Alan Davies has comic timing

TRACEY COOPER
Last updated 05:00 04/02/2013
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FUNNY MEN: "Nowadays there are lots of comedians who are really filling huge arenas in the UK," says Alan Davies. "That wasn't the case when we started. It was really just people who didn't want to have a job, were a bit weird and couldn't work with anyone."

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You would think, based on physical appearances, that Alan Davies would make a pretty good dwarf.

He may be a bit tall, but the curly hair, the roundish, potentially dwarfish face seems to fit the bill at first glance.

A bit of fancy Weta Workshop makeup and the English comedian-actor could easily become a dwarf charging about Middle-earth in The Hobbit movies.

Davies reckons he would make a good dwarf too.

"I was up for it. I auditioned to be a dwarf, " he says.

"I met Peter Jackson and all that, and it was all quite enjoyable going for the part, but no."

So while he wasn't obviously in Wellington for The Hobbit premiere, he will be here soon.

"By the time I get there, it will be 15 years almost to the week since I last toured in New Zealand," he says.

"I came in 95, toured in 98 and, in 2001, we came for a holiday and drove around the South Island. It was really beautiful.

"I love New Zealand. It's such a beautiful country and in February the weather's going to be good. I can't wait."

Many people will have forgotten, if they ever knew, that Davies, 46, was a standup comedian before he moved into the drama he is best known for in New Zealand, Jonathan Creek.

More recently, he has appeared in quirky quiz show QI with good friend Stephen Fry.

Davies began his comedy career in 1988 at the Whitstable Labour Club and went on to be voted Time Out magazine's best young comic in 1991. In 1994, he won the Edinburgh Festival Critics Award for Comedy.

His inspiration for comedy came from two of his favourite British funny men.

"I think the one everyone of my generation looked up to was Billy Connolly, and also Dave Allen. I was lucky to see both of those guys in concert about 20 years ago and I thought Dave Allen, in particular, was sensationally funny. I was a huge fan of his.

"I was on the comedy circuit for a few years and I've got very happy memories of gigging at that time. I'm still friendly with lots of my contemporaries then, and there were a lot of very talented comedians around and that time. It was a nice circuit to work on."

In 1997, he started work on Jonathan Creek, playing a creative consultant to a magician, while solving seemingly supernatural crime mysteries.

That meant a break from comedy and a period of adjustment to a different form of entertainment.

"Once I started doing television work like Jonathan Creek and one or two other dramas, it took me away from standup a bit.

"It was very different work, but I always wanted to do the acting side of things. But it made it hard to keep doing [comedy] gigs. If you're not doing regular shows, you can't turn over any material so, after a while, I found it quite difficult to get a show together."

Jonathan Creek kept him busy until 2004 and there have been regular one-off specials of the show since.

"In 2008 and 2009, we did one-off specials and now we're doing another one. It's like the Olympics. Every four years we do another one."

By the time it comes to shooting the latest Jonathan Creek – "we're shooting [ last month], so that will be freezing cold and dark" – it will be nearly 17 years since the first series.

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He had hoped the London Olympic Games would turn into a good source of material for his New Zealand tour, so he was somewhat disappointed they went so smoothly. "It turned out to be a roaring success. Where are the jokes in that?"

Luckily, then, he has two young children – Susie, nearly 3, and Robert, 14 months – with wife Katie Maskell. "They're already paying their way. They provide me with a fair amount of material for my show," he says.

The young ones won't be coming with him to New Zealand after a somewhat disastrous trip home from Australia in 2011.

"We were there for eight weeks and on the flight home, we got some pretty ropey treatment from Qantas and the whole thing was a bit of a nightmare."

That's something of an understatement, with Davies taking to Twitter at the time to lambast the airline.

He tweeted: "Life in #qantas town. A steward made my 2-yr-old cry after turfing her out of a '1st class' toilet & told me to 'f... off' when I complained."

The airline later apologised, but it has put him off dragging children around the world.

It was while he was in Australia, initially to perform QI live, that the suggestion to tour New Zealand was made.

While it has been on New Zealand television only relatively recently, QI has been running for 10 years and Davies says doing the live version of the show had given it a much-needed shot in the arm.

"Ten years is quite a long time to be doing the same thing.

"It is fun to make and we've had a bit of a revamp and got lots of new guests on in the forthcoming series. It's really nice, it feels like it's really had a good lift this year and everyone's been in good form."

Live comedy, he says, is seeing something of a resurgence. "Nowadays there are lots of comedians who are really filling huge arenas here in the UK. That wasn't the case when we started.

"It was really just people who didn't want to have a job and were a bit weird."

Part of that has been television coverage and the way comedy is screened. "They've certainly found a way to present standup on television successfully, which was always a bit of a challenge.

"It always seemed to be quite difficult not to make the person at home feel as if they hadn't been invited to the party. But they've got some good comedians on TV and that's certainly helped ticket sales here and live standup is really booming."

It's no easy task finding new material, though, after such a long time away from the genre.

"For this show, I had to go and do work in progress in a studio theatre. That was getting about 50 people into a room and tormenting them until, eventually, they start to smile and then you think, 'I might be on to something'.

"Bill Bailey [best man at Davies' wedding] described it as chipping away at the coalface of comedy. You know there's something in there, but it takes some finding."

What he has found during his chipping away will be finely honed by the time he gets to New Zealand and the show will be a lot more rounded than his earlier comedy, he says.

"Well, it's a fair amount of psychological nonsense.

"There's a fair amount about being a kid now compared with when I was a kid, what it's like being a dad compared with what my dad was like. It's all pretty relatable stuff.

"A few things happened to me, like my mum passing away when I was little, a few things I've never really been able to mention on stage before as a comedian, but now there's a bit more distance and I'm older and I can mention one or two of those things. It's silly not to really, because you can't be a comedian and pretend that half of life doesn't happen.

"Luckily for me, a lot of people who come to see me now don't remember me as a standup comedian or know me as a standup comedian, so they're quite pleased to see that I'm funnier than I am when I'm sitting on the telly.

THE DETAILS

Alan Davies' Life is Pain, Showplace, New Plymouth, February 7, and Opera House, Wellington, February 8

- The Dominion Post

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