Alan Davies: "We’re making a mess of our culture."
On May 10, 1997, the first-ever episode of Jonathan Creek aired. The titular character was a quirky, young, single man with a penchant for solving mysteries. By the end of the series—a modest five episodes—it had accrued eight million viewers.
Fast-forward two decades and the character is still quirky, though slightly less young and no longer single. He continues to delight audiences, most recently in a 90-minute Christmas special.
Such longevity is coveted and increasingly rare in the fast-paced television industry—and a huge part of it is down to the show’s leading man, Alan Davies. Speaking about it, however, he’s typically self-deprecating.
“It only comes round every so often,” he says, referring to Jonathan Creek’s sporadic specials, “so people don’t really get sick of it. And a lot of care is taken with the script so that episodes bear repeated viewing and stand the test of time. They’re not dependent on any television gimmicks or anything that’s going to look dated in years to come.”
"I went along and picked up the prizes—it didn’t occur to me that I’d never be in a show that won a BAFTA again."
The character of Creek, of course, is key. “People like him because he’s a hero but he’s not all about fisticuffs and car chases. He’s got a sense of humour and he’s quite cerebral, so he’s a little different in that respect. He’s also got his own style and his own look,” Alan adds, warming to his topic. “Even his clothes don’t really go out of date. You watch an episode of Seinfeld now and—as much as I love it—in the 1990s they wore such weird clothes. It’s quite off-putting.”
By 1997, Essex-born Alan had already enjoyed years on stage as a stand-up comedian. Finding himself a regular on national television, however, swiftly catapulted him into a different league.
“I don’t think I really realised the significance of what was happening. We won the BAFTA award for the Best Drama Series in the first year, even though we’d come out of the comedy department at the BBC. I went along and picked up the prizes, and it didn’t occur to me that I’d never be in a show that won a BAFTA ever again,” he laughs.
Awards aside, he’s now a regular in many highly regarded shows, not least QI and Channel 4’s Damned. Audiences have got to know him as himself, but Creek remains a huge part of his life. Indeed, in many ways life has mirrored art, as both Alan and his investigative alter-ego have grown from young bachelors to married men.
“When I started I was 29 years old and I was about to embark on several years of psychotherapy for a traumatised childhood,” he says. “I was doing stand-up and radio, going to the end of a festival and never going to bed, and doing all the things that you do when you’re a young comedian. And now I do all the things you do as a married man with three children. My life is completely different. If I tried to lead the life I was living then, I’d make a fool of myself and have to go home.”
Alan has spoken openly about his difficult upbringing. His mother had leukaemia and passed away when he was six years old, leaving his father to raise three children alone. The psychotherapy Alan mentions was undertaken at the advice of his friend and fellow comedian, Jo Brand, and has had a remarkable impact on his life and happiness. Having dealt with some of his demons, he was in a good place when he met his future wife Kate, a writer, in 2005. They married two years later.
Becoming a father has made Alan reflect on his own childhood. “It’s sad, but I did have a moment when I realised that my daughter had reached the age I was when my mum passed away. I was able to calculate, knowing when my mum had died, that I was six years, five months and 16 days old—and I knew the day my daughter was six years, five months and 16 days old. I looked at her and listened to her and all the things she was interested in—all her ideas, her attitudes, what she wanted to eat for tea, what book she wanted to read and what shoes she wanted to wear—and I thought, Oh my goodness, I had all of that.
“I just thought of myself as a sort of faceless child. But a six-year-old is a fully living, functioning person in the world. They have got a lot to say and a lot going on. That gave me pause for thought.”
"People are absorbing a lot more content for free and 90 per cent of it is garbage. I find it a little bit depressing."
Alan’s personal circumstances aren’t the only thing that’s moved on in the past 20 decades. So, too, has the television industry.
“It’s changed almost beyond recognition,” confirms Alan. “Budgets have been slashed, viewing figures have plummeted and people are spending a lot of time on YouTube and social media when they could be reading books and watching good programmes. I find it a little bit depressing. People are absorbing a lot more content for free and 90 per cent of it is absolute garbage.”
As viewers of QI will know, when Alan begins a rant, it escalates with full, glorious, humorous force. “I get people sending me messages saying, ‘Would you like to look at my blog?’ I read four words of it and I know it’s going to be sh*t. People are consuming garbage on a massive, industrial scale.
“We must stop! Everyone writing boring blogs, stop writing them. Everyone posting terrible comedy videos on YouTube, stop posting them. Everyone just stop posting hideous garbage on the internet!”
He’s not finished yet. “For goodness’ sake, we’re making a mess of our own culture. We used to have good quality books, good-quality music, good-quality television and good-quality cinema only. And now we have rubbish across the board. Reality television? Rubbish. Soap operas? All rubbish. Even the news programmes now are quite often rubbish. Yes, they make the news rubbish!”
He takes a breath. “I’m proud that the shows I principally do—Jonathan Creek, QI and Damned—are made with the old school principle of really trying to make something good.”
The millions of eager viewers must agree. As for Alan, in addition to being a part of timeless programmes, his priorities are quite clear. “My concern really is that I can spend as much time as possible with the kids without being too tired and grumpy,” he laughs.
Not too dissimilar to Jonathan Creek, then. And with that, Alan is off on the school run.