Following the success of his 55-date Little Victories UK tour in 2014, and having already added extra dates this year, Alan Davies is set for a final 15-date autumn leg.
That includes a date at Preston Guild Hall in early November, and it’s not the actor and comedian’s first visit. In fact a piece in his entertaining 2009 early-years memoir My Favourite People & Me (1978-88) mentions a 1992 stand-up date played in the same building as Motown legends The Temptations.
He wrote, “The Temptations! I love them and they were playing at the Guild Hall, Preston, even though at least two of them were dead. I snuck in next to the mixing desk and watched 1,500 Lancastrians, on their feet, singing that they were doing fine on cloud nine. Joyous.”
I reminded him of this as we talked on the phone, Alan occasionally distracted while watching over his children at a soft-play centre in North London.
“Funnily enough, my little girl – who is now five – has just worked out how to use this old CD player of mine. I gave her a few discs to listen to and she came back and said, ‘I like the one with all the men on the front’. I said, “Oh, that’s The Temptations!’ She said, ‘Well, I really like them’, and I said, ‘Yeah … so do I!’ So I’m handing it down the generations.”
At this point, I only feel it right to burst Alan’s bubble and mention that his daughter may well lose that great taste for a few years while discovering some modern boy band.
“Yeah, probably, but as long as she’s got The Temptations to fall back on, she’ll be alright.”
While he remembered that past Guild Hall date, I put it to him that surely all the towns blend into one sometimes. Or does he take the Mark Steel’s in Town approach – undertaking plenty of local research first?
“God, no! Mark’s fantastic. That’s one of my favourite radio programmes. I try to have a potter about though, depending how long I’m in a town for. I’m just hoping there isn’t some massive fireworks display the whole town will go to that night.
“Actually, my other memory of Preston, years later, involves a documentary series about stand-up, interviewing Phil Kay at the railway station. He came down from Scotland, while I was somewhere in England, and we met there. I had a very funny couple of hours with him getting on and off trains he wasn’t meant to be getting on.”
Alan’s final 15 Little Victories dates start at Middlesbrough Town Hall on Friday, October 30th, and end at Bath Theatre Royal on Sunday, November 29th. And like its predecessor, Love is Pain – which was his first UK tour in more than a decade and was also extended twice – does seem to be the tour that keeps giving, this 49-year-old making up for his previous 12-year live hiatus. I’m guessing he’s loving life on the road again.
“It’s been so gratifying to me how many people are coming out to see the shows. And I always missed doing stand-up, so to be able to go back to it is something. This is the last leg, and it’s nice to finish on a high with more dates at home.”
Other than his children or his other half, children’s author Katie Davies, what does Alan miss most about home while on the road?
“It’s got to be the kids! There’s nothing at home for me if the kids or Katie aren’t there. I’d tour the world all year round if I was on my own … except when Arsenal play at home.”
Funny you should mention that. There’s plenty about his love of the Gunners in his 2009 autobiography. How far a walk is it from his North London gaff to the Emirates Stadium?
“We moved a couple of years ago, so if I was to walk it, it would take about 45 minutes, whereas it used to take 11 minutes. I have walked it, and sometimes cycle, but there’s a very tempting overground train at the bottom of my road.”
In the style of fellow celebrity Arsenal fan Nick Hornby, is there a certain ritual or route you take on matchdays that might seem embarrassing in writing?
“No, I don’t have those sort of superstitions.”
Perhaps the fact that your club moved to a new stadium killed all that off.
“It did a bit, but when I say I don’t have superstitions, there is a pair of socks that I’m convinced mean – if I wear them – that Arsenal will win. Although we’ve lost plenty of games while I’ve been wearing them. All those superstitions get defeated in the end.”
Talking of Davies’ home life, in an interview on this very blog with Julian Cope, he told me his wife and him sit opposite each other writing their own projects most mornings, making sure they’re both properly working rather than going on Ebay, or whatever. Is that the case with Alan and Katie too?
“That’s a very good system! But Katie has a room in the loft where she goes to write her books.”
The Adrian Gurvitz Suite, I voice, but Alan either doesn’t hear me in his loud soft-play area, or chooses – perhaps quite rightly – to ignore me and carry on.
“I can’t do my writing like that. I tend to have to go and do it in a little comedy club or a small theatre, doing work in progress. I did a week at the Edinburgh Festival, a new hour, using that process. Some of the audience were a bit bemused, having not seen that sort of thing, but I can’t develop the show without it.”
“Those Little Victories refer to getting one over on my Dad as a kid, even if was just to get him off the sofa or out of the bath. Whereas my main persuasive technique is just to shout at mine, which I don’t like doing.
“Actually, I wanted to call this show – following on from the previous one – Sex is Pain. But my Australian promoters asked if it might start attracting people expecting a different kind of evening. And I said, ‘That’s a fair point, well made! I’ll think of something else.’
Despite falling back in love with stand-up, Alan is probably still best known as the cheeky resident dunderhead on QI or the star of television drama Jonathan Creek. But it was as a comic that he first found fame, his debut slot at Whitstable Labour Club in 1988. What size audience was he up against then?
“It was a little club, but pretty packed. There was nowhere else to go when you were a student. So I don’t know how many were in – maybe 100 or so. Lots I knew from my course, and they were as nervous as I was. And how awful would it have been if I’d have come off and been absolutely shit? But I got a few laughs and got a real kick out of it and felt I really could do this. That set me on the road to doing stand-up, which is still the thing I think I do best and like the most.”
Alan went on to make his network television debut on Tonight with Jonathan Ross in 1992, and by 1994 having won the Edinburgh Festival Critics Award and seen a Perrier Award nomination.
It’s not a bad way to make a living. Then again, Glenn Tilbrook once told me about his nightmare moment while playing live with Squeeze, how he lost his train of thought one night after wondering mid-song if he’d turned the grill off before leaving his house. Ever had any mind-blank experiences like that?
“Nothing quite like that! Although when you’ve done a show a lot, you’re certainly able to drift and think of something else while carrying on.”
Many high-profile comedy festival appearances followed, around the world, but it was his eponymous role in Jonathan Creek that helped Alan cross over to a mainstream audience. Written by One Foot in the Grave creator David Renwick, the show continues to attract huge audiences and has scooped numerous plaudits, including a BAFTA and a National TV award. And I understand there are more specials to come.
“I’m not sure what’s happening with that. I’m hoping there’s at least one more. At the moment they’re trying to work out if they’ve got the budget, always the favourite topic. And if they have got it, it’s a question of when. So there’s no real positive news about that.”
Did Alan know David before he got to work on the programme?
“No, I was introduced to him when they were first looking for someone for the role. It was actually the BBC Christmas party in 1995 and I was about to be introduced to Ulrika Johnson. She was in a very nice dress and was looking … fine. But I got called away to meet David.”
There’s a brief silence before a low-key, “It was probably for the best in the long run.”
“I’m very proud of Bob and Rose, one of the things I look back on with satisfaction. It was a wonderful cast and a very good experience.”
The fact that Russell T Davies was the writer means Alan is often mentioned on the list of future Dr Who possibles, not least with his Tom Baker type curls. Is he ready to take over from Peter Capaldi in a few years?
“I can’t imagine the call coming. All actors are on standby to be the next Dr Who. Not many actors will turn that down.”
After Bob & Rose came another acting role in Auntie and Me, an initial run in Edinburgh leading to a four-month West End run. And that same year Alan took part in a certain comedy quiz pilot hosted by Stephen Fry, QI subsequently running every year since 2003.
There have been plenty of big roles since, including the lead part in ITV legal drama The Brief, while My Favourite People 1978-1988 was adapted into a three-part documentary series for Channel 4, Teenage Revolution.
I enjoyed his 2009 book. This Surrey born’n’bred scribe is barely 18 months younger than Essex-raised Al, and there’s plenty I can relate to from my own childhood, even if I did fall more on the Tottenham and QPR side of the fence in those early years. That said, I appreciate his championing of Liam Brady, and we shared our worship of Pat Jennings.
What’s more, there was a mutual sense of wonder in those formative years for everyone from Debbie Harry and Chrissie Hynde to Paul Weller, CND, Tony Benn, Billy Bragg and John Peel, among other names and causes. So are we likely to see part two of the memoir soon, charting from 1989 onwards?
“Given that no one bought the first one, I don’t think so! I’m quite proud of some of the book, but don’t think it quite worked the way I’d hoped. And I certainly put too much football in it for the average reader.”
Well, that’s just wrong. Perhaps you shouldn’t worry about snaring the average readers.
“Some of the chapters I’m quite proud of, and I took a lot of care over it and worked hard on it. So it’s heartbreaking when someone makes the assumption it’s a ghost-written celebrity bit of nonsense. That’s the battle.
“I was also a bit let down by the publishers, to be honest. They said they were going to publish me in the spring as some kind of quirky non-fiction writer, but then they just threw me out in the autumn as part of the Christmas celebrity biography market. The editor might have had a one-eyed view of the book, but the marketing department had a very different idea.”
Alan laughs again, but you can tell it rankled, similar to the way he felt after the BBC lost faith in his sitcom Whites, in which he played the lead role of chef Roland White.
More recently, as well as his Jonathan Creek and QI appearances, there’s been the Davies-hosted Dave show As Yet Untitled. And it appears there’s more of that to come.
“I’m quite busy doing As Yet Untitled, and there’s a new series of QI going out in the autumn. So I’ve a fair bit going on, which I try and balance out with seeing the kids. I’m not really pushing for filling the diary too much … and also I’m quite knackered!”
I’ve been enjoying As Yet Untitled. If you were invited on as a guest, what stories would you tell which people might not know about?
“God knows! Good question. To be honest, the researcher and producers do a great job prising anecdotes out of the guests, so I’m sure they’d winkle something out of me!”
Do Alan’s children have any real concept of what he does for a living yet?
“No, they don’t. They know I do a show, and came to Edinburgh with me. I take them to kids’ shows and they sometimes see a poster for me. My daughter asked me, “Is it a proper show, or is it just talking?’ She’s very disappointed that there’s no singing or dancing.”
Bill Bailey was best man at Alan and Katie’s wedding. I’ve an interview to write up after talking to him recently. Does he see a lot of him?
“Not really. That’s one of the things about having kids. You look around and realise you haven’t seen your mates for a year. He’s very busy with his own son and his own career, and he lives on the other side of London to me. But it’s always good to see him and Kris. They’re a great couple. And I saw Bill fairly recently when he was having a big dinner for his 50th. That was fun.”
Talking of half-centuries, Alan reaches that landmark himself next March. Is that a daunting prospect?
“I’m not too keen on it, to be honest. I was absolutely made up when I was 40. I was having a whale of a time. But 50 feels a bit more … you very much notice the physical decline, the aches and pains. I still play six-a-side football a couple of times a week when I can, and a few of the lads there are 50-odd. But a few are in their 20s, and it’s excruciating to see the comparison … knowing that only gets worse! In your head, you’re still 28.”
No plans to ride a motorbike across America or something like that, to mark the occasion?
“I’d love to do all these things, but small children change your entire life. It’s not my time. The thing about having children so late is I’m not going to resume my life again until I’m about 75!
“So let’s hope there are some serious advances in medical science … then I will get on a motorbike.”
Alan Davies plays Preston Guild Hall on Thursday, November 5, with ticket details available from the box office on 01772 804444 or online via http://www.prestonguildhall.com
And for full tour details of the last leg of Little Victories, check out this link.