The Brief's Alan Davies flanked by his co-stars Cherie Lunghi and Christopher Fulford
From his star turn as the clever, observant, and often put-upon magician’s assistant/amateur detective in the hit BAFTA award-winning BBC mystery series Jonathan Creek to his one-man comedy act as well as current gig as a regular on the engaging and highly amusing TV panel show Q!, English comedian, actor, and writer Alan Davies delivers a performance that is always sure to please his fans.
In 1998, Davies co-wrote and starred in his own BBC7 digital radio sitcom The Alan Davies Show. He was then cast as Russell Boyd in the BBC sitcom A Very Splintered Thing, followed by Bob Gossage in the comedy/drama Bob & Rose, a TV movie about a gay man falling in love with a woman (Leslie Sharp). His performance netted Davies a Best Actor role at the Monte Carlo TV Festival.
When Jonathan Creek ended its regular run in 2004, the actor took on a much different role in The Brief. From the creators of Inspector Morse, the series stars Davies as Henry Farmer, an extremely talented criminal law barrister whose personal life is equally as interesting (and a little bit more tumultuous) as his dealings inside the courtroom. A gambler, a divorcee, and an unlikely candidate for father of the year award, Henry’s laundry list of problems include gambling debts, an affair with an important politician’s wife (Zara Turner, Sliding Doors), a distant son, and a sharp-tongued father who just happens to be a judge.
Having originally aired on ITV in Britain from 2004 to 2005 and later syndicated on PBS (Public Television) in the U.S., The Brief was released last month on DVD by Acorn Media here in America. Along with Davies, the eight-part, one-hour series features a number of other faces well known to TV Anglophiles, among them Cherie Lunghi (The Buccaneers), George Innes (Upstairs, Downstairs: Series One), Alastair Mackenzie (Monarch of the Glen), and Christopher Fulford (Whitechapel).
Born in Loughton, Essex, England and raised in nearby Chingford, Davies was in his mid-teens when he began to mull over possible career options. “When I was 16 I dropped out of school and enrolled in a local further education college [Loughton College] that ran courses largely for people who dropped out school,” he notes. “I took a media studies course because I was thinking of maybe becoming a writer. They also had a drama option and I ended up doing a couple of plays. Afterwards I thought, ‘Hey, I can do this [act].’ I just found that I really enjoyed doing it.
"From there I studied drama at the University of Kent at Canterbury, and in my final year I started doing comedy. Since then, I’ve never really thought about doing anything else, once, of course, I realized that I was never going to play professional football,” jokes Davies.
Although Davies is very much at ease today performing on stage in front of a live audience, it was the exact opposite when he first stated out. “I was absolutely terrified,” he recalls. “At the same time, it was a completely exhilarating experience to go from total fear to elation in a matter of minutes. There really isn’t anything like it apart from parachute jumping. It’s for adrenaline junkies. It really should be featured in the Pepsi Max adverts for severely extreme games,” says the actor with a laugh.
“It’s a scary business until you get the hang of it. You spend the first couple of years performing at comedy clubs, and you go down well some nights and other nights not so well. You really can’t put your finger on why you’re getting laughs one night and not the next. There’s no way to learn it, you’ve just got to go out there and do it. I made a lot of friends in those first few years and it was good training for me.”
Besides The Brief and Jonathan Creek, the actor’s other small screen work includes the TV movie The Good Housekeeping Guide as well as guest roles in Marple: Towards Zero, Hotel Babylon, Inspector Lewis, and Little Crackers. Davies also reprised his role of Jonathan Creek in two one-off TV specials, "The Grinning Man" (2009) and "The Judas Tree" (2010) as well as played the starring role of Roland White in the 2010 series Whites. What are some of the challenges that he finds with acting as opposed to stand-up comedy?
“It’s a challenge to concentrate and produce a performance that’s broken up into tiny fragments over a ten or twelve-hour day,” he says. “That’s a real skill of a great film actor. You hear about ‘method’ actors who stay in character all day long. I think you’d go absolutely mad if you tried to do that, and I have tried it. I look at people like Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci and ask myself, ‘How did they do that? How did they keep up that level of concentration and intensity?’ I think it’s intuitive and just something they can do. It’s really hard to concentrate like that and get it right. It’s a totally different skill from comedy, which is spontaneity, energy and adrenaline when you’re working with a live audience.”
Of all his roles, Davies is still recognized by his fans from Jonathan Creek, and he has no complaints at all. “The show was originally made by the comedy department at the BBC, and by their standards it was a very big budget commitment,” explains the actor. “We ended up winning a BAFTA, which is the most prestigious TV award that you can win over here, and everyone was very pleased about that. We won it in the Best Drama category, which might have put some peoples’ noses in the BBC drama department out of joint. It was like, ’Who are these upstarts from comedy cooking up a bit of drama?’
“I think that’s the appeal, though, of Jonathan Creek. Without wishing to sound a bit cliché, you get the best of both worlds. You get the very, very good whodunits, which are extremely popular. I can remember watching Ellery Queen when I was a kid and people still love him. Shows like Inspector Morse remain hugely popular today, as well. When you get some really smart, clever and understated comedy playing alongside the sort of well-written drama that we had in Jonathan Creek, then it’s a recipe for success. I’ve had people say to me, ‘You’re always going to be remembered for being Jonathan Creek. Does that worry you?’ and I’ll think, “Worry?’ There are thousands of actors in Britain alone who’d like that for a worry.
“I’m proud of Jonathan Creek, and I want to stay proud of the shows I’m in and the work I do. I once did a series of TV commercials for a bank over here, which was a bit of a gamble on my part because as a comedian you’re supposed to be this maverick, independent voice. If all of a sudden you turn up on TV doing bank commercials it looks like a bit of a sellout. I made a point, though, of having some input into the scripts and we had John Lloyd directing them. He’s a living legend in comedy here in Britain and we made something good.
“So I’m not embarrassed about them, and I think if you’re going to have a rewarding career you’ve got to do work that, again, you’re proud of and want to show people so when someone stops you in the street and says, ‘Oh, I saw you in ,’ you’re not thinking, ‘Oh, God, what have you seen me in? I hope it’s not something awful.’ I think that’s the secret to it. You make good money when you’re at the top in TV, but that’s not the motivation, and neither is celebrity for its own sake. I truly think it’s about doing quality projects, if, of course, you’re lucky enough that they land on your desk.”
The above quotes from Alan are from an extensive interview I did with him several years ago. Please note, all The Brief photos copyright of ITV, while the Jonathan Creek photo of Alan and series co-star Caroline Quentin is copyright of the BBC.