Alan Davies' raw material
You can feel the collective mood lift as soon as Alan Davies walks on to the makeshift Edinburgh stage to try out some new material.
Perhaps it is even a little warmer. As the shaggy star of the enduring detective comedy Jonathan Creek and the one who gets the answers wrong on QI, Davies combines schoolboy naughtiness with a shambolic cosiness suggestive of fireside cocoa.
Online comments frequently describe him as "lovely", possibly the word uppermost in the mind of the elderly lady who approaches us in the elegant hotel tea room where we do this interview.
"I don't want to interrupt," she begins. "No, don't interrupt," says Davies flatly. He might as well not have spoken; she takes no notice. "No, but it's nice to see you. We watch your QI all the time," she continues. Davies succumbs; he tells her she is very kind, but she doesn't really notice that either. "And your wee show Jonathan Creek!" she says. She goes away only because I ask her to let me do my job.
It is in the nature of celebrity to be seen by everyone and yet not seen, in the sense that a fan's sense of ownership does not allow for the star to be a private person who might well want to have his afternoon tea unbothered. Davies was very ambitious in his 20s, he says.
He was a touring stand-up working the comedy club circuit, but he wanted more; he wanted to do radio, television, to write and to be famous.
"I thought that would be great. When I first started getting recognised, my ego was swelling. But I quickly realised I didn't actually like that all the time and it turns out that you can't turn it on and off; you can't be famous when you want to be."
For example, he can't decide not to be famous because he's taking his children to the park. People absolutely love Jonathan Creek, he says in a tone that suggests this still astonishes him.
"I can see my three-year-old thinking about this. The other day she said to me, 'Dad, who's Jonathan Creek?' And I said: 'It's a man Daddy goes to work with'." So she accepted that. She thinks strangers say hello to each other in the street, because people quite often say hello to me. Who was that person? she will say. Just someone saying hello!"
This is the stuff of Davies' stand-up: friendly exchanges about everyday life and his own life in particular.
"You jump backwards into your life to see how it reflects on different points, you know. What was I doing when I was that age? What sort of father was my father when he was my age? You go up and down quite a narrow line."
A good deal of this raw material is ostensibly bleak. That intimate show in Edinburgh ranges over his relationship with his father, a conservative and distant man now suffering Alzheimer's disease, the privileged nastiness of the school he attended and the perils as well as pleasures of being a parent, those moments when the little monsters are screaming and you would, as he says, really like to hurt them.
Davies is not, however, the kind of comedian who makes audiences uncomfortable. Those repetitious conversations with his father are wryly funny in the retelling; the screaming kids stay unslapped while, at the same time, parents feel the momentary relief of sharing their imperfections.
"You have a little discomfort needle in your head and you can tell where the audience is," he says. "I think the thing is that if I'm not being bitter or spiteful - too bitter or too spiteful - it's OK. Most things resonate with people and the urge to hurt your children is a powerful one that you have to resist - and most people do, but not everyone does. Lots of people hurt children. A lot, you know, so it's a very important thing, because the hurt children become the damaged children who do damage to everyone else.
"I don't want to be mocking or ridiculing people. I want to be talking about things that exist in my life and everybody else's. I mentioned in my last show that my grandfather had Parkinson's at the end and having to help him to go to the toilet, being asked to by my father when I was 11 years old.
"You talk about that in a big theatre like the State in Sydney, which holds 2000 people, and there's a lot of people there who know someone with Alzheimer's or Parkinson's or who hit their children or were hit as a child. Of course, quite a lot of the show is just frivolity and lewdness, with lots about childhood masturbation and grown-up farting, but you don't want to be on stage at my age with no comment about any of the things that are important in your life.
"And I do find that audiences, while they want to laugh - they have come to see a comedian so of course they want to laugh - would also like to hear about you. They like to hear stories."
The fundamental story of Davies' life is that of his mother's early death. He was six; she was 38. It was a loss compounded by the silence and secrecy that passed for protectiveness in the middle England of the '70s. Least said, soonest mended: that was the conventional wisdom.
He says he thinks of his mother every day, although the content of his grief has changed over the years; the little boy who lost his mother would not have been struck, as the middle-aged Davies is, by how young she was. "Thirty-eight years old, it's nothing, hardly even started, not even hit 40, not hit any corners, not yet at cruising altitude. That's what I think when I look at it."
Parenthood has given him another, no less painful perspective on that early bereavement. He is 46, with two children under four. There is Alzheimer's on both sides of his family, something he says he thinks about a good deal.
"You think 'how long have I got?' I don't know; just let me get through till they're adults. Again, it's a very common thing. People die. How often do you hear it in a news story? 'He leaves behind a wife and two children.' Especially with people in the forces: it breaks my heart every time I hear it. Or you hear it in reports about road accidents; drunks have killed a lot of parents."
But parenthood has changed his perspective on everything, mostly - in fact, seemingly overwhelmingly - happily. "It means you're suddenly finding huge joy in things such as a stick on the ground that previously you wouldn't have noticed, because your little boy has picked it up and had a great half-hour with it. Puddles! You look at the world really anew and that is very exciting."
Becoming a father wasn't on his agenda at all. "I was on my own for a long time. I lived in a flat on my own for 15 years and had various relationships which were completely wrong for me and I was wrong for them." A loss that has not been addressed properly creates the anxious expectation of more loss, as he has reflected elsewhere.
"If you become attached to somebody, you assume they're going to leave ... I carried this fear around and ended up behaving in a way that inevitably made it come true," he told Time Out magazine a few years ago. Jo Brand suggested he have therapy, which helped. Then he met children's author Katie Maskell.
"It was pretty obvious to me more or less immediately that I should pin her down or else it was going to be something I would regret for the rest of my life," he laughs.
They married in 2007, when he was 40. "And she definitely wanted to have a family. I think she waited about a year, just to see if I was going to turn out to be a terrible mistake, and then we started trying for a baby. And the funny thing about a baby is that, as the father, you can't really picture it until it comes out. The mother forms a relationship with it all the months she's carrying but when it comes to the day of the birth, you just want her to be OK. As long as she's OK, the baby - could take it or leave it.
"And then, from the first day, you start to build a relationship. It's up to you how closely you form that relationship."
He wasn't deterred by the cool relationship he had with his father, shadowed as it was by the constant anticipation of disapproval?
"No, no. My father fulfilled what was seen to be the role of a father in his generation and the generation before and there were certain areas of responsibility that just weren't for men. And that's fine until the woman dies."
He was lucky, as he readily acknowledges. He could stay at home for months. He loves his life now, but allows himself a little nostalgia for his pre-telly days on the comedy circuit. "You miss the camaraderie and the banter in the dressing room.
All that stuff. I know - it was so great at two in the morning when someone was peeing in the sink. But it sort of was, actually. Lots of great people were starting around the same time, people like Eddie Izzard; I met Jo Brand and Bill Bailey and all these people who are still friends of mine today."
Like them, he moved on to solo shows in bigger theatres on longer tours - including almost yearly forays to Australia in the mid-'90s - until, around 2000 he stopped touring. In 2011, he was persuaded to do a full stand-up tour in Australia. How was it? "Nerve-racking," he says, but chuckles. He's about to come back, after all. He loved it.
"I remember going to do a warm-up gig in London and this Canadian comedian called Mike Wilmot, who has been doing comedy as long as I have, looked at me," he says. "He must have clocked something in my eyes that probably only another comedian would spot and he said: 'You remember, enjoy yourself up there.' And I thought: 'Yes, yes, I'm always telling people that and I forgot to tell myself.' It is fun up there. It's good fun. That's the reason to do it. You've got the skills and the experience is in you, so once you've got the microphone in your hand and you're looking at the audience it all comes back and you can only defeat yourself, really."
Sydney Morning Herald