Alan Davies lowers himself into an armchair like a man expecting a booby trap. Five minutes ago he was affable as a box of puppies, charming the pants off journalists at the general press call for the new series of Jonathan Creek; one on one with RT, the paws-in-the-air thing is replaced by air-sniffing “friend or foe?” wariness.
Given that Creek is probably the least contentious programme in the history of televi- sion, this twitchiness seems excessive: the Bafta- winning show, which began 17 years ago, is an unstoppable success. A generation of fans has grown up with its mop-headed hero.
The trademark mop is now several shades of grey and other changes are afoot. The new, three- part series sees the maverick magician-turned- detective newly married to Polly (Sarah Alexander) and settling into Home Counties domesticity. He even has a day job in an advertising agency.
Davies, 47, who married children’s author Katie Maskell in 2007, approves of the transition. “The fact that he’s married may be tied to the fact that I’m married. It always said something about Creek that he’d completely withdrawn from society and other people; now it says something about him that he’s re-entered the atmosphere and is able to sustain a relationship. You couldn’t just leave him in the windmill for ever, making up tricks.”
With Creek moved up a run, there’s room in the series for rookie crime-solver Ridley (played by Keiran Hodgson in a long black coat) who attempts Sherlock-style reasoning and, by a process of perfect logic, arrives at entirely the wrong conclusions. “There have always been little references, homages to Holmes throughout the show, so it’s fun to play with that again,” says Davies. “It’s a nice little spoof.
“David Renwick [writer of Creek, One Foot in the Grave, Love Soup] is the world’s biggest Sherlock Holmes fan – though probably more the original Conan Doyle version – but he’ll never pander to whatever is in vogue. He won’t watch Sherlock and think, ‘Oh, that’s the kind of thing they want now, where it’s all fast-paced and groovy and everyone’s good-looking. So we’d better make Creek like that.’
He’d rather think, ‘Right, what are they doing this year..? We can take the p*** out of that and be back again next year.’ ”
For his own part, Davies is unperturbed by the new show on the block. He has the latest episodes of Sherlock cued up to watch, but there are other claims on his time: “I do enjoy them, but we have two young children [Susie, four, and Robert, two]. The idea of watching a 90-minute programme is hilarious to us.” Seventeen years of rationalising “impossible” crimes leaves its mark. “There’s a maxim: ‘Once you’ve eliminated everything that’s impossible, you’re left only with what’s possible.’ That’s Creek’s rule and Holmes’s rule. It’s the kind of thing that affects you. Magic tricks or so-called paranormal events are a bit spoilt for me now.
“I’ve just made a documentary about Houdini for ITV’s Perspectives and as part of that we saw David Copperfield’s show in Las Vegas. The whole time I was thinking, ‘Well, there must have been some sleight of hand, some misdirec- tion...’ But it’s interesting how magic tricks and the paranormal become blurred. Arthur Conan Doyle, for example, really believed that Houdini had special powers and tried to convince him of that. So you have this ridiculous situation of Conan Doyle saying, ‘You are, you’re magic.’ And Houdini saying, ‘No, I’m really, really not...’”
Hunting down facts is clearly something of a forte, which rather gives the lie to Davies’s role as resident stooge on QI. “Often the quickest route to a laugh on that show is for me to play the fool to Stephen Fry’s deity. It’s a bit like hosting a dinner party – as the regulars on the show, Stephen and I both feel a responsibility for guests to have a nice time, with the result that as far as I’m concerned, all those facts go straight in one ear and out the other.
But yes, the whole thing is rigged to make Stephen look like the cleverest man in the world and me like the most stupid. What’s disappointing is how easily those roles have come to pass.”
Davies doesn’t sound disappointed. By all accounts mercurial (viz his well-publicised rush of blood to head in 2007 when he bit a man’s ear outside the Groucho Club in London), his initial defensiveness now seems a trick of the light. But credibility matters to him. He will not be choking down kangaroo testicles any time soon.
“There are two shows that everyone has been asked to do,” he says. “One is the jungle show and the other is Piers Morgan’s Life Stories.” From his tone, he’d sooner try the testicles. “There are people around who, if you see their name, it’s like a kite mark. You think, ‘Well, that show is probably going to be good, because so and so is in it.’ And that’s all you really want for your career. I’m very lucky that because of Jonathan Creek and QI, there’s a certain standard of other people’s work that I’ve managed to cling on to.”
Of course, if Davies really believed this, the last thing he’d dream of is a return to stand-up. Next month sees him back on the touring circuit, with a new show, Little Victories. As always, he’s the butt of his own jokes. “There’s a kind of arrogance about being that person who wants to go on stage and tell the world what’s wrong with it.” But this promises to be his most personal material to date. “It’s really about parental approval, and family and the fundamentals of life as we know it; which in my case, I encountered late, because I’ve only come to parenting in my 40s.”
Approval, for Davies, who lost his mother to cancer at the age of six, seems always to have been linked to comedy. As an infant he would lie on the floor and do “windscreen wipers” – waving his legs back and forth – for his mum. “I remember very little about my mum, but I do remember making her laugh. It was a wonderful feeling.” Davies’s father was a harder nut to crack. “The title Little Victories refers to a story about me trying to get one over on my dad when I was nine. Which was difficult. Because I was nine and he was my dad.
“Laughter,” he goes on, “is the gold standard of approval, because what you’re doing is not just OK, it’s making someone else happy. And parental approval is more important than anything – withholding it from children is the great power that parents have and it becomes the battleground between parents and children.”
Comedy as self-therapy is not Davies’s bag – he sought professional help some years ago, at the urging of his good friend Jo Brand – but stand-up does, he says, throw light on the mysterious processes of the psyche. “What’s interesting to me is what people think and what people say and how close those two things are together.
“My instinct, as I’m getting older and have gone back to stand-up, is that if there’s a thought you feel you probably shouldn’t say out loud on stage, that’s really the thought you need to stay with. Your subconscious grows in the first two years of your life and is altered by subsequent trauma or experience. It’s you, it’s there and we all carry it but no one can access it. I mean, with years of psychotherapy you might get a clue, but it’s like going into a tomb with no torch.
“As a comedian, that relationship between your subconscious and your public persona is some- times quite distant, so it’s fun to play with. And it feels right to be doing stand-up again. For the ten years I wasn’t doing it, there was something missing. I was doing a lot of other people’s scripts and for a while I thought that maybe I should go to America and audition for things, but I wasn’t saying anything. It felt like a chunk of my life was unchronicled. Now I’m saying things again and it’s like a tap’s been turned or plumbed back in. Doing both stand-up and Jonathan Creek again, it really is like being back in the 90s.”
You could look at it another way. Both Jonathan Creek and Alan Davies have moved on. “I suppose Creek’s now meeting the world halfway,” muses Davies. “But there’s still something morally correct about him. It’s about having good manners and not being dishonest – not just to other people, but to yourself. It’s tough,” he adds quickly, “to live with those standards and not be that way yourself.”
It’s a modest – genuinely modest – rider, but it’s possible Davies is hard on himself. Life may imitate art more than he thinks.
Jonathan Creek, Friday 9:00pm on BBC1