childhood are at the forefront of my thinking all the time. I wasn’t able to get into this when I was younger, partly because I didn’t have the wherewithal or life experience but also because I was more worried about what people thought of me then. I’m telling the truth now, maybe for the first time, I’m not hiding all the darkness so much. I’ve matured. I’m in a place now where I’ve got a right to be standing there rather than standing there for my own ego and to make money.’
He won’t subscribe to the idea of stand-up being therapeutic, having entered the real thing for eight years on the recommendation of his friend Jo Brand, a former psychiatric nurse. ‘I recommend it highly,’ he enthuses. ‘And it did coincide with my stand-up career finishing actually. Whether there’s any connection between those two things, it might take me a couple of years of therapy to find out. Without it I’d be in total despair. I was unhappy in my private life on my last tour and being on stage was the only time I felt differently. I told my manager and he said, “honestly, that’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard”. Maybe. But for my last gig I was on stage for well over two hours. I didn’t want to come off.’
Davies began his stand-up career in 1988 and made the jump to paid performances quickly, gigging hard and becoming obsessed. But he admits to being totally unprepared for the exposure brought by his starring role in Jonathan Creek and doing commercials for Abbey National. ‘It meant I couldn’t go on at the Comedy Store and just dick about, the atmosphere had changed. People would shout out about Caroline Quentin or, “it’s a perm!”, one of the jokes I put in the ads.’ One night in 1999, after just ten minutes at the Store, he told a surprised audience, ‘you know what? I think I’m just going to knock it on the head.’
He finally returned this spring, feeling more focused, ‘no dicking about’. And now he’s back in Edinburgh for the first time since 2005, when he maintained an American accent ‘90% of the time’ in a comedians’ theatrical production of The Odd Couple, starring alongside Bill Bailey, the best man at his wedding. In the past, he’s revealed that he was ‘hopelessly pissed and promiscuous’ in Edinburgh, but looks back now on, ‘not as much shagging as I’d have liked, certainly lots of drinking.’ And after 26 years as a performer and punter, ‘I just love the city. I’m a huge advocate of the festival and hugely excited to be back.’
A Christmas instalment of Jonathan Creek hasn’t assuaged his disappointment that Whites – the BBC Two sitcom in which he starred as a temperamental chef – didn’t win a second series: ‘if that’s not good enough, I don’t know what is.’ He worked with Whites co-creator Oli Lansley on his semi-autobiographical Little Crackers episode for Sky1 and hopes that they’ll collaborate on something in the future to end his luckless run of sitcom development. To date, this includes being fired from his first self-penned project, and writing a Reggie Perrin-esque script just as the Martin Clunes remake hit the screen.
Fortunately, the frustration and his stint as a judge on ITV’s comedy talent contest Show Me the Funny, spurred Davies back into live performing. ‘Knocking around with those comics, with Jason [Manford, the host] and guests like Jo Brand and Ross Noble, seeing people going through the process of trying out material, got me back into thinking like a stand-up. I always used to put new material in while I was gigging. But because I’d stopped, I was going on stage with 20 sheets of half-arsed ideas, asking audiences, “is this funny?” Loads of times they said, “no”. I was telling my wife, “I’ve lost it, I’ve got no confidence, they’re just staring, it’s horrible.”’
Gradually though, he’s built a set worthy of the name. Another factor in his renewed confidence was the Arsenal podcast he’d been hosting with comic Ian Stone among others, until an unwise remark in April about the Hillsborough disaster resulted in him being splashed all over the papers. A tabloid target since dating his former Jonathan Creek co-star Julia Sawalha and, following a boozy wake for that show’s producer, biting the ear of a tramp, there was never any question of Davies cancelling his Liverpool Empire gig in September.
‘I’m hugely sympathetic to the families of the victims, I was never trying to cause offence.’ Blown up by social media, the press ‘wrote a load of stuff that was libellous. Journalists were knocking on the door and I was getting mountains of abuse on Twitter. It was so wildly misrepresented but I couldn’t do anything. It’s like the wasps fly around and one day all land on you. If you can survive that, you can survive anything and put yourself back together again.’
Alan Davies: Life is Pain, EICC, Morrison Street, 0844 847 1639, 9–14 Aug, 7.40pm, £20 (£18).