Alan Davies: I’m usually the butt of my own jokes

The star of Jonathan Creek talks QI, his cancelled series Whites and finding his way in the world of comedy

You don’t realise until Alan Davies walks into the room that you have entirely contradictory expectations of what he’s going to look like in real life. On the one hand, he is so much a part of one’s cultural history – Jonathan Creek, back this week for a special one-off, has been around since 1997 – that he ought to be solid, beyond familiar, like the statue of Oliver Cromwell outside the Houses of Parliament. On the other hand, his comic persona, in his stand-up routines as well as on QI, is so puckish, so powerfully subversive, that he ought to be about 17, with the crazy, curly hair of the 1980s.

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When he arrives, he looks like neither Cromwell nor the 1980s – he has a furry parka, still-crazy hair and a faintly apologetic expression. Just turned 47, his children, Susie and Robert, are three and one, which explains the faintest whiff of a person who wouldn’t mind a snooze. He smiles at everybody in the restaurant, walking through it as if he’s just knocked over their drink.

This humility spills over into the way he talks about his career; where things have worked out he’s always very keen to place the credit elsewhere. I suppose you could say that his comic persona demands it. It would be a rum old business if he came over as a prima donna, having made himself the butt of all his jokes for the past two and a half decades. But the person created the persona; there’s a well of self-deprecation lurking underneath this self-deprecating comic.

Davies can scarcely believe the longevity of Jonathan Creek. “I have young people coming up to me after stand-up gigs saying they used to watch it when they were kids.” He shakes his head. “Makes me sound so old!”

It makes us all feel old; I swear the guy on the table next to us is shaking his head as well.

“I think David’s [he’s talking about David Renwick, the show’s writer] satirical pen has got a bit sharper in recent years, it’s really got meat on the bone. It’s a very intelligent, crafted piece of drama. But they’ve always been the best prepared, best conceived, most elaborate and complex scripts I’ve ever seen. It’s like the difference between a really amazing bit of furniture that’s going to last for centuries and appreciate in value, and Ikea. We almost never get rewrites. Whereas when I was doing dramas for ITV, I remember turning up one day and there were 76 pink pages [indicating rewrites] in an 80-page script.”

It’s interesting that, however long he’s spent on the box, Davies has never himself turned into a piece of TV furniture, a member of the establishment – young people still go and see his stand-up, and there’s nothing an outsider is more suited to than stand-up comedy. And it’s not enough to just keep on swearing, “outsider” is something you have in your bones.

This informs and shapes his role on QI, which is the main reason he’s got such cross-generational fandom – it’s a quiz that knows no age limits. I think it’s a bit of a character test, like Radio 4’s I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue – the sort of people who find it funny are not the sort of people who care whether they are its target audience. Bloody-minded. Or high IQ. Or both.

Anyway, back to the QI-Alan: “My role on that is to be playful and juvenile, and a little bit delinquent. My instinct is 100 percent to subvert it. I was like that at school. I’m still like that, I can’t fill in a census form properly without pretending there are seven Nigerians living in my house.”

Davies arrived at the University of Kent, full of mischief, to study drama in 1984, to find that he had chosen the least mischievous university ever. “It was like a long, dark tunnel,” he remembers. Unlike a number of comedians, he didn’t slot in with a group of like-minded people, let alone find the comic partner who would define his early work. “They had an obsession with sexual politics. Which, if you’re bright and you’re not allowed to be ironic, is quite tiring.” That’s not to say he felt out of step with the politics – it was more the politicisation.

“I was comfortable. I’m a feminist, I was anti-nuclear. I was very happy in that environment. But I was never happy doing political jokes. And it’s a bit unfulfilling doing jokes about Conservative politicians.”

Looking back, I feel fondly ashamed by the stuff we used to laugh at on 1980s telly. Ben Elton just had to say “Michael Heseltine” and everybody would fall about.

“I’ve never been very good at the ‘Rupert Murdoch… what a ****’. It doesn’t come very easily to me to rant about somebody. I’m usually the butt of my own jokes, the fall guy.”

He describes the ‘comic voice’: “It means that anything you say is funny. If you go on and say, ‘Hi everyone, I came on the bus today, what a nightmare’, they’ll laugh. Billy Connolly has it, Eddie Izzard has it. And once you find the way that works, you’re sort of stuck with it.” But the impetus to become a comic in the first place goes back as far as the impulse to speak.

He lost his mother to leukaemia when he was six, and he considers carefully whether he wanted to be funny because his mum died, or because of the kind of person she was when she was alive.

“I think a lot of it comes from my relationship with her when I was little. I remember her laughing at things I did, and that being the best feeling in the world. That’s why I like people laughing at the things that I do, and that would have started when I was probably one.” But if the legacy of her life has been to create this very generous spirit – it’s quite a self-effacing, altruistic thing, isn’t it, to give your life over to make other people laugh? – the legacy of her death is quite different.

Even 40 years on the sorrow sounds quite raw, and makes sense of a restlessness that is part of what makes Davies so watchable, whether he’s joking or not. “She was ill for a year before she died. And I think she was finding things difficult. That she was finding the children… well, me. Me in particular, she was finding me quite difficult for a while before she was diagnosed. Then, my understanding of it was that she wasn’t told that her illness was terminal. They decided it would be better, because she had three small children, not to tell her. I don’t think they would have done that to a man, I think it was misogyny. Who knows what she might have done if she’d known? What she might have done for us and what she might have said to us that we would have had for the rest of our lives? I think it was a brutal act.”

Stand-up is a brilliant career if you’re successful at it (and that, I realise, is a gigantic “if”). “You just have full control, you don’t have to be commissioned by anyone and no one can cancel you.” But TV fortunes are more changeable.

Something like QI might last for a lifetime, but that wouldn’t necessarily be a great thing for the people in it. Davies explains – he’s still really cross, in a vaudeville, quite endearing way – about the BBC cancelling Whites, the comedy in which he played a chef who looked spookily like Marco Pierre White, in 2011.

“They killed it after one series. I wanted to meet up to talk about it, and they sent back the message: ‘We will only meet with Alan to reiterate our faith in his talent.’ Totally bizarre. I nearly quit QI over it. I thought they were canning Whites because they had me doing another show. I asked, ‘Is that a factor? Can anyone give me a straight answer on that? If it is a factor, I’d rather quit QI. Will I get cast as anything else? Because QI is never off air. What if someone wanted to cast me as a serial killer, and I’d be perfect for it?’ I worried about that for a bit, and then I came to my senses. But I was quite burnt, I think everyone was quite burnt.”

He pauses for a second, I don’t know whether for comic effect or just to decide what to say next. “I’m still quite upset about it, and it’s nearly three years ago.” He grins broadly at his own absurdity. It’s so curious; he genuinely is annoyed about the whole episode, but when the opportunity arises to make himself the ridiculous one, he grabs it with both hands.

He is his own fall guy through and through. Once you find a way that works, you’re kind of stuck with it. In a funny way, Jonathan Creek is his respite creativity, the flash points in a long and superbly funny career when he can stop putting himself down and pointing out how ridiculous he is and just act.

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Jonathan Creek is on Easter Monday at 9:00pm on BBC1.