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Why things are looking up for Alan Davies

22 October 2013

While the funnyman enjoys success with QI and as a stand-up, Alan Davies' life hasn’t always been so sunny, as Amanda Riley discovers.

QI star Alan Davies
Alan Davies © Jay Brooks/Saga Magazine

Like so many comedians, Alan Davies comes across as serious, even gloomy. Today, the mop-haired, boyish 47-year-old lurches into our London studio wearing khaki cargo shorts, T-shirt – and trademark hangdog expression. Tired? Sulky? Hard to tell, but after our shoot (‘Could we have a smile, Alan?’ begs the photographer), the reason becomes clear, as he whips out his mobile phone to reveal a photo of two gorgeous toddlers, one with a mini mop of very fair hair, in what I take to be a paddling pool. ‘They’re in a washing basket in the garden,’ he helps me out, melting finally.

He is now a father to Susie and Robert and every parent will have experiences like these: ‘Every night has been broken for three years. Unless I’m on the road touring, I still wake at six or seven. If I read a book now, I fall asleep. It’s the constant fatigue of parenthood.’

The importance of childhood 

And he’s missing them. ‘You think about your children constantly and wonder what you thought about before. If you’re not with them, you wonder what they’re doing – and if you are with them, you need them to stop what they’re doing! But they bring us such joy – and I want them to be able to say, “I had a really happy childhood.” I know what it’s like to have a difficult one.’ 

His own childhood was deeply unhappy. His mother had leukaemia and he saw her in hospital a couple of times before his visits were stopped without explanation. He was six when she died, and he was not allowed to go to her funeral. He has said that the experience wrecked a large part of his life and he still thinks about his mother every day. 

The doctors had decided not to tell his mother that she was dying, a decision he describes as ‘brutal’. ‘Who knows what she might have said to us that we would remember the rest of our lives?’ 

Happy memories 

Yet one of his memories is making his mother laugh. ‘I was only three or four when we had a builder in the house. I said to him, “What’s your name?” and he replied, “Engelbert Humperdinck”. I didn’t understand but my mum really laughed. She was standing in the doorway. It was a big pleasure to hear her laugh. It’s tiny memories like that I have...’

By the age of eight, he was a shoplifter and a very troubled child. He spent a lot of time on his own and learnt to entertain himself, along the way becoming interested in comedy. Despite being ‘too dysfunctional to be the class clown’, he obviously had a gift, writing his own sitcom when he was 11 or 12. 

Then his father sent him from his home in Loughton, Essex, to an all-boys public school. ‘It was a hateful place,’ he says, citing the ‘elitism, snobbery and racism’ that probably accounts for the fact that he became a lifelong Labour Party voter. ‘Social injustice is important to me. Life isn’t about every man for himself. Life should be about co-operation and collaboration.’ 

Find out more about Alan Davies here

Dealing with depression

Despite his unhappiness he bagged eight O levels before moving on to Loughton College, where he discovered a talent for entertaining classmates with improvisations. He studied drama at the University of Kent, graduated in 1988 and performed his first stand-up gig at Whitstable Labour Club that year.

Unsurprisingly, he was struggling with depression. He’s said that making a roomful of people laugh is a nice feeling, but doesn’t agree that being a comedian is a form of therapy. Nor did it dispel his demons. That was to come years later. ‘I got into comedy for the applause and the attention, but it wasn’t working for me,’ he has said, adding that his relationships too were ‘a dysfunctional mess’.

In the end, fellow comedian and close friend Jo Brand recommended counselling – and years of therapy paid off. With endearing openness he says: ‘It took me a long time to meet the right person. Or to be able to tell she was the right person.’

But that’s exactly what happened when he met Katie Maskell, a literary agent’s PA, in 2005. ‘I met her in the green room at QI and we got chatting. I knew straight away. We hit it off. She’s funny.’ 

She’s also an actress, very pretty and 12 years younger than him. 

A prize winning author 

He encouraged Katie to take a year off to write a book and The Great Hamster Massacre went on to win Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize in 2010. They finally tied the knot when he was 40. 

If he’s morphed into the world’s fondest husband and father, Alan Davies has also evolved into a national treasure, like his best man Bill Bailey and fellow comedy (and QI) legend Stephen Fry. His Life is Pain tour has been hugely successful; he’s the most watchable panellist on QI; and now he’s filming a new clutch of Jonathan Creek whodunnits. 

‘There are going to be three 60-minute episodes – with a lot more of Sarah Alexander too – Sheridan Smith isn’t available.’ And next year he’s off on a tour of Australia with a new stand-up show. 

So which of his comedic hats does he like to wear the most? ‘Stand-up’s my thing. It’s what I’m best at,’ he says, after a ten-year break from it. ‘Being in my forties, I feel it’s a new start. I have more to say now – the good and bad things in marriage or parenting, elderly relatives who are a pain in the neck! There’s a dose of frivolity and nonsense – and having ailments, aches and pains…’

Aches and pains

And how does he feel about getting older? ‘Well, I’ve got ailments and aches and pains!’ he quips instantly.

‘I have enjoyed QI much more the past couple of years though. We’ve had a real revamp. The joy of QI is when the conversation takes an unpredictable turn and the comedy starts coming out; it’s full of joy, wit and spontaneity, though one or two people have stormed out of the studio at Stephen’s put-downs, which are all in the eye of the beholder, though!’ 

He may be laid-back now, but one suspects it wouldn’t take too much for an angry fire to flare up again. The tabloids had a field day when he attacked a homeless man in 2007. Drunk and emotional after the funeral of his friend, Jonathan Creek producer Verity Lambert, he bit the ear of a homeless man who had been shouting abuse at him. Two years later, he got into another brawl that left him with a fractured cheek.

The trouble with Twitter

He’s also got into trouble – to the extent of getting death threats, by being outspoken on Twitter. ‘I’ve never had an insulting word from people abroad, but dear old Blighty… I sometimes don’t know what’s wrong with people. It’s uncovering a grim side of our culture. It’s so sad. The other day I was reading about a British Lions game and the coach had left a team member out. It was a big decision but it paid off and the team won. After the game, he revealed that he’d received unbelievably vicious abuse on Twitter because of his decision. It was so bad he was thinking of walking away from being a coach.’

Does he still get abuse from his nearly 600,000 online followers?

‘I’m used to it, but when it’s about your wife and kids… People say to me, “Oh it will just be some kid, pay no attention”. If you believed that the people saying they wanted to do things to you were actually going to do them, you’d live in a cave, you’d never go out…

Keeping in contact 

‘However, what’s been really nice about it while I’ve been touring is that people come to the show and tweet things like, “I’m in row 4. You’d better be funny!” Afterwards I can go on Twitter and find out if they liked it. So you can have a bit of contact with people who come to the shows. That’s something that didn’t exist before.’

He’s on the road again with his Life is Pain stand-up tour. ‘A friend told me about a little girl of six who was being told off by her mum. She looked up at her and said, “Life is Pain”. That completely stopped her mum in her tracks! So I jotted it down.’

Being an older parent

It suits him to do three shows a week, spending the rest of his time at home in exclusive Hampstead, north London. ‘It’s great to see the kids running through the grass, eyes wide. I think: “You’d better be enjoying this. It’s costing me an arm and a leg”.’ He reckons there are other pluses to being an older parent ‘I am a bit older and wiser.  I hope I have a better understanding of what it is to be a person. Although I don’t have so much physical energy. When I carry both children up the stairs, I wish I was 24 again.’ 

Is he bothered about edging closer to the big 5-0? ‘It bothers me I’m nearer dying,’ he responds quickly. ‘I know what it’s like to be left too soon.’ But will he celebrate? ‘I’ll probably have a party for friends, and Katie and I want to go to New York, which is where we went on honeymoon’, he replies. 

‘In the days before children, Katie and I would be out on my Suzuki motorbike.’ He recalls taking the bike on a ferry to Spain. He grins: ‘There were all these people with big bikes and leathers. When they started peeling off their crash helmets, I thought, “You’re 68 if you’re a day!” 

‘That’ll be me, I hope.’

Read about Alan Davies' career on IMDb

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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