Exclusive Interview: Alan Davies talks about Jonathan Creek, QI and his latest stand up tour

"Alan!" I shout down the phone, with evidently a little too much enthusiasm. "Umm, is this Nicholas?" Having just been bellowed at, his response is understandably tentative. Bad start. Aware I have little time, and after the usual exchange of thank-yous and how-are-yous, I ask Davies to talk about his new stand up, Life is Pain.

"It's my first stand up show for a long time and it's on a variety of topics. There's a fair bit about being a parent, a bit about growing up in the 80s, a bit about sex toys and the end of the world, so there's something for everyone. The title itself comes from an anecdote a friend of mine told me involving a little girl who had been told off by her mother. The girl – about 6 years old - looked up at her after having been scolded and said, "life is pain". It really made me laugh. And life is pain of course, and now I'm a bit older and wiser I'm able to touch on one or two things from my childhood, where there was a fair amount of illness and bereavement. I'm no longer shying away from those subjects, everybody's got that in their lives and if that can resonate with an audience, if you can find some comedy there, then that's good.

The title makes me wonder if Davies is pessimistic? "The title is tongue-in-cheek. I'm not a pessimist. Pessimism shortens lives" he laughs, "so unless you want to shorten your time on this planet, it's best to avoid it. But it's certainly true that life is pain and there is pain in life, but on stage it's much more upbeat. I enjoy being on stage, I enjoy the audience, and I'm finding it all quite exciting again. It's far from a gloomy show."

The show may not be gloomy, but when the subject of not having toured for 12 years comes up, Davies certainly doesn't look back on parts of his later stand up career with much joy. "I slightly fell out of love with touring. I used to love stand up when I was doing shows with other comedians, with all the camaraderie and the friendships we had in the early 90s. But when you're doing stand up on your own it's less fun. So what I'm doing this time is I'm going away for two or three nights and then coming back again to see the kids. I'm not trapped in hotels night after night."

On previewing the show in Australia: "Yeah, I had the opportunity to do shows in Australia and it meant that if my new material was failing, I had the safety net that I could do material from my past shows, which wouldn't have been possible in the UK as they're all on DVD, you can't go doing that. I was also down there anyway as we were doing QI Live in theatres, so it was just a good opportunity."

On his less successful ventures back home: "I did a TV show called Whites which got cancelled after one series and I wrote a book that no one bought… I shelved plans to write the second book."

Despite these set-backs, Davies was undeterred and his show in Australia went on to be a success, spawning the UK tour of Life is Pain. Davies' ability to carry on and remain positive despite failure or difficulty in his life is admirable. At six years old his mother died of cancer, a subject he touches in his show. "It's not that I'm dwelling on those things or seeking to write material in that area, it's just, you know, if I'm talking about things I was up to in the 80s, then the absence of one of my parents is a big part of that. And it turns out there's a lot of humour to be had from the way I behaved, or the way I felt about the world as a consequence of the way I was raised. It resonates strongly with me now I'm trying to raise two children of my own, so there are lots of comparisons between then and now and it's a bit more distanced, I'm a bit more mature." There's a pause before he laughs and quickly adds, "Although the show is still fairly scatological – as ever."

It's tempting to conclude that talking about the death of his mother on stage could be a sort of therapy for him, but Davies is having none of it. "I don't feel it's therapeutic. I had therapy for several years and that was therapeutic. It's refreshing to feel that I've arrived at a place where I can talk openly about things like that. I feel a bit more secure these days; it's a nice place to be."

Davies laments certain periods of his personal life when he wasn't in such a nice place, "I lived on my own for a long time and had a series of disastrous relationships and was not managing my life very well at all."

So there is a thread of sadness through the show, a sense that life is pain after all… "Well, I didn't set out to do material on difficult subjects – and I do only touch on things – but if you toss up the things I talk about during the show you do think, God, actually there is that joke about that person being ill, or that joke about that person being dead, you know, it all adds up."

It seems like Davies had a tough childhood. He laughs, "I think it becomes quite clear after a couple hours of my show that I was a deeply disturbed child and I've ended up doing a weird job as a consequence."

Outside of stand up Davies is a much loved permanent panellist on the BBC's comedy panel show, QI. He describes the new series – which they took live to Australia – as a "shot in the arm" for the panellists and the production team. "It was really exciting to go out into a theatre that was packed out. It shook up everyone in terms of how the show was structured and how the show was booked. So this series there are lots of guests, and a lot more women on – finally!"

Peculiarly for QI, there was one episode of the new series in which all of the panellists – with the exception of Alan – were female. "Yeah, first time we've ever done that. It was really nice and we saw what we knew all along: to get the best out of female comedians, you need other female comedians. Only once in the history of QI had we ever had a show with more than one woman on and that was a show about gender – which is pretty damning."

It is particularly interesting that there was no extra attention drawn to the all-female panel; rather it was treated exactly the same way as a - not uncommon - all-male line up would have been treated. "Yeah. And I liked it because I won. Because of course women are much more stupid than men."

Outside of stand up, Davies is an accomplished actor, with his big break arriving in the form of Jonathan Creek, which became something of a cult success: "I really enjoy acting, I got into it when I was a teenager in college and it was what I wanted to do, but I always wanted to do comedy as well. It's tough to find good roles."

Despite the success of Jonathan Creek, there has been no sign of a new series any time soon, with the exception of the occasional special cropping up at Christmas. "Really it's simply because David Renwick writes every word of it and he's written a lot of episodes and it's difficult to come up with this stuff. Bill Bailey always says the phrase ‘chipping away at the coal face of comedy' when he's trying to come up with new material and it's like that, you do feel like you're panning for gold sometimes when trying to come up with new stuff. So it's impossible for David to knock out 13 Episodes a year at his high standard, it just can't be done."

Being on a prime time slot on BBC every Saturday night must have made for a peculiar and difficult transition into the status of ‘celebrity'. Davies concedes, "It was an odd time for me." Furthermore, during his stint as Jonathan Creek, he was also doing adverts for ITV. "I was on during the breaks between Emmerdale, Coronation Street and Brookside, so everybody in the country knew my face if they didn't know my name."

Davies admits to not reacting well to becoming famous "even though I thought I wanted to be famous" and that simply going out was "difficult" for him. "It turns out what Keith Richards said is true, everyone wants to be famous until they are."

Fame is indeed difficult to handle, but Davies seems keen to talk to his fans. He's a big presence on twitter and tries his best to see it as a place to chat, rather than as a marketing tool. "What I enjoyed about Twitter when I started using it was that you could talk about things that weren't anything to do with your work. I was on Twitter last night because I was watching the Ryder Cup, I'm not into golf at all but it was really exciting, you know? And when something is live and you're tweeting with other people, it adds to the enjoyment of it."

So far so harmless, but Davies' despairs at the hatred that is the inevitable fallout of anonymity on the internet. "When you get lots of followers - and now that there are lots of people on twitter - there is a lot of negativity on there and you get a lot of unpleasantness. It's sad, really. The anonymity brings out the absolute worst in people. So I enjoy it a lot less and I look at my ‘Mentions' column with some trepidation on some days. I mean even last night for example, I was on there saying ‘all this success for Europe in the golf can't be good news for UKIP' or something like that, and I got a UKIP supporter sending me a tweet saying ‘you really are a fucking idiot, aren't you?'"

Davies briefly pauses to laugh at the absurdity of the comment, "And I just thought, oh God, it's very obviously a stupid joke, right? And then several UKIP supporters started saying ‘are you seriously suggesting that there's any connection between golf and politics?' and ‘are you that stupid?' and on, and on, and on! I mean, a lot of these people are crazy! It's one o'clock in the morning for a start so… sometimes it's just not much fun."

Davies seems genuinely upset and disappointed. "I never thought I'd end up using it to just plug my gigs, I always thought it would be separate to that and more about joking around and having fun, but I've ended up using it as a promotional tool because it ain't fun no more."

And on that note, my interview with Davies comes to an end. I thank him for being so generous with his time (we spoke for 40 minutes instead of the designated 20) and hang up. Despite our chat, I'm still not entirely sure how seriously we should take the title ‘Life is Pain'. My conversation with Davies left me feeling that he is perhaps a man who is more melancholic than he realises (or cares to admit?), that he is troubled by his past and yet he is someone who remains notably optimistic about his future. I look forward to seeing how this manifests itself in his show.

Nicholas Tufnell

Download the latest print edition of the Cambridge Student Newspaper here

Article first published 1 November 2012

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