Interview: Alan Davies

Julia O'Mahony
Posted November 12, 2012 in Comedy

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It’s been over ten years since Alan Davies last went on tour, but as the beloved Jonathan Creek, and QI’s most berated guest, he certainly couldn’t be accused of having kept quiet in the meantime. In advance of making his debut on the Dublin stage this November, he told us why this resplendent return was so long in the making.

So Alan, you’re touring at the moment, how’s it going thus far?

It’s been good, I’ve only done two shows but so far so good. I’ll be on tour till Christmas, but I’m only doing three or four a week so it’s quite manageable in that respect. When I do the show at Vicar Street, it’ll be my first ever show in Dublin, believe it or not. I love Dublin – I’ve been to Dublin many times. It’s a wonderful place but for some reason there was never a comedy club there. When I used to go to Ireland we’d do Belfast and go round to Derry and then down to Galway and Cork, or you’d do the Kilkenny Comedy Festival, which I did for four years in a row, but never Dublin – so I’m really looking forward to it! An old girlfriend of mine knew a couple of Irish actors, and we went over to Dublin to see them in a play. We watched the play and it was very good, but then when the play finished, there was an announcement in the theatre along the lines of “Please could you, clear the auditorium quickly because The Proclaimers are doing a concert in the theatre, and we need to get their audience in”. And I couldn’t quite believe my ears, I thought I must’ve misheard. So I hid in the bar and sure enough, all these young people started filing in – this is in about 1995 – and the Proclaimers came on. I love the Proclaimers, and they did a fantastic gig – I went to the bar, everyone at the bar was drinking Guinness  – I decided I’d better drink Guinness to fit in and I’ve drunk it ever since – I loved the Guinness! And when they did the song where the line is and Irish girls are pretty, I thought the roof was going to come off! It was a really fantastic night,; that’s my Dublin highlight. I don’t think I’ll have quite the same effect on the crowd as The Proclaimers but I’ll try and get some laughs.

We live in hope! Ever had a reception quite like the one they managed?

I think – the last time I toured was in 1999 – quite a long time ago, but I remember on that tour I went down to Southend, which is in Essex where I grew up. I did the Cliffs Pavillion in Southend, and of course they -I mean, wherever you go in the country  people like to laugh, and they laugh at your jokes, but in Southend they laughed at absolutely every single word that came out of my mouth because it was all so familiar to them – all the nuances , and the little euphemisms – so you know so that was one of my greatest gigs.

And what made you decide to make a return to stand up then, after all this time?

I’d missed doing it. I had fallen out of love with it a bit – perhaps from doing it too much, but I never expected to be away from it for ten years.

I was going to Australia to do QI Live with Stephen Fry and because I was doing all these shows down there a friend of mine from Australia suggested I do some stand up. And they nagged me and nagged me until I agreed. And then he booked some theatres, so then I had to get a show together. That was the biggest obstacle – not having the material, so being pushed to get the material together and doing it was the thing that tipped me over into it. And then when I was down in  Australia, I had a really great time touring, and because I enjoyed it so much, that was the clincher in terms of putting together a tour over here.

And how do you go about getting the material together in the end?  Did you find yourself meticulously scripting your shows?
What I used to do, was just try new bits when I was doing gigs. And so I always thought how am I going to get a show together if I’m not doing gigs – it was like a Catch-22. So instead, about a year ago I did some work-in-progress shows at my local studio theatre, which I think was torment for the audience because I was probably desperately unfunny for the first few shows. But gradually, it started to come together, and that was how I did it.

And having got back in to stand up, what do you think its advantages are over your television work?
I think stand up gives you the freedom to really express your opinion; it’s really about you, and what you’ve got to say, and it doesn’t really matter what the subject matter is so long as you’re being truthful about how you feel about things. You can be talking about anything at all and so long as it’s truthful it will resonate with the audience – I talk quite a lot now about being a father and I talk about being a child. There’s a fair amount of scatalogical nonsense and filfth but it’s a mixture of topics. And it’s a personal thing, it has to be about you. If someone’s in a theatre watching you for an hour and three quarters, there’s got to be a reason for you standing up there. Television certainly lends itself  much more to collaboration with other people, and on a show like QI, you can get four or five comedians all working together – that’s a hard thing to get in a live show – you have to pay them all and get them all there for a start.

A logistical nightmare! And with QI then, how did it come about that you assume the role of the much-loved dunce? Was that created for you, or did that just form organically?

Well a bit of both I think. I was a bit surprised when John Lloyd said to me, “I’m going to have you as my only regular, alongside Stephen”. That’s very much against the convention of Panel Shows where there are normally two team captains – like on a show like Would I Lie to You for example, or Have I Got News For You, in fact they all function like. So I didn’t quite realise exactly what a patsy I was going to be, until about series three; that’s when it really sunk in – that I’d been set up! [Chuckles] There’s a very enjoyable relationship between Stephen and I that gives it a sort of sitcom feel sometimes, and it allows the other guests to relax – they don’t have to worry about being stupid because there’s always someone more stupid around, you know.

Any pre-show rituals?

I like a bit of peace and quiet and access to a lavatory.

Any contemporary comic heroes?

Well I always like to see John Hegley – he’s always worth seeing. I like Daniel Kitson’s stand up, though I haven’t seen him do any for a long time. And I really like Isy Suttie, who’s a friend of mine from doing the BBC show Whites together; she’s a really fantastic persona and very funny. So yeah, that would be my ideal bill if I was going to a comedy club.And any advice for a next generation of fledgling comedians?

Just go and do gigs and be funny, I mean really – you have to work hard and be turning over material, and you have to be quite hard on yourself. Of all my contemporaries, the ones that are hugely successful are the hardest working ones, whether it’s Eddie Izzard, or Lee Evans, or Jack Dee – they all work the hardest. With stand up you get nervous, because with stand up there’s always a possibility of failure. If you don’t go about it the right away you know, you can find yourself struggling. So you do have to apply yourself every night – and there’s always a little anxiety but that’s the nature of live performing.

Illustrations: Tim Smart

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