There is no alternative
Click to follow
"IF THERE are tears in my eyes, you put them there." Thus spake Des O'Connor to 28- year-old comedian Alan Davies, who had not punched him in the kidneys, but made him laugh. If there is a comedy equivalent, in terms of constituency broadening, to a band's first appearance on Top of the Pops, the Des sofa initiation is probably it. Davies' debut, a couple of weeks back, was a triumph. His nasal twinkle has a hint of Kenneth Williams about it, his eyes dart beneath a curly fringe, picking out theaudience's weak points, and the cackles rise off them like steam from a herd of wet cattle. What happens behind the scenes at the O'Connor ritual? It's like this. You sit "like a first-year in the staff room" with veteran script-writers such as Neil Shand. They encourage you to use your best stuff, help you put it in some kind of order, and work out what Des is going to say. You do an audio tape for Des (always Des, never Mr O'Con-nor) to listen to, but you don't actually meet him until you go out on the set and shake hands under the lights. Then you do your bit in one take: "As you sit there," Davies admits, "you're thinking, `Thank God I know roughly what I'm supposed to be doing'."

Bleary-eyed and unassuming - Loughton's very own Prince of Laughter - Davies chain-smokes in his agent's Regent Street office. There is an old-fashioned showbusiness vibration, as opposed to the thrusting ambience of the new comedy establishment: Tony Hancock's former agent still has an office here, and sitting in another room is Bob Holness. When Davies started out, he had cards printed with his phone number on which said "Alan Davies - Alternative Comedian". They probably wouldn't say that now. "With our circuit," he observes, "people at the beginning tried to separate themselves from the mainstream history of comedy, but in truth, if you go back, there have always been little clumps of young performers who appeared to be different but actually weren't."

Davies studied drama at Kent University, and graduated in 1988. His early forays into the stand-up spotlight happened to coincide with the explosion of comedy clubs in London. And his preference for personal rather than news-based material (which belies his background as a teenage Labour Party member - "marching and all that") harmonised with a general depoliticisation of the comedy circuit. But his upwards progression has not been uninterrupted. "In 1992

I was on Jonathan Ross's show a couple of times, and tipped for the top in various places. Then I went up to Edinburgh and disappeared without trace - Steve Coogan and Jo Brand were the hits of the festival, and I thought, `What am I gonna do now? Everyone's told me I'm the hot young thing, and I'm not.' "

His response to this set-back was "to get better". Last year's hour-long Edinburgh show (which he is about to tour round the country before a video version comes out in March) was an impeccable piece of work. Like Eddie Izzard, the comedian with whom he is most easily compared (and with whom, strangely, he has childhood trauma in common - both having lost their mothers to illness at a very early age), Alan Davies has the knack for extracting laughter from the everyday - a hungry dog, his dad's pants - without lapsing into mundanity.

Amid the high-grade cat-owning bachelor stuff, and the inevitable, if superior, TV nostalgia (cf. his immortal Starsky and Hutch plot summary: "You two go and have a row with the big fat captain, and come back here 10 minutes before Match of the Day"), there are keen insights into workplace and family relationships - "Well done Gran, you have won the right to be alone." Davies has a sharp ear for the way people talk, and his own hazy Essex drawl only throws the clarity of his observations into sharper relief.

His material is not scripted. On stage, a notebook nestles in his back pocket with 15 headings in it - "I used to write them on my hand. That was a big step, when I stopped doing that." Davies' languid demeanour is effective cover for a mind at full stretch. "You're very rarely thinking about what you're actually doing," he admits, "it's the next thing and the next thing. That line didn't work, so that other one in 20 minutes probably isn't going to go down too well either. Why's that person not laughing? I'll go over there for a minute. OK, they're laughing now so I'll come back." That sounds like hard work. "It is, but I just love doing it, it's the most exciting thing . . . when a weak line gets a big laugh and you know you've got a really good one coming up and you're thinking, `Wait for it'."

Stand-up success opens other doors too. In the spring Davies will hit the small screen as an actor, starring in One For the Road, a six-part Channel 4 series about a disillusioned timeshare employee who sends back a video record of his travels. It was going to start this month, in the Friday night 10.30 slot, but Davies is happy to have it deemed unsuitable for the back-from-the- pub audience, and switched to an earlier slot. "It's more of a comedy drama," he says, "not a brash, cut-to-the-audience-pissing-themselves type of a show." More straight acting roles will follow, he hopes, as well as a third series of his ensemble Radio 1 show Alan's Big One FM.

"You often get asked, `Were you always a funny bloke?' " Alan ponders, "and I wasn't really. I was a bit introspective - not very happy - there were maybe three times in my entire school life when I made everybody laugh. When you're at an all-boys schoollike I was, everybody's always vying for their little moment, and it's the loudest, brashest people that tend to get them." He pauses, then brightens. "Now it's fantastic. I get my little moment any night I want: it's all set up, people are sitting waiting for it . . . and they've paid!"

! Alan Davies: Chester Gateway Theatre, 01244 340392, Fri; Leicester Phoenix Arts Centre, 0116-255 4854, Sat; Nottingham Old Vic, 01602 550841, Sun 12; then touring until 19 March. For details call 0171-439 1165.