This charming man

Interview: ALAN DAVIES
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Indy Lifestyle Online
As Alan Davies has discovered, there's nothing critics hate more than an actor who refuses to be pigeonholed. The versatile performer is equally comfortable with `proper' acting and comedy

To borrow Billy Connolly's famous remark, Alan Davies feels as welcome as a fart in a spacesuit in certain quarters. Despite the huge success of the first series of Jonathan Creek, David Renwick's mystery vehicle for Davies and Caroline Quentin, and the precedent set by other comedians- turned-straight actors such as Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry and Robbie Coltrane, the stand-up still does not feel accepted in the haughtiest theatrical circles.

"There's a snobbery towards us among people in straight theatre and drama," Davies sighs. "Playing football for the Comic Relief team, I met a guy from the National Theatre. He said dismissively, `Seen your programme. Course, I knew Caroline Quentin when she was a proper actress'. When I told Caroline later, the air turned blue. Her take on it is that if you can't do comedy, you can't act, full-stop."

"One of the funniest things I've ever seen was Uncle Vanya at the National Theatre starring Ian McKellen and Antony Sher," Davies continues. "Every nuance and ounce of comedy was there, but not at the expense of the drama. They brought the house down. There are people who are very good at crying acting or rowing acting, but who couldn't get a laugh slipping on a banana skin."

Davies gets laughs doing considerably less than that. He has a naturally funny manner, whether he's discussing why he finds Quentin Tarantino's films unsatisfactory or explaining why his beloved Arsenal aren't top of the Premiership. "If Radio 1 broke down, I could keep it going for 24 hours," he laughs. "I can't shut up."

He also has an appealing habit of going off on comic tangents. Talking about the aforementioned theatre snob, Davies suddenly remembers that he used to be captain of the National Theatre football team and muses: "The team was very good at play-acting for penalties. It was useful when Daniel Day Lewis was clean through with only the keeper to beat."

These off-the-cuff abilities are displayed to similar effect as a team- captain in BBC1's The Best Show in the World... Probably, the latest post- modern panel-game, this time about advertising. What, the chairman Tony Hawks asks, did the Gold Blend couple say to each other at the end of their five- year coffee campaign? "Cup of tea?" Davies ventures.

But there's no pleasing some people. Davies's endearingly eccentric performance as the mystery-solver Jonathan Creek - all shaggy-dog hair and scruffy duffel coats - still creates more carps than a large lake. "It's no problem for the audience, but the business still has some way to go," Davies laments. "Snidey people still say, `He didn't get the part because of his qualities as an actor, but because he's a stand-up and will get viewers in'.

"Other people have written, `he's just playing himself'," he carries on. "I tell you, if I was playing myself, I'd be on the Playstation and talking about Arsenal all the time, and you wouldn't get me on a film set at six o'clock each morning. As Jonathan, I'm doing and saying things I'd never do or say in real life. People say Michael Caine always plays the same character. To them I say, `watch him in The Italian Job, and then in Hannah and Her Sisters'."

After studying drama at Kent University for four years and starring in a Channel 4 sitcom called One for the Road, Davies reckons he knows what he's doing when he dons his acting trousers. He'd never claim it's simple, though. "I had to do loads of auditions for Jonathan Creek. We did one in the Blue Peter Garden at Television Centre. Seeing Petra's statue over Caroline's shoulder the whole time, I thought, `if I can concentrate through this...' Once you're on the set, it's not easy, either. It's eight in the morning and you've got to tell someone who's crying their eyes out how their friend died and make it convincing enough so people don't think, `that's bollocks'."

Nor did he find the punishing schedule - five months of 12-hours-a-day, six-days-a-week - a doddle. "I used a phrase from the comedian Lenny Beige a lot - `Death would be a blessed relief'," Davies recalls.

Things weren't made any easier by the intrusiveness of the tabloids, ravenous for the slightest snippet of gossip in the wake of the break- up of Quentin's marriage to Paul Merton. "If you're famous, you're ripe for speculation," Davies says, with evident feeling. "You're not real in some way. Nobody thinks, `their marriage is breaking up, there must be a lot of pain and suffering'. They just think: `it's TV's Mrs Chuckles'."

These travails have not diminished Davies's affability; he still has charm to burn. He admits that the new-found fame - to say nothing of Jonathan Creek's 10 million viewers - has "affected my social life. People feel obliged to mention Jonathan Creek. That becomes wearing. But if that's my biggest problem, then I've got no worries."

He is well aware of the self- indulgence of too many performers. "I don't want to sound as naff as the comedian in the African desert who is confronted by starving children and says, `it's so humbling'. Then it's difficult not to sound like a berk. Naming no names, but they know who they are."

The one thing that almost stems the tide of Davies's dialogue is a question about his image as a sex symbol (he was voted one of Britain's most eligible bachelors by Company magazine). After a momentary, and most uncharacteristic hesitation, he reflects that: "one thing's for certain - it's anything but a calculated exercise. I'm not a Spice Girl. I'm not an ordinary-looking person turned into a sex symbol by a marketing genius. If you had to pick someone to be a sex symbol, it wouldn't be me. Sean Connery as James Bond would be a more likely figure."

The new series of `Jonathan Creek' starts next Saturday on BBC1. `The Best Show in the World... Probably' continues on Thur on BBC1. Alan Davies appears at the Vaudeville Theatre, London WC2 (0171-836 9987) from 18 Mar to 11 Apr

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