Outside Edge: When the show goes up in smoke, Alan Davies steps in

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ONE OF the responsibilities of Alan Davies, the chief firefighter at the National Theatre, is to ensure there is no smoking back-stage. On opening nights, when the cast are at their most nervous, he'll turn a blind eye; on other nights, they see him coming and the fags are whipped behind their backs. But Davies is not a headmaster out to bust the bike-shed smokers; 'I love them all,' he says.

He loves Judi Dench and Anthony Hopkins best of all, though Hopkins, he says, is one to avoid on opening nights ('He's always pacing around. You don't speak to him'). The rest are 'lovely guys' too. Robin Bailey is a 'lovely guy', Lady Soames is a 'lovely lady' and Sir Ralph Richardson was a 'lovely guy', though he always fell asleep backstage and 'never knew what bloody act he was in'.

But there's more to firefighting than making small talk with thesps. Davies heads a team of 16 qualified firefighters, most of whom work on their days off from the Kent Fire Brigade. The number required depends on the fire hazard in the productions, and at the National that can mean as many as four a show.

There were three for the recent Macbeth, which featured a ring of fire that Davies once had to shut off when the gas leaked. The show must, and did, go on. Likewise in 1982, when props caught fire back-stage, half an hour later Michael Bryant took the stage in Inner Voices.

Davies, however, doesn't spend his whole life waiting for a real drama. There have been suspected arsons over the years, but most of his time is spent on checks to ensure audience safety. As for back-stage safety: 'It doesn't come under the licensed area,' he says, 'though we like to make sure the cast has a chance of survival too.'