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(That’s Dav-ISS, not Dav-EES)
You might know Alan Davies, comedian extraordinaire and long-time foil to Stephen Fry, from popular shows like QI and Alan Davies: As Yet Untitled. If your parents are anything like mine (older, Anglicised) then you might also know him as the eponymous character in Jonathan Creek (thanks, UKTV). Davies is touring NZ for the second time, performing his stand up show Little Victories after stellar runs in Aus and the UK. With such a varied, consistent resume, Salient wanted to know more about Davies’ career. So we called him.
On the phone, Davies is polite and casual. After an awkward intro—“Mr. Davies! May I call you Alan?”– we broach the topic of his best-known property. QI is a comedy-panel show hosted by Stephen Fry (the den-mother of British pop culture) and anchored by Davies’ team-captain. Over its 13-series run, the show has built up a large, devoted, and diverse fan base, ranging from baby boomers to post-ironic millennials (in other words, it’s a ratings sure-thing). The secret to their viewing loyalty seems to be QI’s trademark mix of British comedy and trivia skulduggery. It’s also on BBC 2, a channel that subscribes to the idea that humour has to be “valuable” in order to be publicly funded. I asked Davies how this “high-brow” mandate affected the content of the show, and if audiences are smarter than they’re given credit for.
“The nice thing about QI is that it sets itself up as being highbrow and educational, but then it deliberately shoots itself in the foot by filling the studio up with comedians who are gonna be disrespectful of the questions, the laws, the answers, and the whole environment.” Davies takes a moment to praise series-creator John Lloyd, whose foresight predicted just how successful a comedy-trivia mashup would be. “He’s a great believer that one of the things that makes a comedian interesting is that they make unusual connections between things, and that’s something they have in common with creative thinkers across all fields”. Davies pauses, for a moment. “It’s a natural mix to put comedians in a show where you’re talking about unusual, clever, or brilliant minds.” And so the Stephen Fry meme was born. While QI’s comedians are free to improv to the audience’s content, Davies emphasises the hard work behind the scenes. “There’s more to QI than meets the eye,” he stresses, “Four to five months of research goes into it, and there’s a real feeling that there’s a lot of stuff in the world that’s lying undiscovered, dormant, you know, like fossils.” Returning to QI’s mandatory-fun premise, he ends by saying that its “mission” is to “bring that stuff out and show it to people and show that there’s more to life than soap operas.”
I tell him about Aotearoa’s growing interest in panel shows and ask what he thinks about our shared cultural humour. “Maybe there’s a smaller island mentality that the UK and NZ have in common, but it’s an interesting line of thinking. But the panel format really lends itself to screen. You put five cameras in front of five people and just shoot. It’s easy to understand and follow, people are used to it.” Throughout our talk, the success in the simplicity isn’t lost on Davies. “On the face of it, it’s an odd thing to watch—people sat at a desk, talking,” he admits, “but it works for TV!”
We talk about “the States”. I argue that their stand-up is competitive and blunt whereas ours is based on mutual malcontent, but Davies is more magnanimous. “I think panel shows are much less known in the States. They certainly go for more talk shows, and they’re much more familiar with the five-nights-a-week talk show host.” He’s also pragmatic about our mutual poverty in the face of the American entertainment behemoth. “They have a huge market there, there are many more actors and comedians and musicians to fill the guest spots on those shows than we have.” Is that the reason for our saturated visual market? “What we can do is make 16 episodes of QI or eight episodes of Have I Got News For You, and you can fill out that number of shows with funny people. We can’t do 250 shows a year. So it’s a slightly different market and the States is a huge country.”
When Davies isn’t running captain duties on QI, shooting specials for Jonathan Creek, or fronting The Dog Rescuers, he’s hosting his own show, Alan Davies: As Yet Untitled. It’s an evolution of the format in many ways, drawing the humour out from freeform spontaneous discussion and boasting the likes of Jimmy Carr and Noel Fielding. We segue into the benefits of taking creative risks on digital channels, and Davies reiterates the advantages of simple comedy—“Untitled is a slightly different kind of fish because it’s on a digital channel (the DAVE channel in the UK) but they’ve started to invest in new shows, new content, but they don’t have huge budgets, so it’s perfect to have tables and a few chairs, cost-wise… and I don’t think you’d get Untitled on to one of the mainstream terrestrial broadcasters because they’d say, ‘what is this? Where are we gonna put it? What’s gonna happen?’”
What Davies finds less appealing—“profoundly irritating”—is our current obsession with selfies. “They always seem to think they’re the first person to have asked you rather than the 15th that day.”
Speaking of the mainstream, Davies’ big break came in the form of the title role in the BBC’s Jonathan Creek. The murder-mystery drama was a hit, garnering an average of 8 million views between 1997-2014 and earning a BAFTA for Best Drama Series. We veer down memory lane for a minute while Davies recalls the “good fortune” that started his career. “Stand-up was my trade, but I had an idea that I wanted to try acting but I didn’t know how I was going to get in to it. I was messing around, working with one or two writers that I knew, and the opportunity to audition for JC came out of the blue really.” He’s pensive, describing the experience as “amazing” and “a privilege”, but ends on a characteristic shrugging off of the talent that won him the part—“I was the 38th person to audition, so you can imagine I didn’t really expect much from it.”
What Davies did expect—what he’s currently promoting—was a return to stand up. For this second tour, his material is more personal, so we talked about getting older (and being open about it) in the public eye. “It’s better to have life experience, to know what you’re talking about when you’re talking about families and parents and illness and bereavement and sexual frustration and whatever else is in my show—you can’t do that when you’re 24.” Davies doesn’t pull punches about the importance of perspective, saying, “If you haven’t got a point of view [by 49] there’s something wrong with you.”
I ask about memorable fan interactions, expecting a heckling story, and Davies immediately chuckles. “I was on location with Jonathan Creek and we were out with the crew at a bar. It was a Saturday, and a group of women came up to us—it might have been a hen night—and one of them pulled her top down, exposed herself to me, and said, ‘suck my tits, just so I can say you have’—that’s quite a memorable one.” Though unwanted sexual advances have been de rigueur for celebs since the dawn of time, what Davies finds less appealing—“profoundly irritating”—is our current obsession with selfies. “They always seem to think they’re the first person to have asked you rather than the 15th that day,” he sighs. I apologise on behalf of all millennials and explain what Instagram is. Davies remains unimpressed. “Nowadays, people are very easy with looking at themselves, and it doesn’t seem to me to be very healthy. That should not be your occupation in life.”
As our interview time draws to a close, I probe him on his favourite moments in entertainment. A few spring to mind—meeting Jennifer Aniston, seeing Dave Allen do stand up, seeing U2 in 1981—“It absolutely blew me away when I was 15. Two albums later and I’d moved on to other things—I can’t believe they’re still going!” Somewhere between the selfie talk and laughing over Bono, Davies becomes jovially meditative. “I’ve been doing comedy for 27 years and TV and radio for 20 years,” he says. “When I came out of university, I wanted to do comedy and wanted to act and keep going and not get a job, and so far—touch wood!”