Life, the title of Alan Davies’s new show proclaims, is pain. Also painful, apparently, is the business of getting on the phone to a journalist at the ends of the Earth to talk about it. Either that or Davies (comedian, actor and the one who looks like an amiable spoodle failing obedience class as Stephen Fry’s sidekick on Prime’s QI) does a good impression of someone communicating reluctantly from the bottom of a well. He sounds exhausted.
You try some opening gambits. Topics traversed in Davies’s new stand-up show, we hear, range from sex toys to the end of the world. Is there some connection? “No,” he says. I believe I hear him sigh. We move onto local matters he might use as material when he gets to New Zealand. It’s all Hobbits all the time here, I inform him brightly. “God, how tedious,” he says. Was that a yawn?
Maybe I shouldn’t have brought up his failed audition to play a dwarf in The Hobbit. “I think everyone in London auditioned to be a dwarf,” he volunteers. Would life have been more or less painful if he’d got the part? Rather endearingly, Davies takes the question seriously. “I think it was very fortunate I didn’t get the role because my wife had just had a baby. We would have had a very young baby and I’d have been in New Zealand for a year. So …” Still, he would make a fantastic dwarf (Grumpy or Sleepy come to mind). “They only took the very tallest people,” he says gloomily. Which at least counts as a joke.
Actually, Davies is good company, once he warms up. When we speak, he’s coming to the end of what sounds like a gruelling tour of Life Is Pain. “It’s a 52-date tour in the UK. I’ve done 41.” Before he heads down our way, he’s also doing a special of the perennially popular “Houdini meets whodunnit” BBC 1 franchise, Jonathan Creek, in which he plays the eponymous crime-solving magician. He has every right to be knackered.
Though he perks up no end when talk of his trip Downunder raises the matter of the Qantas fracas that ensued when Davies, his writer wife, Katie Maskell, and their toddler daughter and baby son flew to Australia last year. Like some sort of airborne Ancient Mariner, Davies has a horror story he seems compelled to tell. “Absolutely horrendous,” he declares, fixing me, metaphorically anyway, with a glittering eye. Suffice to say it was a saga that led to such headlines as, in the Sydney Morning Herald, “Comedian Alan Davies claims Qantas hostie told him to f— off.”
“Appalling treatment,” says Davies. Really? “Oh, dreadful.” Of this next trip, he declares, “I would rather swim there than go with Qantas.” He’ll be flying Air New Zealand from Australia to here, he adds. He will enjoy our national carrier, I assure him. “Oh, I expect to be very well treated using them,” he says, with the air of a man throwing down a gauntlet.
It’s odd, really. He looks so good-natured and, well, cuddly. And yet there has been the odd incident over the years that makes his life sound like a mockumentary by Ricky Gervais. In 2007, after the funeral of the great BBC producer Verity Lambert, he bit a homeless person on the ear outside the Groucho Club. It was reported the man called Davies after his most famous
character. Davies’s wife told the Evening Standard a “c” word triggered the incident, but it wasn’t “Creek”.
“It’s the nature of being in the public eye, you know,” he says, of the scrapes he has had. “Sometimes people are quick to get onto the papers and think they can make a couple of quid, so that’s what they do. It just goes with the territory, really. But people who know me know me. And the people who don’t don’t. That’s what I live by.”
Is he more wary these days? “Yeah, very wary. It’s particularly tricky if people have had a drink. So you just have to be careful where you go,” he says. “We don’t go out much these days. We’ve got two small children. Life’s quite quiet at the moment.”
Well, quiet-ish. Davies found himself in the headlines again when he retweeted a tweet naming Lord McAlpine, who had been wrongly linked to historic child-abuse allegations. There were threats of legal action. “I didn’t intend to retweet the offensive tweet. I did it by accident on my iPhone. I’ve explained this to him, that it wasn’t intentional.”
He’s hopeless with his phone, he says. “Ringing people by mistake and deleting things I meant to send and sending things I didn’t want to … So it was just one of those. I didn’t even know I’d done it. And two or three weeks later it’s the front page of the Sunday Times.” Good grief. “It was a bit of a shock, yeah. My wife was worried and I was worried about it. The last thing I would do would be to do anything like that.”
He apologised. “It’s very difficult isn’t it, this?” he says. “There are stories coming out now of appalling abuse of children and everyone’s very concerned and worried about it; how much of it there is. So I guess it will start to come out who the real perpetrators are, hopefully, over the coming months. And hopefully there won’t be any more of these instances of someone wrongly accused, which is really awful.” These things can get a bit overheated. “Well, that’s it, yeah. That’s it.” He’s sighing again.
Possibly, airlines willing, it will be good to get away. He hasn’t toured New Zealand since 1998; or done standup at all since 2001. “I did fall out of love with it a bit.” And yes, it was difficult to get his mojo back. “I’ve never been a writer. Not when it comes to stand-up. I’ve always found that it has to come from the interaction with the audience. It has to be an idea that develops. Without doing gigs, it was impossible to get material.”
A few setbacks – his well-received sitcom Whites, about a celebrity chef, was canned – motivated him to get around this comic catch-22. “I went to a little studio theatre near my house and started doing work-in-progress, which was an absolute torment for all concerned, but mainly the audience. Started from scratch and worked up a new show.” Material cited by approving critics in the UK includes everything from the Olympics to lesbian dogs.
Can’t wait. “By the time I get to New Zealand, I’ll be coming up to my 25th anniversary as a stand-up comedian,” muses Davies. “The funny thing for me is I started doing stand-up in the 80s and now I’m doing nostalgia material about the 1980s.” So stand-up has its own life cycle. “It does, really.” He has found himself ready to approach some more personal material. “Because I’m a bit older now, there’s a bit of distance between me and what happened when I was a kid.”
He’s referring to his mother’s death from leukaemia when he was six. He and his two older siblings were told almost nothing. They were not allowed to visit her as she became increasingly ill in hospital; not allowed at the funeral. No chance to say goodbye. When Davies was 16, he went to the cemetery on his motorbike with a friend in search of her grave. He only then learnt she had been cremated.
It’s not surprising it has taken him until he is 46 and a father himself to be able to see the funny side. He’s done some therapy. He has the secure base now of a family of his own. Perhaps this allows him finally to address in his comedy the past. The pain of life.
“Yeah, it probably does. It probably does. In terms of the future, I think only of the well-being of my family and I’m sure that’s what my father thought, what my parents thought. It changes you overnight, and in my case for the better, I think. I think I’m a better person now than I was 10, 15 years ago. So I can touch on one or two of the more difficult things, bereavements and illnesses and whatever, without dwelling on them,” he says. “It resonates with the audience. Everyone’s got their own story and their own life and pain.”
As one devoted fan told me, it doesn’t matter how funny he is, he will always be Jonathan Creek. You can see why he’s so good in the role. The elusive alchemy that produces great stand up isn’t a million miles away from pulling rabbits out of hats. So, will the duffel coat be dusted off for the new series? “Ha, the duffel coat. The duffel coat is on standby. The same duffel coat that I wore in the first series 16 years ago. It’s still available for hire.”
Would he be happy to climb into it indefinitely? “If [writer] David Renwick asks me to, because I owe him a huge debt of gratitude. To be perfectly honest, in all my career, with the possible exception of Russell Davies who wrote a series I did called Bob and Rose, I’ve never come across writing of the quality that David produces. So I’d be crazy not to do it.”
So I’d be crazy not to do it.” Like magicians, comedians are often strangely reluctant to talk about their craft. Analyse too much and the gold turns back into straw. As Jonathan Creek once said, “People beg me to explain something; it’s the last thing they want to hear, because you’re disproving a miracle.”
Davies still loves working on QI, even if his shtick on the show is to raise doubts about his IQ. But when he talks about doing stand-up, it’s clear that most precarious of genres is a return to some sort of safe haven. “It does pull you back in, because in the end it’s just the most fun. It’s where we’re at our best,” he says, talking of himself and mates like Jack Dee and Frank Skinner.
It’s about freedom. “There’s nobody telling you what you can and can’t say. No one can cancel you after one series,” he says, with the barest trace of bitterness. “There’s nothing quite like turning everything up to 10 and being on stage with yourself; with the audience, live in a theatre. They know at the beginning that it’s not television. I will talk to them. And they can talk back, if they want,” he says. “It’s a lovely feeling just to be really funny again.” Was that a contented sigh?
LIFE IS PAIN, by Alan Davies, Auckland, February 1-2; Whangarei, February 3; Hamilton, February 5; Christchurch, February 6 and 9; New Plymouth, February 7; Wellington, February 8.