'Everyone wants to throw their kids in the canal!' Alan Davies on parenting, the return of Jonathan Creek and QI without his old friend Stephen Fry
Quite Indiscreet – on how BBC bosses drove Stephen Fry off QI. Quite Illuminating – on why his Jonathan Creek special is too scary for kids. And, yes, really Quite Incendiary – on his shocking stand-up routine ... as Event meets the Quite Incorrigible TV supernerd!
The first time Alan Davies turned up to play the crime-solving magician Jonathan Creek, the crew didn’t know who he was.
‘I wasn’t in the first scenes so I sat there for ten hours talking to the make-up girl Ashley, who was very beautiful, then they sent me home. Next day the gaffer [head electrician] said to me, “Oh, it’s you in this, is it? I thought you was a very lazy prop boy.”’
The Bafta-winning Jonathan Creek is about to return for a Christmas special, with Alan Davies returning as the geeky genius who solves impossible crimes
That’s understandable because Davies was just a cheeky, up-and-coming comedian from Essex with poodle hair and a little-boy-lost look when the murder-mystery series started filming in 1996.
‘I was like, “I will have you know I am the star!”’
He’s actually as unstarry as it gets when he turns up at a north London cafe with his greying hair cut short and his coat zipped up against the cold.
He asks the staff very politely if they could turn the heating on, but when they can’t work out how to do it he suffers in silence rather than strop like a diva.
The Bafta-winning Jonathan Creek is about to return for a Christmas special, with Davies as the geeky genius who solves impossible crimes and Sarah Alexander as his wife – the latest in a long line of female co-stars that has included Caroline Quentin (who left to have a baby with a runner she met on the show), Julia Sawalha (who left after they split up as a real-life couple) and Sheridan Smith (who left to become a West End star).
These days he’s just as well known for being the resident fool on the long-running panel show QI alongside Stephen Fry, although he’s just lost his sparring partner there too.
Davies will give us the low-down on why Fry quit as host, and he’ll reveal what he really thinks of new host Sandi Toksvig.
Alan Davies with Stephen Fry on QI
He is also here to talk about a live DVD of his award-winning stand-up comedy, on which he is disturbingly honest about his failings as a parent.
But first, with Creek coming back, I want to know how he copes with being one of television’s more unlikely sex symbols.
‘I didn’t really cash in. Rather than running through the housewives of England like a dose of salts, I let it pass me by!’
He laughs because he had only just turned 30 when the show started and the fan mail suggested his character got a very passionate response from a certain kind of fan. He wishes he had taken advantage of that now.
‘Had I known the pleasures of an unattended 40-year-old woman, I would have filled my boots but I didn’t,’ says Davies, only half joking.
‘Instead, I went through a series of difficult, traumatising relationships, all of which were entirely inappropriate, then psychotherapy. Then I came out the other end and met Katie and all was well.’
He married children’s author Katie Maskell in 2007, having met her in the green room at QI where she was working as a PA to a literary agent for one of the guests.
His fellow panellist Bill Bailey was the best man. But he wasn’t quite out of the woods yet: Davies was still struggling with being famous.
‘I just wanted to work, go to see Arsenal, work, play a bit of football, work. I’ve never really been a person who goes to the opening of this or that club, out and about in town. It doesn’t sit with me at all. As soon as the photographers start going off, I want to throw things at them...’
Or worse, as it turned out. The year he got married, Davies also bit a homeless person on the ear. He had been drinking at the Groucho Club after the funeral of TV producer Verity Lambert when the man confronted him in the street.
Davies's new live stand-up DVD Little Victories features a story about the woes of parenting the audience actually finds quite unsettling
‘I was very upset and emotional. I remember this guy wanting to talk. After a while he started getting aggressive. I lost it a bit,’ said Davies at the time. ‘We had something of a tussle. I didn’t realise he was homeless.’
His new wife, who was there, said he was actually trying to speak to the man, close up, when the bite happened. But she also said: ‘Occasionally he f**** up. I don’t mind that. He’s never bitten me on the ear.’
He apologised to Liverpool fans and made a £1,000 donation to the Hillsborough Justice Campaign after mocking the club on a podcast, for not wanting to play on the anniversary of the disaster in which 96 people died.
‘I’m not drawn to controversy like some comics but there’s a line and I crossed it,’ he said. Davies also had to apologise and pay damages after retweeting a post falsely linking a Tory peer to a child-abuse scandal, after which he warned others of the dangers of Twitter.
QUITE INTERESTING FACTS FROM QI
- Scientists alive today outnumber all the scientists who ever lived up to 1980
- Dinosaurs didn’t roar; they mumbled or cooed
- The last note of The Beatles’ A Day in the Life is so high that only dogs can hear it
- The last time elephants were used in battle was during the Iran–Iraq war, in 1987
- London gets less rain than Rome or Nice
- Anthropologists can track human migration by examining ear wax
- After EastEnders, so many kettles are turned on that Britain has to draw power from France
- Each archer at the Battle of Agincourt had three arrows in the air at any given moment
- Sand wasps fly backwards out of the nest to make sure they’ll remember what the way home looks like
- 96% of people can tell the difference between the sound of hot and cold water being poured
‘1,342 QI Facts to Leave You Flabbergasted’ is published by Faber & Faber, £9.99
He’s still on there, but the account is used only to give details of his shows and favoured charities since his last post: ‘Twitter can be a cavalcade of cruelty, a cesspit of spite, but that’s not why I’m out. It’s not you it’s me. I’m retiring from tweeting to spend more time with my family.’
Davies and his wife live near Hampstead Heath and have three young children: Susie, six, Bobby, five, and Francis, who is 14 months old.
‘Katie is just about to turn 38. She’s kept the figure she had when she was 26. She just cruises through having kids, or appears to,’ he says.
He is exasperated by parenting sometimes – and admits it with breathtaking honesty. ‘Everybody really wants to throw their children in the canal at least once a week. But no one is allowed to say it because it’s verging on child cruelty. But it’s not child cruelty to think that, it’s perfectly normal – as long as you don’t throw them in the canal. That would be very bad!’
His new live stand-up DVD Little Victories features a story the audience actually finds quite unsettling, about taking Susie to the bike shop.
‘She immediately runs through the shop. She gets all the way down to where the helmets are and just when she’s there, she trips up and falls and smacks her head on the concrete floor within touching distance... I mean, you cannot make it up. It’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.’
There are murmurs from the crowd, so why tell a joke like that?
‘It’s fun to get a gasp every now and then. So of course I push out as far as possible by talking about being cruel to the kids. That doesn’t mean it’s completely untrue.’
Every parent gets frustrated and goes to the verge of losing it sometimes, he insists, however much they love their children.
‘My wife says, “How can you say these things? How can you laugh at the children hurting themselves?” ‘I’m like, “What, you’ve never done their shoelaces a little bit too tight? Never accidentally elbowed one in the head when you’re taking a coat off? You never just dropped one when it’s kicking you repeatedly in the groin and gone, “Oh f*** off then?” No? You’re a saint.’
There’s also a joke in his show about trying to get a wet swimsuit off his little daughter at the pool, where she yells that he’s hurting her and he worries about ‘alarm bells going off at Operation Yewtree’.
Isn’t he playing with fire and opening himself up to all sorts of accusations by making these kinds of jokes?
Davies with Sarah Alexander in the Christmas episode of Jonathan Creek
‘I joke at length about losing it with the children. It’s funny because it’s frightening. You can’t, and you mustn’t, and if you do lose your temper with your children – which everyone does, everyone yells at their kids – you always feel awful afterwards because they’re so small and they don’t understand and they’re terrified.
'You really have to manage your emotions around your children.’
There is one common parental coping strategy that he really disapproves of, though.
‘Drink-parenting is as bad as drink-driving. I never drink in front of the kids. I just think that’s wrong. I’m a big fan of alcohol, perhaps too much so, but not in front of the kids. Put them to bed, then you can open the bottle of wine.’
This comes from experience around north London, he says.
‘I see people in the park looking after their kids in the summer, p*****. And I think, “Well, that one’s going to fall in the canal any minute.” And sometimes they do. You can’t drink and parent, they do not go together.’
Davies looks tired today. Having so many children about the house is making him feel old.
‘It’s tough because I’m 50. I don’t feel it until I’m chasing them around. I think, “I should have done this 15 years ago.”
'But I hadn’t met Katie, so you can’t have everything.’
How much of his eagerness to be open and honest about the trials of parenthood comes from his own childhood?
‘Sometimes when I was a kid, the emotions around me were very squashed and sat on. There was a lot of bereavement and a lot of grief that was unexpressed and undealt with.’
Davies was six when his mother suddenly fell ill with leukaemia at the age of just 38. He was banned from visiting her in hospital because a doctor said it wasn’t healthy and was ordered not to tell his little sister what was happening.
Neither of them got to say a proper goodbye. He was not allowed to go to the funeral and the ashes were scattered with no marker Davies is an Essex boy but he comes from the well-to-do suburbs of Loughton and was made to go to his father’s old public school, which he hated.
‘My father’s now very elderly and he has Alzheimer’s and it’s all too late. They say you should talk to your parents before they die. No, you need to talk to them before dementia sets in.’
How is his father, Roy? ‘The medication is much better for Alzheimer’s now, so his decline has been quite arrested by that. The thing to do is to ask questions about the past, because there’s no short-term memory at all. My father was into rallying cars when he was in his 20s, so he has been telling me the names of all the car clubs, the types of cars they had, where the rallies were.
On QI's new host Sandi Toksvig: 'I'm her minder. If a joke doesn’t go well I’ll berate the audience'
'He can recall all of that from the Fifties and Sixties but he can’t recall what you said two minutes ago.’
For the past 13 years, Davies’s closest working relationship has been with Stephen Fry on QI. As fans have pointed out, there was a lot of flirtation between them on screen. Was that real?
‘That was really in the minds of the audience. I love being with Stephen and I do miss him. People have no idea just how good he was.
‘You see what a mess other shows are, how long they take to record and how the audience is in torment, then you go to a QI recording with Stephen in the chair and the two hours fly by – there are no pauses, barely a fluff on the autocue. Up-tempo, funny, sharp.’
Why did Fry leave when he was apparently at the top of his game?
Alan Davies with wife Katie Maskell at the Galaxy National Book Awards
‘For budget reasons, they ended up making him do three shows in 24 hours. Sometimes he’d go upstairs and have a vodka and tonic and a lie down then come back and say, “I don’t want to do this.”
'I sympathise, because I felt exactly the same way. It’s not fair.’
Did he consider leaving when Fry left?
‘With three small children and a mortgage, I’d be an idiot to jump ship. It’s one of the best jobs on the telly. I offered to go if they wanted a total clearout and I’m sure they thought about it but they kept me there.’
What is it like recording QI without his mate and sparring partner?
‘It’s absolutely right he’s stepped down. He didn’t want to do it any more. It’s a new era. We have a really good replacement. There’s a good atmosphere around the show. Sandi Toksvig is really good at it. I had a great time making the show. I was funny. I actually have a bit more room.’
How has his relationship with the host changed?
‘I’m her minder now, really. So if she does a joke that doesn’t go well I’ll leap in and berate the audience. “Oi, back off!” That kind of thing. But she’s exactly the right person.’
Is he allowed to be smarter?
‘Well, it doesn’t matter if I am. I might even win a couple now!’
In fact, he won the first three episodes of the new series of QI, now on Friday nights.
Jonathan Creek will be back at Christmas, so what clues can he give about that?
‘He’s all settled down with his lovely wife, but the past comes after him. There’s a brilliant comic sub-plot with Warwick Davis as the funniest vicar you’ve ever seen.’
Davies has never felt comfortable with fame. He prefers to do his job and enjoy watching Arsenal and spending time his family
He had said he’d never do Jonathan Creek again, but the script tempted him back.
‘This one is good, really good. Extra length, extra characters, extra storylines, extra mystery. Jonathan Creek is in real peril here, and I’m not going to tell you whether he gets out of it or not. It’s a scary one. Put the kids to bed.’
As he says this, with a wistful look, it’s easy to imagine a knackered Alan Davies collapsing with his wife at the end of a long day, with toys at his feet, having a good-natured moan about the little monsters and sticking the telly on, as happy as he’s ever been in his life.
And then – but only then – finally cracking open the wine...
‘Alan Davies: Little Victories’ is on sale now. ‘Jonathan Creek’ is on BBC1 this Christmas. ‘QI’, BBC2, Friday at 10pm
The comments below have not been moderated.
The views expressed in the contents above are those of our users and do not necessarily reflect the views of MailOnline.
We are no longer accepting comments on this article.