I go a few years back with Dave Spikey, first meeting this ever-entertaining Lancastrian when he dropped in at my old workplace, the Chorley Guardian, with fellow comedian Peter Kay in early 2000.
At that point the pair had already worked on Channel 4’s That Peter Kay Thing and were limbering up for cult classic Phoenix Nights with the same broadcaster. They were working on a new project based around a local newspaper, looking for inspiration nearby, or at least confirmation that they’d got it right.
And five years later – at which stage Kay had set out on his own stratospheric journey – came ITV’s Dead Man Weds, with Spikey starring as Gordon Garden, the ex-national journalist newly appointed over acting Fogburrow Advertiser editor Lewis Donat, played by Johnny Vegas.
It was Peter Kay who made the biggest impression during that initial Chorley visit, having his picture taken with the girls from the advertising section, playing up to the attention. He also sat at my desk for photos, holding my telephone and a second handset I used to feign being ‘on a call’ to avoid certain thankless jobs. And then he was away, telling his admiring audience he’d ‘give us three rings when he got home’, mistakenly disappearing into the kitchen instead of using the door that led to the main stairs. Milking it like a true pro. He was a natural, for sure. But he wasn’t the only emerging talent visiting that day.
As it turned out, that was one of two visits to newspapers around then, Dave finding what he was really looking for at the nearby Chorley Citizen. He later told Maxine Clayman at the Press Gazette, “Even the Chorley Guardian was too high-tech. There were loads of computers, people using Quark and hustle and bustle, so it wasn’t right. So I went down the road to the local free paper. I went in the office and knew I’d found it – four people, sat round twiddling their thumbs, looking at computer screens, playing solitaire.”
The fact that the news editor there at the time was a certain Gordon McCully and Dave’s character was called Gordon Garden possibly backs that up, although Dave’s been quick to add that his own middle name is Gordon.
Either way, by the end of that year the success of Phoenix Nights and his ground-breaking Live at the Top of the Tower video, filmed in Blackpool, had ensured Peter’s fame, while Dave’s own success was more low-key in comparison, the way he probably would have preferred it. He too became a star, but was never above taking the odd call from our office, dropping by, or stopping in town for a chat. An all-round good bloke.
It’s been a busy 15 years since for Dave, his decision to leave the NHS fully justified, his chance meeting on the comedy circuit with his fellow Boltonian leading to so much more.
That Peter Kay Thing won a British Comedy Award for Best New TV Comedy in 2000, the year Phoenix Nights was first aired, with Dave winning the nation’s hearts as cabaret compere without compare Jerry St Clair, that working men’s club sitcom – written by Kay, Spikey and Neil Fitzmaurice, who also appeared as Ray-Von – also winning a British Comedy Award, the People’s Choice.
By 2003 Dave was out on his debut solo tour, Overnight Sensation, the resultant DVD leading to a gold disc, the following year’s highlights including a Royal Variety Performance where he got to meet Dame Shirley Bassey, and a guest slot on Parkinson, where he met Sir Paul McCartney – two more life ambitions ticked off.
Then came Dead Man Weds, Dave going on to become a team captain alongside Jimmy Carr and Sean Lock on Channel 4 panel show 8 Out of 10 Cats, and even presenting a revival of quiz show Bullseye.
By 2008 he was touring The Best Medicine at more than 100 venues nationwide, another hit DVD following, and published his first book, He Took My Kidney, Then Broke My Heart (Michael O’Mara Books, 2009), taking an irreverent look at ambiguous newspaper headlines.
He continued touring, his Words Don’t Come Easy tour also going down well, and then published best-selling autobiography My Life – Under the Microscope (Michael O’Mara Books, 2010) while remaining a TV regular, presenting Channel 4’s TV Book Club.
Yet Spikey – real name Dave Bramwell, newly turned 64 – was never really one to fully embrace celebrity status, and has remained true to his adopted Chorley roots over the years. That said, I did once visit the cottage he shares with his beloved wife Kay for a Lancashire Design and Living feature, at which point they had a bit of a menagerie, I recall.
“That seems a long while ago. It’s all changed here now – the house and garden. The animals have all gone now. Natural causes. We do too much travelling now, hence throwing myself into animal charities, raising money and supporting them that way.
“The kids used to help look after the animals, but they’ve since moved away. We’ve not even got a dog now – just next-door’s cat, which comes and goes.”
Talking of his charity work, Dave was on Chorley Market a few days before we spoke, doing a blindfold walk for the area’s new Guide Dogs puppy training venture, at an event in which one of my fellow ex-reporters, Helen Hunt, played a few songs (“Oh yeah – she’s got a lovely voice,” he adds). And apparently there was a similar awareness event for a testicular cancer initiative in Bolton that same week.
“Well, as you know, I’ve never bought into the whole celebrity lifestyle thing, resisting the urge to fall into that false world of showbusiness. But I worked in the NHS for 30 years, so can see how just by turning up and giving my name to a cause it can give it all a bit more publicity.
“There was this blindfold walk in Chorley, and before that a Bolton community initiative for testicular cancer, based on this cartoon family called The Oddballs, publicising signs and symptoms. So there were pictures of me all over Bolton holding a pair of balls in front of me.”
And now he’s back out on the road, with his new show, Punchlines, threatening to be another sell-out. What’s more, it appears that Dave sees a correlation between the subject of the show, the humble joke, and his passion for newspapers’ best and worst moments.
I put it to him that – knowing how streamlined most newspapers are these days – he’s probably finding even more opportunities to cut out occasionally-misleading headlines.
“There are, and I’d consider most headlines to be punchlines. It’s the perfect definition, something you set up with an opening paragraph summarising it all, then tell the story, and bang – your headline that draws attention to the story.
“Even then there are two sorts, ones where journalists are really clever in the way they’ve done it, mainly with ambiguity and a play on words, then some you just shouldn’t publish, and I get sent them from all over the world now because of the book and Dead Man Weds.
“There was one from The Baltimore Sun recently about the weather, which read ‘Eight and a half inches make June the wettest for a long time’. Just what were they thinking of? That needs no comment. Then there are stories that just demand a punchline, like one from the Hartlepool Mail, a little story which said how police boarded a shop in the harbour to arrest a drunken sailor in conjunction with the harbour police at 5.30am.
“You just wonder what they’re going to do with the drunken sailor that early in the morning. So yeah – I’m still tucking into the newspaper stories.”
I explain to Dave that I’d only recently spoken to Lancashire Evening Post subbing legend Phil Gorner, whose ‘Llama Drama Ding Dong’ headline featured in his 2009 book, topping a tale about an escaped animal that ran amok in a school playground.
“Actually, I think either The Star or The Sun used that just the other day. A lot of people tweeted me to tell me someone had nicked ‘my’ headline. I always credit the LEP of course. In fact, didn’t that headline writer have previous on that front? A story about a fight during Ramadan, headlined ‘Ramadan Ding Dong’?”
Getting back to Punchlines, have you ever cocked something up by putting one in the wrong place?
“You do now and again, generally if I’m getting too excited and really enjoying it, I’ll talk too fast. I’m more one for missing stuff out, getting to the punchline too early, having to go back and say, “Did I say he was a chemist?’ I did one the other night at the Liverpool Phil, but managed to rescue it. I got to the punchline too soon so had to twist it to make the line before the punchline … but it sort of worked. It’s just an instinctive thing.”
Ever found yourself down that dark corridor of despair where you’re trying to over-analyse comedy and why something’s funny?
“No, it sounds like I’m taking a very analytical approach to all this, in that I look at wordplay and ambiguity, misdirection, misleading, and how actions can be funny. But it’s not big and it’s not clever. It’s basic analysis. It’s not rocket science. And that’s only part of the show. In between, I look at problems at my age trying to remember jokes and punchlines, then get into other signs of ageing. It’s a broad, often blank canvas.”
While not touring or cutting out stories from newspapers, Spikey continues to work on various writing projects. As we’re speaking at 9am I ask if he’s an early-morning writer.
“That’s where I find myself most productive. But you have to be in the right mood. Sometimes you get up full of enthusiasm but it just won’t come, although you feel fresh and bright. Then sometimes you’re hung over and a couple of ideas come. It’s unpredictable.”
So what’s your next deadline?
“It’s quite exciting really. I’ve a script commission I’m writing with Jim Cartwright. That’s a big thrill for me – he’s one of my top writing heroes. I had this idea for a comedy-drama I pitched to the BBC, but they wanted someone else involved with experience in that field. I mentioned Jim, known for Little Voice, Road, Two, and so on. He lives quite close and we met for a drink, getting on very well. I sent him the project, he loved it, and we’ve been writing it ever since.
“I’ve had a couple of near-misses these last couple of years, and that’s so frustrating and disappointing. I wrote one with Neil Fitzmaurice last year about ballroom dancing, set in a little Blackpool hotel, tuning in on all this ballroom dancing fever. We wanted to make that secondary really, while wondering if we’d find the same sort of rivalry, elitism and snobbery at that grass-roots level.
“We got as far as casting, and everyone loved it, getting Alison Steadman to read the lead as the dance teacher and also Keith Barron and Jill Halfpenny, who’d just done Strictly. It couldn’t have gone better. We were just sort of metaphorically high-fiving each other when they just pulled the plug, for no reason really.”
Dave’s had several moments like that, despite his past TV hits, not least two promising TV series that got no further than the pilot stage, Magnolia, a sitcom based around a painter and decorator, and Footballers Lives, following a pub football team.
“I also get messages via social media regularly asking where people can find Dead Man Weds on DVD. But it doesn’t exist. I made it with Red Productions, and we’ve acquired the rights now. It’s just a question of clearances, getting it out somewhere people can download it.”
Do you tend to find you work better with others, as you do with Neil Fitzmaurice and did with Peter Kay in the past, bouncing ideas off each other.
“If you find yourself on the same wavelength, it’s brilliant. I’ve only had half a dozen sessions with Jim, but we were there four hours last time, tossing ideas around, ending up acting out scenes, laughing, then getting serious, with a little poignancy in there.
“I love writing on my own, but if you do that you’ve got to not be so precious about your work and have to employ a really good – ruthless – script editor. You still argue your corner, and you’ll win some and lose some, but in the end they’re probably right, because they’ve got the experience. It’s an interesting process.”
Dave goes on to mention a few more ‘near-misses’, other shows leading broadcasters and production companies have turned down at late stages, one part-based on his own experience in leaving the rat race to move to the country. I tell him I was particularly intrigued by the sound of Bringing in the Sheep, co-written with Terry Milligan. Then again, I could just see the commissioning panel’s reaction to the pitch for that.
“Well, I get so many scripts turned down where I’m told it’s a bit too much like this or like that. So we decided to write something that definitely hasn’t been done, then took it to a certain television company and pitched it, and the whole point is that this guy – as we discover during the series – goes to the Himalayas to escape whatever problems he’s got.
“He’s in a desperate situation and seeks peace, seeks isolation and seeks tranquility, and finds he can have this hut, which is isolated for much of the year because of snow, avalanches and so on. But when he gets up there, it’s mad – full of people like him, or on the run from the police and so on. So he finds it’s worse than he had at home.
“Well, we pitched the idea and this TV executive had read it all beforehand, and said, ‘We’ve been thinking, it’s very good, but … the Himalayas – does it have to be the Himalayas? We were wondering about somewhere maybe closer to home – like Snowdon.’ So we said, ‘But if it was Snowdon and it all went wrong, he’d just get the train home, wouldn’t he? You’ve missed the whole point!’
“That was just one of the pitches we did. But you just crack on, don’t you, rather than sit there in front of the telly and wonder how some pile of pap has got on there.”
Some series are worthy of their air-time, of course, such as Cradle to Grave, the recent BBC dramatisation of Danny Baker’s autobiography, in which Spikey’s old comedy partner Peter Kay plays Danny’s Dad, larger-than-life cockney character Spud Baker.
“It’s very good, isn’t it? And he’s 90 per cent there … although now and again he’ll go a bit Dick Van Dyke! But what a comedy character-actor he is. I can’t think of anyone who’s up there with him. People say Steve Coogan, but he’s not got the range Peter has. Maybe Paul Whitehouse. I can’t think of many others.”
So how’s the new tour going so far?
“I’m in a very fortunate position where I attract my own audiences, and they’ve grown with me, as I’ve matured. I’m really lucky, and they’re so enthusiastic. At Wakefield the other night, even before I went on, as various punchlines were projected on to a screen, along with shop signs and newspaper headlines, I could hear the audience laughing!”
At this stage we get on to Dave telling audiences various punchlines, ones where they can probably guess the joke in question. I mention a particular favourite of mine, ‘What? Eric?’, which – however many times and wherever I hear it – always seems to involve the same name, as if it wouldn’t possibly work with any other.
“Well, some names are funnier than others, and when we were writing Phoenix Nights one of the biggest arguments we had – which lasted hours – was over what was the funnier pie, cheese and onion, or chicken and mushroom. Well, chicken and mushroom is – it stands out a mile – but Neil (Fitzmaurice) couldn’t see that, and we had this huge row!”
With that in mind, how about the phenomenal success of the sell-out Phoenix Nights charity live tour earlier this year, when Dave got Cher’s wish and turned back time, becoming Jerry ‘the Berry’ St Clair again?
“I’m not exaggerating here, but I get goose-bumps as soon as I start thinking about it. It was just such a wonderful, wonderful thing. There was that tragic first night when Ted (Robbins) collapsed, but once we got into the swing of things … I wasn’t on until the second half, but the atmosphere in the room was electric, with 15,000 people a night for 15 nights for a show from that many years ago.
“And tickets weren’t cheap, because it was for Comic Relief. Waiting to go on, dressed with Jerry’s white jacket and dickie-bow, doing my bit offstage, the compere without compare … The standing up and cheering … unbelievable. The love for that character and that show. Then you’ve got it backstage, the whole gang back together – very emotional.”
I had a similar response recently while interviewing ‘Young Kenny’ – Justin Moorhouse. I know a few of you have kept in touch, but it seems that the camaraderie added to it all.
“In my dressing room, it was Neil, Justin and me. Wonderful. Then Paddy (McGunness) would drift in, Steve Edge, Archie Kelly … we just picked up where we left off. To be working together as a team was really something. We had very little time for rehearsal but were helping each other out and coming up with suggestions. It was just the best time.
“You get to a certain age where you become aware of your own mortality, but I’ll always have that memory now.”
Of course, I’m duty-bound to ask if there will be another reunion in five or so years.
“I doubt it very much. That was drawing the line under it. Mind you, we all thought the line had been drawn a long time ago. But I don’t think so. It was never mentioned. We threw ourselves into it as if it was going to be the last ever.”
Ever have days where you think back on your days working in haematology and wish you hadn’t put those test tubes away?
“Never. I was there 32 years and got to a stage where I was the chief biomedical scientist with massive areas of expertise in all sorts of spheres, but spent most of my life organising meetings for health and safety, risk assessment and development plans, while nobody else was doing my job, because no one else was qualified to do it. I just got so frustrated, and this all just came at the right time. And no one’s indispensable.”
If you’d have stuck with that, you might have long since retired by now.
“I probably would have been. But I left at 50 and took my pension.”
Not only that, but you won Celebrity Mastermind in 2006 with human blood as your specialist subject.
“Well, you say that, but I set myself up for a fall really. I’m alright with haematology, but not all biochemistry or immunology or microbiology of the blood. I could have got asked anything … and I was.”
There’s been a bit of talk about that show being ‘dumbed down’ over the years. But I can’t see that there.
“Well, I wanted to do the red blood cell as a subject. It’s a fascinating cell. I won’t bore you with it, but there’s books written just about that cell. But the researcher said, ‘That’s a bit narrow’. Well, I’d never heard that said about it before!”
Just a few more questions before I let you go. First off, are the panel show offers still coming in?
“Not recently. I’ve done that now, and it takes over your life. For one, they’re topical, so you’ve got to keep your eye on the news, and can write all week but then just when you come to record it two other major stories blow up that day and you lose everything. So most of your work is just gone. And then you have people who are so good at it, and so quick, like Lee Mack and Sean Lock, and it’s just natural for them. They’ve got the right sort of brains for that, whereas I need to work at it. I just wanted to get back doing my writing and my touring.”
How’s The Fogburrow Advertiser’s Gordon Garden these days? Does he keep in touch?
“I don’t know where he is. He’s probably retired. He’s probably doing what you’re doing. I don’t think he’ll be out in Syria under cover, or anything like that.”
Thinking of the Spikey and Sykey show with Rick Sykes that got you started on the comedy circuit, have you still got the VHS tapes from your New Faces appearance together?
“I probably have somewhere. I would never watch them. I hate watching myself anyway.”
Dare I ask what Sykey’s up to now?
“Rick? Yeah, he’s done very well in the teaching profession. We’re in touch now and again. He must be coming up for retirement soon.”
Do you think you’re his favourite anecdote – that ‘what might have been’ moment?
“Maybe, but the only reason I went solo – although it probably would have happened at some stage – was because he wouldn’t go over to Scarborough to do a talent contest.”
Dave’s children are now long since grown up. Is he a Grandad these days?
“No, I’ve got two kids and Kay’s got another, yet none of them show any inclination of settling down and having children.
“My son’s a musician, playing in Blackpool at the moment in a Legends show. He flies backwards and forwards. My daughter’s a deputy-head, totally career-focused. She’s in Blackrod, and has just got funding to open a special needs unit at her school. And Kay’s daughter is the head of cardiology at Wigan.”
Finally, when was the last time you were asked where the black bin bags were while walking around Asda?
“It’s every week! In fact, it’s any time I’m in any supermarket, people will come over and ask. Oh, you are so funny!”
Dave Spikey plays Kendal Brewery Arts Centre tonight (October 22, http://www.breweryarts.co.uk 01539 725133), Preston Charter Theatre tomorrow (October 23, http://www.prestonguildhall.com01772 804444), and has several more dates lined up, including Manchester Comedy Store (November 4, www.thecomedystore.co.uk/manchester 0161 839 9595) and Burnley Mechanics (November 6, http://www.burnleymechanics.co.uk 01282 664400).
For more tour dates and details and the very latest from Dave Spikey, head to www.davespikey.co.uk