A Chat with Jim Davidson
Jim Davidson, OBE is a legendary - and for some, notorious - old school English stand-up comic and television host currently touring Australia. I chatted to him before he got here. Here is our conversation.
Dom Romeo: Hey Jim, how are you?
JIM DAVIDSON: I’m all right, thank you. Where abouts are you calling from?
Dom Romeo: I’m in Sydney, Australia.
JIM DAVIDSON: Marvelous!
Dom Romeo: You’ve been here before, a couple of years ago.
JIM DAVIDSON: Two years ago, I did a club in Revesby.
Dom Romeo: Was that your first visit to Australia?
JIM DAVIDSON: No, I’d been before, but I didn’t do any stand-up then. The trip two years ago was my first ever go at doing my act. I was absolutely shi… – well, I was terrified. Let’s put it that way.
Dom Romeo: How could you be terrified? You’ve been doing it for so long.
JIM DAVIDSON: Yeah, I know, but I’d only been doing it to people who had seen me before. And the fact that I hadn’t slept and had the most awful jet lag, and I hadn’t slept for three or four days, and I was so nervous, I emptied the entire minibar of the hotel into a laundry bag and took it on stage with me at Revesby and put it on a table and said, ‘I feel so crap, I’m gonna have to drink all this lot!’ and they cheered the place down. And I did. And I came offstage straight into the arms of my old friend who I hadn’t seen for 25 years, Frank Ifield. And I swear to god, he said, ‘Hello Jim, it’s Frank Ifield. Do you remember me?’
Dom Romeo: And of course, you said…
JIM DAVIDSON: I remember you!
I did a pantomime with him in 1976. He is one of the nicest men in show business, you know. He’s great.
Dom Romeo: When you came through as a stand-up comic back in the day, how different was it to the circuit and the industry now?
JIM DAVIDSON: First of all, when you start off, everything’s exciting because you think, ‘any minute, I’m going to be top of the bill at the London Paladium’, and when you have become top of the bill at the London Palladium, you think, ‘well, I want to fill an arena now… now I want my own TV show… now I want to do this… and do that…’ And when you’ve done it all, it then becomes a job, that you get on with. And I think you do it better, once you’re not chasing the pie in the sky, you know.
And the other thing is, comedy changed overnight when Ben Elton turned up. Like the music. You know how there was Pink Floyd and Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Led Zeppelin and all that stuff that old boys love, and then suddenly, overnight, bang! Bob Geldof appeared. At the same time, Ben Elton appeared on the comedy scene, which proved to everybody you could be a stand-up comic without being funny, and political correctness wiped out everything that everybody had been doing, for good or bad reasons. And things changed.
Dom Romeo: I understand what you’re saying. Have we gotten to a point now where that pre-Ben Elton comedy and the post-Ben Elton comedy can both actually co-exist? That there’s an audience for both? Not at the same time, and not necessarily the same audience, but there is an audience for both kinds?
JIM DAVIDSON: I think there is, but there’s a great hatred of the old comics by the new comics. The new comics say, ‘we write our own stuff, we’re not racist, sexist, homophobic, and all you lot are!’ And they say that without any recourse to do so, because it’s silly. A laugh is a laugh.
I’m a great believer that political correctness causes more grief than it does good. If you replace that with good manners and courtesy and include people rather than take the mickey out of them, it becomes a much better gig, and a much better world.
Dom Romeo: I agree with you. There’s a difference between making a joke at someone’s expense to hurt them, and making a joke that’s clearly a joke.
JIM DAVIDSON: You’ve got to include people. For instance – and I do this a lot in the theatres – let’s say someone’s in the front row in a wheelchair with cerebral palsy and they’re trying to join in and have a laugh and they’re making loud noises and whatever… Include that person. Have a laugh with that person. Take a chance. Have a bit of fun. Even if it makes the rest of the audience feel uncomfortable, everyone’s there to have a laugh. There are no rules, just good manners.
Dom Romeo: I like that attitude!
You’ve had quite an interesting career. What’s it like to have been at the top of everything, including your game, and have to declare yourself bankrupt.
JIM DAVIDSON: I didn’t declare myself bankrupt – it was the blooming taxman who made me bankrupt. I thought I’d hidden the money well and the buggers found it!
I went to live in Dubai for six years while I saved up some money to pay my tax bill. Unfortunately I bought a house with it instead.
Dom Romeo: How was Dubai? Did you gig while you were there?
JIM DAVIDSON: Yeah, I did a few gigs. It was great. Full of Australians! Lots of Australians, lots of Americans… Lots of Scots by the way.
Dom Romeo: You’re Scottish originally, aren’t you?
JIM DAVIDSON: Yeah, from Glasgow, although I was born in Woolwich because my dad was in the army. I was born in London. So I’m a bit of a mixture, really: Irish mother, Scottish father, born in England. So it makes me a Pom! Am I allowed to say that?
Dom Romeo: Yeah, you’re allowed to say that in Australia still.
JIM DAVIDSON: Now that’s good. You see, some people would say, ‘that’s offensive’. Not to me, it isn’t. I think that’s great fun. I love nicknames.
Dom Romeo: Well I’m of Italian descent, and in Australia –
JIM DAVIDSON: What do they call you?
Dom Romeo: I’m a ‘wog’!
JIM DAVIDSON: Hahahahahah That’s amazing. If you said that in England, you’d be shot!
Dom Romeo: I know that. Most people in Australia don’t realise that ‘wog’ is short for ‘golliwog’ and is an obviously very racist term indeed.
JIM DAVIDSON: I love it! I just love Australians. [Adopts broad 'Aussie' accent.] ‘We don’t care about anything there, mate, we just fancy a laugh’. Great. I can’t wait to come. I’m really, really nervous because I’m the cheque that the Poms want to cash in because they’re gonna bring their Aussie mates and say, ‘wait til you hear this guy’ and I’ll have to deliver for them.
Dom Romeo: Well, you will have to, and it’s not going to be easy, but as long as people know who you are and what it is you do, as long as they’re not expecting Ben Elton, I think you’re fine.
JIM DAVIDSON: No, no, no. If people come along, I’ll have a laugh with them, and the more Australians there, the better. I’d like to come and work more in Australia. I think it’s great. And Sydney – what a town! Seriously – I nearly met some Australians once when I was there!
Dom Romeo: How much of the country have you seen? Were you coming out as an actor before you were coming as a comic?
JIM DAVIDSON: No, I came out as a television presenter for some rotten TV show for the BBC that never got shown and it was filmed up in Hamilton Island. That was a riot. I really enjoyed that. That’s when I found out that the Aussies are different in their own country than they are in other people’s countries. I don’t think I’ve ever met people that are more welcoming and friendly. Marvelous! Marvelous!
Dom Romeo: What aspects of Australia took you by surprise when you were here?
JIM DAVIDSON: I think it wasn’t quite Bondi Beach and barbecues and Home & Away, it was just a country getting on with it, and I enjoyed that a lot. And the thing I do in Australia that I don’t do in England, and people don’t like me doing it in England, is I come off stage and go straight down into the audience and have a beer with everyone.
Dom Romeo: Yeah, you can do that here, actually.
JIM DAVIDSON: Yeah, I like it. It’s getting to know people living in a different country. And of course, all the old Poms want to see me and reminisce about where they saw me or old soldiers where they’ve seen me all over the world entertaining them somewhere. I do enjoy that. I’m not gonna come all that way and just tell jokes to people and then bugger off and not speak to them. I want to get in there and get into them.
Dom Romeo: You’ve had a lot of experience entertaining the troops. How did that come about? Were you a soldier?
JIM DAVIDSON: No I wasn’t. But when we had all those Troubles in Northern Ireland back in ’75-’76, I went over and entertained these troops. And I got paid! I thought, ‘this is great fun!’ I got 75 quid for a weekend’s work doing five shows a day, and then the Falkland Islands War happened in 1982 and I wrote to the government and said, ‘look, I’m quite famous, if you want me to entertain the troops, I’ll do it for nothing’. So that’s why I did it, because I was cheap. Not particularly funny, but cost effective!
And then ten years ago I formed my own charity called the British Forces Foundation. What we do is fly out to entertain the troops all over the place. I’m off in a couple of days time to Southern Italy to entertain our airforce that is ‘liberating Libya’ – he said diplomatically.
Dom Romeo: How do you feel – putting your life at risk, to a degree. And it’s charity work – you don’t even do it ‘for a living’ so to speak. I know it’s just ‘in and out’ to entertain, but still – it’s a big call for someone whose job is to make other people laugh – to risk your own life doing it.
JIM DAVIDSON: The worst thing is sleeping in tents! Katherine Jenkins – the opera singer – and I, we spent Christmas in Iraq, and we had our helicopter shot out of the bloody air. That was a bit scary. We banged down onto the ground and none of us were injured because the pilot was taking evasive action, but that was scary. Your life flashes before you. I thought, ‘If I survive this crash, I’m gonna run off with Katherine Jenkins somewhere and hide in a cave’.
Dom Romeo: Did you?
JIM DAVIDSON: No I didn’t, no. We survived the crash, but she ran off and got married to a handsome young welsh TV presenter.
It has its uncomfortable moments, that’s all. But really, it’s so rewarding because you’re out there making all the soldiers laugh and giving them a little bit of hope. Not just the Brit soldiers, but the Aussie soldiers – I remember doing the show for the Aussie SAS and that lot were a great bunch.
Dom Romeo: Where was that? Are you allowed to say, or is it all top-secret?
JIM DAVIDSON: No, it’s all top secret.
And the great thing about doing it is you can tell people how heroic you are when you come back.
The Aussie troops and the British troops are joined at the hip, but the American troops, they’re the funny ones. They laugh at a joke but don’t understand what they’re laughing at. I remember doing a show to a load of Gurkhas once, as well. They couldn’t understand a word I was saying, but when their officers laughed, they all laughed as well. It was marvellous!
Dom Romeo: Before we finish up, what’s one thing about you that not many people know?
JIM DAVIDSON: I’m not the person that they perceive me to be. I’ll wrong-foot people when they come and see me on stage. Yes, I’ll make them laugh, but yes, I’ll make them think. I’ll make them think, ‘Oh, god, he’s not that sexist, racist, homophobic, nasty comic that hey say he is on YouTube. This guy’s good!’ There you go.