Television does strange things to people. I don’t mean the experience of being in front of a camera does strange things to a person’s self-image, though it probably does. I just mean it makes people look different. David Starkey, for instance, is much shorter and fatter in real life. Alan Davis is much bigger, older, and somewhat more sombre than he appears on screen.
The impish star of Qi and Jonathan Creek began his career in stand-up comedy, with trademarks of zany silliness and extremely curly hair. Jonathan Creek was the show which brought him to national attention, zaniness and silliness reappearing in a larger role, in the show’s rather improbable plots. As the regular panellist on Qi in recent years, Davies has found his niche, brilliantly playing off Stephen Fry’s attempts to bring gravitas and edification to the Great British public.
Davies surrendered a few minutes to us when we spotted him in the Maths Faculty on St Giles – he was waiting to film in the lecture theatre we had just vacated. He was in Oxford on a slightly unexpected mission – making a documentary about maths with Marcus Du Sautoy, the don who recently took over Richard Dawkins’ chair in the Public Understanding of Science. ‘I’m the guinea pig who stopped learning maths after his times tables’, he explained, ‘Marcus is going to explain all these clever concepts to me in very simple language’.
I put it to him that Oxford’s quite a Qi-ish sort of place, and he agreed, pointing out the short-lived Qi Club on Turl Street, which still features the logo etched into its glass door. When I admit having heard of it but never visiting, he laughs. ‘That was the problem; everyone said ‘yeah, I heard about that place, what happened to it?’ The people of Oxford completely failed to support it.’ He suggests that the proliferation of coffee table books inspired by the show (currently up to five) was intended to make up for the club going bust. The Qi brand is certainly still strong, going into it’s sixth series and moving to BBC One, something Davies expressed some trepidation about.
A loyal follower of the show like many students here, I sometimes wonder if our faith in Stephen and chums is such that we’d believe them even if they told us gravity was a piece of General ignorance. ‘Funnily enough’, Davies began, ‘they did diligently go through all the mistakes that they made in the special features on the series’ DVD.’ The show has always had a team of researchers – the voices at the other end of the little headphone in Fry’s ear. Problem was, to begin with they weren’t always, well, listened to. ‘Stephen would ignore the researchers – he would decide that the research was a bit boring and tell and anecdote about John Gielgud instead. The problem was, Stephen was getting a few things wrong. What you really want on the DVD is the naughty stuff, but on Qi we had chastened producers reciting facts.’
Far too much of a gentleman to respond properly when asked if any of the less frequent panellists had to be carried by their more talented comrades, he speaks affectionately of the camaraderie. ‘A lot of panel games people are quite rude to one another’, but Qi works simply because the panellists are nice to each other. ‘It’s the same reason people like watching Jackass – you just sense they’re all enjoying it together.’ The original plan for Qi had been to mix comedians and academics, something taken up on Radio 4’s The Museum of Curiosity (which Davies has appeared on), though dropped from the TV show because the academics were apparently insufficiently funny.
Does Davies miss doing Jonathan Creek? No, because he hasn’t stopped – a new episode will air on New Years’ Day. Once again, the complex plot may confound us all: ‘I was in it and I didn’t work it out’, he said, refusing to divulge the mystery’s solution. He’s equally reluctant to be drawn on the possibility of a new series, though it seems unlikely. ‘It was a bit of a reunion’.
It’s probably been apparent, but I think Davies is a rather nice chap. That’s the impression you’d get from Qi or his stand-up, and it’s certainly the impression he gave in person. I lacked the rudeness to ask about it, but I’m pretty much prepared to believe any kind of extenuating circumstances he might give for the whole ‘biting a tramp’s ear’ incident last year. Blinkered perhaps, but I couldn’t think ill of the amiable pescetarian who tolerated two bumbling hacks one bleary-eyed morning. He even managed to express interest in student journalism, and he expressed his guilt at ‘taking the shilling’ by writing for The Times after feeling disgusted at Murdoch and Thatcher’s treatment of the unions so many years ago. In person, Davies was almost as spaced-out as he appears on screen (though less garrulous), which made me question the assumptions I’d made about his state of mind on the show. All in all, this was a relatively easy mystery to solve: older and bigger than he appears on screen, but just as spacey, and just as nice.