Alan Davies

PUBLISHED: 12:54 16 November 2012 | UPDATED: 22:26 20 February 2013

Alan Davies

Alan Davies

Alan Davies talks to Katie Jarvis about his return to stand-up and the secret of his on-screen chemistry with Stephen Fry

Standing up to Stephen Fry

Alan Davies talks to Katie Jarvis about his return to stand-up and the secret of his on-screen chemistry with Stephen Fry

Whenever I have nightmares, they invariably involve heights. Im being asked to climb a rope-ladder swinging gaily above a city (which the general public of my dream seems to be having no problems negotiating). Or Im in a jumbo jet, flying so irresponsibly low its having to dodge buildings. (NB to readers: No hawkers, cold-callers or psychoanalysts, please.) But if my brain were really subtle (NB to self: No offence), the most truly petrifying experience it could simulate would be far simpler: me, alone on a stage, facing a sell-out audience expectantly waiting for me to make them laugh. (Eat your or somebody elses heart out, Hannibal Lecter).

People often say that, ruminates Alan Davies. Jerry Seinfeld does a very funny joke that people say theyre more afraid of public-speaking than they are of death. So at a funeral, most people would rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy. Which is a good way of putting it, really.

Sounds about right. So why on earth, when he has so many other things he could be doing (QI, Jonathan Creek, writing books, changing nappies), is he subjecting himself to a comprehensive comedy tour of the country? One man; alone on a stage; an audience eagerly awaiting stand-up; critics just as eagerly waiting down-fall. Nightmare.

I dont know really. I did slightly fall out of love with stand-up for a while, he admits. The last time I toured [a whole decade ago], I had too many other things on and I found it draining. Not the show, which I enjoyed, but all the motorways and the hotels. So what Ive done this time is organise the tour so that I go away, do a few shows, come home, see the wife and children; then go away again. Its much more manageable. Im looking forwardto it.

The wife and children he mentions (thats the nappies bit) are Katie Maskell, his writer spouse, plus two-year-old Susie and one-year-old Robert; so at least being on tour means the odd undisturbed night of sleep for him. Not that thats his sole reason for being back on the road. I didnt realise, when I came off stage in Edinburgh in 2001, that I wouldnt do stand-up for 10 years; that hadnt beenmy plan.

I always thought of myself as a comedian but its always been a Catch-22: I couldnt perform because I didnt have any new material; and I couldnt get any new material without performing. So last summer he remedied the situation by booking into the local studio theatre close to his North London home, working from notes in front of a somewhat bemused audience and gradually getting an act together.

He took the result a show entitled Life is Pain up to this years Edinburgh Festival. Very nervous on arrival, he left feeling far more confident after a great reception from audience and critics alike. The patter involves a journey through many of the changes hes seen over the last decade, such as the etiquette of Facebook, the thought processes employed by babies, Mayan predictions that the world will end in 2012 (though, to be honest, thats hardly an innovation of the last 10 years), and his own senior moments.

Some of it is flippant and light; but the funny-bitterness of the title resonates unquietly in the background. He explains that Life is Pain came from an anecdote a friend relayed to him: Something a six-year-old girl said to her mother, which I thought was quite profound coming from a child. Life is pain, of course, but its also a bit tongue-in-cheek. Its a comedy show; its not a painful show.

Nevertheless, the show touches on his own background which, at times, was anything but funny. He tells a story about his father making him and his brother wear uniforms at a non-uniform school. But while thats hilarious from an adult perspective, the young Alan probably found it anything but. Couple this with the fact that his mother died when he was six - and that his dad was doing his best to raise him and his two siblings on his own - and the phrase Life is Pain assumes a sharper edge. Funny, but thought-provoking, too.

Its a show that will have taken him from Aberdeen to Jersey via Cheltenham (and most stops in between) by the time he puts his feet up mid-December. He shrugs. Thats not punishing. And anyway, Ive always worked hard; Ive always had something on the go. I like the idea of lying down in some darkened room, watching telly, but Id get bored pretty soon.

Thats obvious, really, and emphasised by the variedness of his CV. His portrayal of the magician-cum-detective Jonathan Creek, in the BBC series of the same name, has won him a whole legion of crime-fiction fans. (And, no, he never guesses the inventively tortuous answers in advance of reading to the end of the script.) Devotees will be delighted to know theres a special planned for next Easter (providing the Mayans werent right).

And then theres QI, the comedy quiz show hosted by Stephen Fry, the only man who can make the Queen look slightly common and Jeremy Paxman a bit thick. Davies and Fry fizzle with unexpected chemistry, both archetypal English men in their different ways. Because hes such a toff, Im an oik, as Davies puts it.

Well, hes an oik who was partly educated at private school; whos quick-witted (Eg, Fry, with one of QIs interesting facts: Cat-gut has never been used in the making of violins. It was a myth put about by Davies: Dogs?); and who has plenty of quotable views. Im not going to bring up his Hillsborough comments again (in which he provoked a furore on Twitter by suggesting that it was absurd for Liverpool FC to refuse to play a match on the anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster); but does he worry about offending people? Or is it an inevitable part of being famous; and of being a provocative comedian?

He sighs. Nowadays its more about the storm generated on-line after the event; and then you can be dealing with people whose responses are not always rational. You can find yourself in a situation where people are trying to bully you into not saying things you want to say.

Hes right, of course. So often Twitter outrages are fuelled by a few loud voices, which seem to eschew rational argument, gathering momentum like a rolling stone. Is there an element, then, of people actively looking for trouble; of society taking offence for offences sake?

I dont know about that! he says. But it certainly feels as though a mob can get together and quieten people down and not a mob that represents the overall majority of people in this country. I feel there is an issue, at the moment, with free speech.

Well, hes got the stage to himself from now until December 16; an opportunity to say what he wants to say without interruption. So why should we go and listen?

Because Im very funny! he says, confidently. And then, with a touching simplicity, You know, all Im seeking to do - all Ive ever been seeking to do - is to make people laugh as much as I can. And that cant be a bad ambition.

Alan Davies brings Life is Pain to Cheltenham Town Hall on Sunday, December 2. Call the box office on0844 576 2210 or

Latest from the Cotswold Life