My conversation with Alan Davies, regarding QI, Whites and his own stand-up tour, Life is Pain. Bits of it were Tweeted and Facebooked earlier on. As Alan tours Australia, with tickets to some shows still available, Here it is in its entirety. Enjoy!
“The logic of it fails me,” Alan Davies insists.
Davies – Stephen Fry’s excellent foil on QI and a comic in his own right – is currently in Australia. He came out to take part in a live QI tour and stayed on for his own stand-up tour. But our first topic of conversation is his most recent television project, the quite brilliant but sadly under-appreciated dramedy Whites, cancelled after its first season.
“Losing Whites is the biggest disappointment I’ve ever had in television.”
According to Davies, Whites took four years to reach the screen. Writers Matt King (a regular on Peep Show and Spirited, as well as a stalwart on the Aussie stand-up scene some years ago) and Oliver Lansley started by writing “a taster”, from which a pilot was commissioned. (They actually spent time training as chefs at one of Jamie Oliver’s restaurants, to authentically capture the feel). A year later, the series was made, followed by another year before it was broadcast. “It’s a long process,” Davies continues. “You can’t imagine a car company spending four years developing a car, putting it on sale, it proving really popular, and then stopping making it and deciding to make a different car. It just doesn’t make any sense at all.”
Not least of all because it was cancelled after the script for a second season was commissioned, and with nothing selected to replace it in the schedule. “It had been very successful with the audiences and critically. It was a real shock and a huge disappointment because it was an ensemble of actors who were the best and the nicest bunch of people I ever worked with.”
Indeed. Isy Suttie, whom we also know as ‘Dobbie’ in Peep Show, was Kiki, the kooky waitress. More significantly, Katherine Parkinson – who’d replaced Julia Sawalha as Caroline Quentin’s replacement as the female lead in the most recent instalment of Jonathan Creek – played restaurant manager and maitre d’ Caroline.
“She’s a super bright woman,” Davies says of Katherine Parkinson. “Very smart, witty, great company and tremendous comedy actress. We’re great fans of hers from the IT Crowd. She came in and auditioned for Whites. No airs and graces about Katherine at all. Hands down she was the best for the role. It’s just part of the huge disappointment about the cancellation that we won’t be able to do any more of those scenes or get those characters going again, because I thought they were really great. That’s television, unfortunately. It’s quite impenetrable at times, and even thought I’ve been working on television for nearly 20 years, I’m as baffled as anyone this time.”
Nearly 20 years in television, huh? That in itself is baffling, given Alan’s perpetual youthfulness. Seems like only a couple of years ago he turned up as the tussle-haired lead with the cool accent in that – let’s face it – rather wussy, English kind of X-Files-lite (meant in the best possible way, of course) known as Jonathan Creek. You know, where he plays a magician’s assistant – the sort who helps devise the tricks offstage rather than donning lycra and tights to be sawed in half as part of them onstage – who also solves mysteries.
What was surprising was that – despite the presence of female lead Caroline Quentin, late of Men Behaving Badly, and the vaguely familiar Cleese-alike, in that first episode, who turned out to be an older Neil-of-the-Young Ones Nigel Planer – Jonathan Creek was ‘light entertainment’ more than ‘comedy’. No, actually, that wasn’t the surprise. The surprise was that, despite the show clearly being light entertainment rather than comedy, Alan Davies – whom we hardly knew in this country – started popping up in stand-up specials and shows that were more obviously sitcoms.
Turns out, hardcore comedy fans knew Alan Davies a lot better than TV viewers who’d stumbled onto Jonathan Creek. He had cut his stand-up comedy chops while developing his acting, as a student. Prior to Jonathan Creek, there was the excellent mini series Bob & Rose – as important a mainstream debut for writer Russell T. Davies as it was for actor Alan Davies. And as with Russell T’s best work, the drama was so potent because it effortlessly combined comedy in the process. Perfect for Alan. “I did a lot of acting at university and I always wanted to write and perform comedy, so the two things were going on at the same time,” he says. “I was okay in plays, but it was best if they were comedies.”
Alan gave comedy a proper go after he graduated in 1988. It was also the year Alan first visited Australia, where – it turns out – he had relatives.
“My mum died when I was only six and she had one sibling, my Aunt, who lived in Adelaide,” Alan explains. “My Gran lived with her. To hear anything about my mum or get to know that side of the family meant coming to Australia.”
After that initial visit, Davies returned repeatedly throughout the early 90s, gigging while here. Voted Best Young Comic by London’s Time Out magazine in 1991, he was playing the Adelaide Fringe in a split show with Judith Lucy and Jimeoin in 1992 – “I knew Jimeoin from the UK and the Australian promoter put us together with Judith”. He won the Critics Award for Comedy at Edinburgh Fringe in 1994, the same year he missed out on the Perrier (beaten by Aussies Lano & Woodley). He was at the Melbourne Comedy Festival in 1995, when it was still a comparatively “low-key affair”.
And even though the success of Jonathan Creek meant slowing down a little – “it did take over my life a little bit and the stand-up started to fade” Alan continued visiting Australia, what with cousins dotted around the country and a best friend from his school days having emigrated to Sydney. Although things got a little busier of late, making his returns less frequent. “My wife and I came over in 2006 and we had Christmas in Adelaide. This is our fist trip since then,” he says.
But it’s only been five years since Alan Davies was last in Australia. It’s been ten since he was regularly performing as a stand-up comic, and, he says, “I have missed doing it. I never really anticipated being away from it for ten years. I can’t really see where those ten years have gone.”
Hmmm. I think I can. The last eight have involved seasons of QI, the game show with a difference, since rather than rewarding intelligence, as game shows used to, or cunning, as they did most recently, QI demands only that the panelists be interesting.
Alan’s involvement in the show came, he says, as a result of his late-’90s “move away from stand-up” when he “sold his soul” for four years, making television commercials for a bank. They were directed by John Lloyd, who’d produced such great comedy shows as Spitting Image, Not The Nine O’Clock News, Black Adder and the television version of Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy but hadn’t made a television show in a while, concentrating instead on advertisements.
“We got on very well while we were shooting things,” Alan says, “and he had an idea for a panel show and said ‘What do you think of a show where you get points for being interesting?’ I immediately bought into it. We talked about it a lot in the long breaks on set when we were doing those ads.”
A year later, Lloyd phoned Davies, announcing he’d “managed to get the money from the BBC” and was about to “make a pilot of the Quite Interesting Panel Show”; would Alan like to be involved? “I jumped at the chance,” Alan says.
They’ve made a season every year since 2003. The secret to its success is not merely because it lives up to its name, of being quite interesting (that’s what the ‘QI’ stands for) but, according to Alan, because of it’s ‘collaborative feel’:
“We don’t like feeling that people are elbowing each other aside for space and treading on each other trying to out-do one another. You can’t get the questions right. You’re very fortunate to even understand the questions, usually. It takes you into a topic where you don’t know what’s going to come next.” In order to pull it off, there’s “a huge amount of work” by a team of researchers, led by Jon Lloyd, “that goes on for months”.
Although Stephen Fry is so natural in his delivery, and such an intellectual Renaissance man that you’d easily believe that he would know all of the information presented on the show, there are ‘scripts’ provided with all of the material. But, Alan explains, “Stephen’s second to none at absorbing all this stuff and preparing the show. It looks like an effortless conversation, but there’s a huge amount of preparation.”
Meanwhile, the panelists are “totally in the dark”. They have the option of seeing the questions just before taping begins, “but they don’t make any sense to you”. So, according to Alan, “you go and have a conversation off-the-cuff; the whole thing’s spontaneous and really good fun to be part of.”
If you go and buy the boxed set of the first three seasons (through Roadshow, available at your ABC Shop) you’ll see some patterns emerge. Alan Davies loves doing his ‘Mexican impression’; Rich Hall subverts expectations by playing the game virtually against the rules – all non sequiturs and absurd utterances; Jo Brand likewise can stop just about anyone in their tracks with an unexpected – but hilarious – comment; Bill Bailey’s amoeba gag comes up a couple of times.
Alan agrees Rich Hall “has always been a minimalist contributor”, throwing in the occasional line that always gets a laugh. “Many others are much chattier,” he observes, noting that the show works best when you have “a good blend”. What he loves most is the fact he knows most of the guests from his time on the comedy circuit. “It’s like seeing old mates. It’s a very relaxed environment.”
Initially, they were “quite careful” about whom they invited on. After it became popular, people were “queuing up” for the opportunity. “There are still some people who you’d like to come on who won’t,” Alan admits. Who? Is he at liberty to say?
“Dawn French. I talked to Ricky Gervais a few years ago and he said, ‘there’s no way, I can’t do what you guys do’. I think he could, but if he’s not comfortable with these kinds of shows, don’t do them. There’s no need.”
Daniel Kitson, likewise, eschews such television shows. Alan’s been trying to get him on “for years, but he simply won’t”. Which is a pity – to my mind the show is practically designed for his intellect and humour, and Davies agrees. “He would flourish in that environment, and it would be lovely to have him there. But he has no interest in it.”
Although, as Alan notes, it took a long time to get Ross Noble on QI. “He’s started coming on in the last couple of years and he’s been terrific. Hopefully Daniel will, eventually.”
You can only imagine, when watching QI on television, that much more material is recorded than broadcast. Sometimes you can almost detect an abrupt edit. According to Alan, they record 90 minutes. Thus, “there’s usually about an hour or more of stuff that’s not broadcast. There are lots of opportunities in the show for us to do stuff that’s unbroadcastable for the benefit of the studio audience. But they give themselves scope to edit down a really, really tight, funny half hour.”
In more recent years, in addition to the 30-minute television version, there’s been a 45-minute QI XL edit of each episode. Makes perfect sense to make the most of the material produced.
The pity of the Australian tour is that it was intended “just for the ticket-buying public”; not recorded for posterity, let alone for broadcast. No ‘special Australian season’ the way British comedy used to be manufactured, back in the day when it was still Pomedy rather than Britcom – Aussie episodes of Love Thy Neighbour, Father Dear Father and Are You Being Served. Even the first season of Blackadder was a co-production with the ATN Seven network in this country.
“We were hoping that we could salvage Whites that way,” Alan says. “We did have a couple of conversations with the ABC about doing a second season on that basis, but so far that hasn’t come to fruition.” Clearly, the thing to have done was to tape the Aussie QI live season and package it up, to raise some coin for future seasons of Whites. Never mind. That’s only one missed opportunity with this tour. The other – that I’m still bemoaning – is that it doesn’t take in Sydney.
“That is a shame,” Davies says. “There was the intention of doing a show in Sydney, but the issue is Stephen Fry’s availability and the promoter failing to get a venue organised. My own promoter for my stand-up shows is very on the ball and she’s now done everything that we needed to get done.”
Whatever anxiety Alan had – and he admits there was a degree, having had such a long time away from stand-up – he’s tried to “channel into positive energy”, first with small UK gigs before arriving in Australia, and then with small club gigs before embarking on his stand-up tour proper, working up new material so that he’d be “nice and ready” to tour.
Some cheeky questions
Before I can leave Alan Davies to his own devices on it, I want to ask some downright cheeky questions. “May I?” I politely enquire.
“If you like,” Alan says, graciously.
I begin with Lou and Andy on Little Britain. You know, the characters – who allegedly happen to be named after Lou Reed and Andy Warhol – consisting of a malingerer in a wheelchair and his carer. To my mind, if Daniel Kitson were to pretend to be disabled and Alan Davies was to wheel him around, they’d be Lou and Andy.
“I think you’re stretching,” Alan says. “I don’t know who’d be more offended – me or Daniel,” he adds.
My next cheeky observation: that kid who plays the middle, naughty child on Outnumbered. With that hair, that face, and indeed, those speech patterns, he could be Alan Davies’ son.
“Yeah, well you’re about the 95th… thousandth… person to say that…” Alan dismisses.
“Has anyone else brought the ‘Lou and Andy’ comparison up?” I wonder.
“That shows that you do have capacity as an original thinker; good for you on that one. But no, I’m afraid the curly-headed kid on Outnumbered – I get that on Twitter virtually every day and I can confirm to you that he is not my son. But he’s a very good actor. He’s better than me, anyway.”
Well, we know that that’s false modesty; there are things like Bob & Rose early on, and Whites quite recently that demonstrate how good Alan Davies is. And again, we’re reminded how much of a pity it is that Whites ended when it did. It was a great show.
“It’s very gratifying to hear that,” Alan says. “I’ve had a lot of feedback from Australian viewers who were catching it, and now from people in the States who are fans of the new style of English comedy. It’s very gratifying that people would like it. Part of the impetus for getting me back up on stage as a stand-up comedian is the frustration and disappointment of these decisions. At least as a stand-up I can go onstage and there’s no one between me and the audience. I can go and say what I like, and that’s a refreshing change.”