The alternative comedian Alan Davies has become a fully-fledged television star. Men, women and advertisers covet his hangdog allure. What's his secret? Victoria Lane wonders whether it's that he hasn't got one
ALAN DAVIES HAS a good anecdote about celebrity. Some years ago, when he was still busy working the regular stand-up circuit, he and three other comedians, including Harry Hill, were driving back from a show down the M6 at two o'clock in the morning. The roads were empty, until they came to a couple of limousines, nose to tail in the middle lane. "When we get alongside the second one, we realise it's Barry Manilow driving. We knew it was him because we had a clear side view. I think Harry started it - the next thing we knew we were all pointing at him, chanting, 'You Write the Songs That Make the Whole World Sing.' All he could see were four blokes in a Vauxhall Cavalier, pointing at him, and he shot away at 90 miles an hour. It probably looked like we were shouting abuse. He didn't realise we were doing a tribute."
When Davies is asked whether he has ever used this prime material in one of his comedy routines, he gives an extraordinary reply: "No, because Harry's really famous now and it would seem like name-dropping." This seems ridiculously self-effacing: Harry may be famous, but he's not as famous as Alan. Thanks to his television ubiquity, Davies has become a household face. So he gets a few stares himself now - take his arrival here today. The Stakis hotel in Islington (his choice) seems an unlikely place for a Riviera moment. But as he ambles across the forecourt towards the entrance, coat zipped up to the neck, there is a visible ripple of interest from passers- by. It's partly the hair: although he seems to dislike being noticed, Davies' pre-Raphaelite halo of curls attracts a lot of attention.
Although Davies, 32, started on the stand-up comedy circuit more than 10 years ago, most people know him from his role in the BBC comedy-drama Jonathan Creek (he stars, alongside Caroline Quentin, as the eponymous magician's assistant who wears a duffel coat and solves "impossible" crimes by approaching them as he would a conjuring trick). The programme, watched by 10 million, has won a Bafta award and has both cult and mainstream appeal: Davies finished filming the Christmas special a couple of weeks ago. Then there are the Abbey National ads, in which he plays himself, scratching his head benignly, sending up his calm befuddlement as he tries to work out which mortgage to buy or how to complete his model of the Starship Enterprise. These days, television takes up a lot of Davies' time, although he took a few months off during the summer to do a six- week show, Alan Davies: Urban Trauma, in the West End and then in Edinburgh. The show received rave reviews ("He can chase his batty ideas more physically and engagingly than anyone else"; "creates such goodwill that almost any observation, however mundane, seems funny and apposite"). Next year, after four years away from regular stand-up, he is planning to return to the clubs to create some new material for his February tour. "It's different now, though. There are 400 comics working the circuit and I don't know any of them."
So, Britain has gathered Alan Davies to its collective bosom. Every now and then, the BBC finds someone who seems to sum up the spirit of light entertainment, and Davies looks like being the latest in a long line. It is tempting to regard him (though possibly he would howl at this) as the Noel Edmonds of our time. It is Davies' ordinariness which makes him such a suitable choice for the Corporation. In the past, he has frequently been compared to Eddie Izzard, a friend since their early days in the clubs, although it's a comparison which Davies calls "lazy". There are similarities in their rambling, circular, comic styles, but Davies has none of Izzard's edge. He is alternative, but gently so. He aims to please, not to stir up, and, generally, men and women alike find him endearing. Evidently, the reason he was chosen to star in the Abbey National campaign - which, extraordinarily, since the ads are more than mildly irritating, was one of the most popular campaigns of last year - was that he is one of the few television personalities who don't annoy anyone.
Anyone, that is, apart from a cruel acquaintance of mine - who describes him as having a "tongue too big for his mouth" - and the journalist AA Gill, who railed colourfully against Jonathan Creek and particularly its star in a review for the Sunday Times. "He's as annoying as a poodle pyjama case with a stuck zip," began Gill, generously. "Imagine him with no clothes on... A Ken doll with Scary Spice hair... Utterly bereft of even a smidgen of sexuality." A bit harsh, perhaps - and, in fact, many would testify that the accusations of sexlessness are inaccurate: one need only glance at the audience sweeps of the video of his show to see that girls go for Davies. But the point is this: if he is offensive, it's in his inoffensiveness.
Today, wearing jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt, he looks tired. He has just returned from an away day in the Ukraine, where he went with a couple of friends to watch his beloved Arsenal being trounced by Dynamo Kiev: "It was quite a good day trip. It did piss down with rain though," he says, in his mildly Essex, slightly lisping drawl. "I'd been before, with Cath (his girlfriend of 18 months) and I'd vowed not to go back, because I'm a vegetarian and everything's cooked in pig fat. We didn't eat for three days." A couple of years ago, Davies used to sigh in interviews about being unlucky in love. All this has changed now, and up the road in his house in Canonbury is Catherine Porter, a singer from New York who, after years of Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, is now writing songs and hoping to record an album: "She's a fantastic singer - obviously I'm biased." He is the embodiment of uxoriousness, frequently turning the conversation back to Cath: "She moved into my house, believe it or not, a year ago today. We're going to have a slap-up meal in one of the fancy restaurants round here."
Added to Davies' preoccupation and fatigue is puzzlement at an earlier interview with the man from She magazine. "Funny bloke. He asked things like, 'Have you worked on your accent? Didn't you used to have a middle-class accent?' I was like, er, no, not really." He seems even more perplexed than usual. As well he might be: it would take some imagination to think that Alan Davies would ever dissemble in this - or any - way. Truth shines in those clear hazel eyes. Today, his concern is not, unfortunately, to entertain, but to be honest. So he speaks ponderously and avoids showing off. Our conversation is slightly hard work.
Davies was brought up in Loughton, Essex. His mother died when he was six. (She is the reason he supports Arsenal - when he was five she gave him an Arsenal shirt: "She obviously didn't know my father was a Spurs fan. I've still got it: it's really hilariously small.") After her death, his father, an accountant, took care of him and his brother. In the past, when he has talked about his childhood, it hasn't sounded as though there was much light relief. He was sent to a nearby public school, which he hated; he shoplifted and was cautioned; he "didn't get on with anyone". Then he went to the University of Kent to study drama, at which point he discovered Billy Bragg and student politics, went on marches, joined CND and protested with the Greenham Common women.
None of this is reflected in his stand-up routine. One senses that, more than other comedians, Davies will not send up matters which he takes seriously. "It's a bit of a myth about comics up on stage, changing the world," he says. "Anyway, if I thought, oh no, apparently I don't write about politics, I must knock up some Ron Davies material pronto - I mean, it would be crap. The funniest thing about the Ron Davies scenario, poor sod, is that my friends keep on showing me headlines, saying, 'Have you seen this? DAVIES GAY NIGHTMARE.'" The only person Alan Davies will make the butt of his jokes is Alan Davies. He dislikes shock comics: "You look at 'em and think, you sad act." Neither does he approve of what he terms "this so-called self- revelation. They go, 'When I was a kid, my dad hit me on the head.' And I look at them and think, if that's the worst thing that happened to you, you're lucky, mate. There's stuff that's gone on in my life that just ain't funny."
So he keeps his subjects light and laddish: beer, football, motorbikes. The best moment in Urban Trauma is when he goes closer to home and creates a skit about his cats treating their prey as art exhibits, arranging the corpses for maximum effect: "No, no, turn it round, we want it to be staring at him when he comes through the door." He finds humour in the everyday, which is in keeping with his character - Davies himself is customarily described as "down-to-earth", "unassuming", "good-natured", "amiable", or - devastatingly - "nice". One female journalist, writing for TV Times, became a bit carried away when describing his "little-boy-lost" charm: "He looks as though he could do with some mothering."
The mood music - Enya, "Gallery" from Take Hart, the Inspector Morse theme - which has been playing all afternoon in the Stakis lounge fades away, to be replaced by cocktail jazz. "Five o'clock. Time's up," says Davies, firmly. He zips his coat up to the neck and prepares to set off on foot, after making solicitous enquiries about my travel arrangements.
The joke, of course, is on Barry Manilow. Alan Davies hurling abuse at anyone - the very idea.
!'Urban Trauma' is released tomorrow by Polygram, price pounds 14.99. A 'Jonathan Creek' Christmas special will be shown on BBC1 in December
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