The Gig: The Devizes International Comedy & Ukelele Festival, The Corn Exchange, Devizes, Wiltshire.
The Date: October 1st 2010
The Line Up: Clive Cooper MCing for John Warburton, myself, an open mic competition, Joe Lycett and Jim Davidson.
It’s one in the morning, I’m sat in a hotel bar in Devizes with the comics I’ve gigged with that very night. This, in itself, is not hugely unusual for me. I’ll admit that it’s fairly unusual to find myself in a hotel at this point in the night rather than bleary eyed on a motorway somewhere but that’s by the by. I was sat in The Bear Hotel in the middle of Devizes enjoying a post-gig beverage or two with my comedic colleagues Greg Cook, Joe Lycett, John Warburton, Clive Cooper and Jim Davidson. Yep, that, Jim Davidson. Once the most widely viewed comic in the UK thanks to his stints presented the Generation Game and Big Break, Jim is beyond notorious for his political views in 2010 as a gentleman that is markedly right of centre. The very fact that he was playing the Devizes festival invited something of a backlash from the local press, condemning the organisers for building their event around a man widely held up as a beacon of racism, sexism, bigotry and intolerance. It had been quite a night.
Joe, possibly the last comedian you would ever expect to see on the same bill as Jim Davidson, was attired in his trademark woollen hat. I say hat, previous discussions of the garment have revealed it to essentially be a knitted tube, suitable for multiple uses. It’s the knitwear equivalent of a transformer and most versatile indeed. On this evening Joe revealed that it was initially designed to be suitable for rastafarians or anyone with fairly impressive dreadlocks. Their hair could be threaded through neatly yet the cunning garment would still keep their head warm without having to contain all their locks. As conversation pieces go, it was exactly the sort of gentle topic that suited a late night slightly tipsy chat.
Jim leant in…
“Do you know where Rastafarians come from?”
Oh my, I thought to myself, here we go…
A few months previously I’d been surfing the internet in my office. By my reckoning, if I spend at least half the time I’m online looking at comedy forums and promoters websites then I can pretty much consider that to be work. It certainly balances the time spent looking for obscure wrestling clips, Googling my name and refreshing my Facebook page. Googling my name generally only serves to confirm that I am currently losing the popularity race with Chris Brooker, hooker for the Harlequins rugby team. During a spell of concentration between trying to find a decent clip of Keiji Muto’s Shining Wizard I noticed that Greg Cook had posted on the Gigs Available section of the Manchester Comedy Forum. Essentially it said that comedians were needed to be part of the first ever Devizes International Comedy & Ukelele festival.
Normally I’m extremely wary of anything that offers to mix comedy with something else. Most of my truly, truly shocking gigs have seen a well-intentioned outsider attempt a night that fuses comedy with everything from poetry to pole-dancing. Comedy and karaoke proved that an alliterative poster does not a successful event make. Comedy and music proved that it’s far, far easier to play a scorching, shredding riff over an indifferent crowd’s chatter than get them to appreciate subtle wordplay and irony. Comedy and raffles… Well, you don’t fuck with the raffle. All things considered I was intrigued by the notion of comedy and ukelele together. Presumably not at exactly the same time, I didn’t fancy coming across as a much swearier George Formby. Ukeleles strike me as the sort of musical instrument that would mesh well with comedy. Cheerful, upbeat, light-hearted and blessed with a sort of infectious good-nature to them. Nobody ever wrote a dirge on a ukelele.
It sounded fascinating. It sounded fun. It offered money and a hotel room. That’s at least two more reasons than I normally need to accept a gig. I was interested. I dropped Greg a line and, much to my satisfaction, he got in touch rapidly and said that the gig was mine if I wanted it. The deal, as they say, was made. I put it in my diary and, if I’m honest, pretty much forgot about it and got on with my life. Time elapsed as time does…
About a month before the gig I was hard at work in my office again. As I surfed the internet I found myself back at the Manchester Comedy Forum. There’s a section of the forum specifically for posting links to anything that’s weird, wonderful or fascinating on the world wide web. As a rule, it’s normally something that involves cats with a poor grasp of English. (I think what he was trying to say was “Can I have a cheeseburger please?”.) One of the links was to a blog that had been written by Jim Davidson concerning a recent trip to The Comedy Store in London to see The Cutting Edge, their weekly topical show. His account of the night had proven to be somewhat controversial, even making it onto the front page of Chortle, arguably the UK circuit’s best known industry website.
The write-up gave away its direction rather early as it was entitled simply “Behind Enemy Lines”. Sadly it didn’t then share Jim’s exploits as he was guided stealthily around The Store with only Gene Hackman’s voice on a walkie-talkie for guidance. It did, however, go some way to expressing his point of view as a proper, old school comedian forced to endure a show of supposed comedy from those that peddle their trade from the alternative side of the tracks. As a means of researching his play about a confrontation between an old-school and an alternative comedian Jim was there to observe the, erm, competition. I say competition, there probably isn’t an immense crossover audience between Tuesday nights in Leicester Square and the immense theatres that Jim regularly sells out. Nonetheless Jim was there to observe and observe he did.
You may not be surprised to hear that his view of the night was almost unilaterally negative. Going into some detail about a supposedly topical night featuring five comedians he had never heard of. They included an Indian Poof, a northern man who looked like Stan Ogden’s older brother and a great big bloke, “the size of Giant Haystacks”, who played guitar and wove improvised songs out of events that had transpired during the night. From the description I recognized Paul Sinha, Mick Ferry and Mitch Benn from his account. For the most part, he seemed to dislike what he saw intently both onstage and off. Onstage he summarised it as a group of comics being offensive about people that are much more famous than they are. Offstage he summarised them as an “Awful, jealous, socialist bunch of c*nts” and made it explicitly clear how happy he was to have nothing to do with them, especially as they refused to have anything to do with him. The Indian Poof, apparently, had exchanged a few words of greeting and an older chap ( Martin Coyote I believe…) had been gracious enough to exchange pleasantries. The others, according to this particular blog, gave him the cold shoulder. His account painted the picture of a terminally unfunny night where he failed to crack more than a smile before leaving the rude, distant alternative comedians to their own devices and heading for his hotel. Five star naturally…
The Indian Poof, as it turned out, had a slightly different account of how the night had unfolded. Paul, in my mind both and excellent comedian and a fine human being, painted a very different account of the night. According to Mr Sinha, Mr Davidson had sat right in the centre of the front row and laughed uproariously throughout the first half of the show but missed a good sized chunk of the second half when he went off to use his phone. Paul went on to say that Jim returned after the show and was polite, chatty and pleasant. Despite their vastly different stances, the exchanges between them were anything but terse or impolite and Jim even quoted back a few of the lines that he’d especially enjoyed. A radically different account to that adorning Jim Davidson’s official website, where the reluctant interaction and ignorance of other comics was curiously absent. A case of “two sides to every story”? More likely a case of Jim deciding that a contentious piece would draw more attention than a balanced one. I Went To An Alternative Comedy Night And Had A Good Time. It may be true but it’s hardly going to grab the media in the way that Behind Enemy Lines did. A cynic might suggest that the intent was to push certain buttons. Regardless of whether it was intended, buttons were definitely pushed.
The furore spread across the internet was furore is wont to do in this day and age. It even achieved fairly widespread coverage on such reputable news and media sites as the BBC, The Guardian, Facebook and Twitter. The Manchester Comedy Forum was not immune and the debate intensified. Some were appalled, some were shocked, many weren’t. To paraphrase one poster “Notorious cunt in acting like a cunt shocker.” seemed to be the concensus. It was widely acknowledged that this would likely generate some buzz ahead of Jim’s play and life, for the most part, went on. Manchester Comedy Forum moderator and all round good egg Mike Fishcake may have summed it up best. “He’s probably only pissed off the people that hated him anyway and amused the people that already liked him so job done!” Was this his sole intention all along?
Then a comment caught my attention.
“Maybe Warby can ask him when he works with him in Devizes on 1st October.”
That rang a few bells, at least one of which was a fairy persistent alarm. Devizes on the 1st October? Ooh, he’s in town at the same time as the comedy and ukelele festival. Then the more sensible part of my brain caught up and, a quick rummage on the internet later, I confirmed that the star attraction for The Devizes International Comedy & Ukelele Festival was none other than the controversial, notorious bigot and self-confessed purveyor of domestic violence Jim Davidson. The debate on the forum took a new twist. Would you, or indeed could you, share a bill or even a festival with such a notorious figure of the anti-alternative comedy world as Jim Davidson? Some said no, most said nothing and nobody said yes.
I mused my stance on the matter. Technically, I thought to myself, I’m not actually sharing a bill with Jim Davidson anyway. He’s going to performing in the main theatre whereas myself and the other acts will be in the slightly more modest space underground. Much of the discussion centred around whether or not you’d be condoning his views by appearing on the same bill as he was. I’m not a political act and, I should probably be ashamed to say, not a hugely political person. My politics, probably best described as a sort of apathetic liberal-left, revolve mainly around the phrases “Treat people as you find them”, “If nobody’s getting hurt, what’s the problem?” and “Try not to act like a twat and everything should be alright.”
As a result I struggled to find the deep and justified displeasure at the thought of being co-promoted with a man that was described as “…The antithesis of modern comedy, our Moriarty, our deadliest nemesis.” by no less mighty a comedian as Wil Hodgson. Wil, a great comic that has never been afraid to walk his own line, had incredibly strong views on the subject. As a punk growing up in Chippenham he’s no stranger to being on the receiving end of intolerance and bigotry from the sort of folk that could be seen to be Jim’s target demographic. Fundamentally at odds with the Davidson ethos and extremely passionate about it, there was no way Wil would associate himself with any event that promoted him. To Wil, this would cease to be a comedy event and instead serve as a beacon to which bigots, racists and those with National Front tendencies would flock in order to get as close to a public rally as they were likely to get.
I could see Wil’s point of view and more than appreciate it. I, however, was overcome by a very different sentiment at this stage. Curiousity. How often would a comic in my position on the circuit have an opportunity to maybe examine and experience such an act and their audience from behind the curtain? I decided to keep the gig based on my overwhelming craving for what was no doubt likely to turn out to be an interesting experience. They say you should never judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes. I was unlikely to get a lend of Jim’s shoes but I might get to see him put them on backstage. I found the thought of my own excursion “Behind Enemy Lines” absolutely intoxicating. Besides, it’s not like we were gigging together. In all likelihood we’d just end up in the same building at different times, never to cross paths. It’s not like our audiences are going to cross over either…
“We regret that Jim Davidson’s show has sold out. Due to overwhelming demand he will also be performing at the late show in the cellar bar.”
That was what it said on the festival website the week before the gig. All of a sudden I’d gone from sharing a building with the nemesis of modern comedy to sharing a bill with him. What to do? Now there was no doubt in my mind that I’d find myself performing to a core of his fan base. There was no doubt in my mind that the late show would now be packed. Potentially packed with the type of people likely to point out in the street, with less than complete tact, that I am in fact ginger and should get my fucking hair cut. The sort of audience that wouldn’t give a toss about anything I had to say. A tough, tough gig in fact. Nonetheless I found myself salivating at the thought. I’d get a chance to draw my own conclusions and I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t an almost illicit thrill to it. I started counting the days.
On the afternoon of the 1st of October I jumped in my trusty Fabia and hit the M6 with Greg Cook, picking up Joe from Birmingham on the way through. Over the course of the journey we discussed the gig, the night and Jim Davidson at length. Greg, having supported him on tour numerous times, shared his perspective on the man in question. Greg painted the picture of a friendly, down to earth sort with plenty of time for everyone and a long history of work for the benefit of the British armed forces. A man who had been left behind by the sudden and rapid shifts in what was and wasn’t acceptable in polite society. Outspoken bigot or plain speaking man of the people? I wondered which, if either, I was going to meet that night. Greg also said that he considered Jim to be an excellent comedian.
Our car journey turned out to be something of an epic. Some six hours after we left Manchester, after my sat-nav decided that The Bear Hotel was in a row of garages behind a Spar, we arrived at our destination. I parked the trusty Fabia up in Devizes town square and headed for the hotel. On the way I couldn’t help but noticed the rather more impressive Aston Martin parked outside. Clearly all comedians are equal but some are more equal than others. Being the showbiz type I went to my room to freshen up. As a deeply juvenile man that rarely stays in hotels this involved little more than bouncing on the bed a few times and being impressed at the variety of toiletries on offer while eating my two complimentary biscuits. After a short while I headed out, met up with Joe and Greg and had some food in the hotel restaurant where we were joined by Clive Cooper, Greg’s frequent partner in crime on the slightly more mainstream comedy circuit.
I’d seen Clive once before at XS Malarkey alongside Greg in a double-act that was dubbed with the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin moniker of Cooper and Cook. Greg, as a comic, straddled both the mainstream and alternative comedy worlds working both the after-dinner circuit and clubs like The Frog & Bucket, The Glee and my place, The Cricketers’ Arms. Clive was much more firmly established within the more mainstream circuit and I enjoyed discussing the differences in how we both came to be part of the business. Starting out as a musician and DJ in working men’s clubs, Clive discovered that you got paid more if you were a comedian. As a result he threw in a few more gags each time he worked until he reached the point where he was more or less able to blag himself a job as a comedian. No open spots, no five minute try outs. Straight in at the deep end. It was completely unlike the tentative way I picked my way through the early days of five minute spots here and there.
We wandered over to The Corn Exchange where people were already starting to file in for the night’s entertainment. I played a game whereby I watched the folk on their way into the building and tried to guess which of them were there to see Jim Davidson and which were there to see us humble alternative comics in the room downstairs. It wasn’t always easy as many of them had the audacity to just look a lot like people. Joe and I found our way downstairs to the room that would host the first of two stand-up shows in the cellar of the building. At this point it became much easier to discern which of the patrons was there to see us. Absolutely none of them, the place was empty. We sat at one the tables and joked about how much of a draw we were in Devizes.
A ukelele band had started to set up on the empty stage in front of the empty room. Impeccably turned out, they looked like they’d fallen through a crack in time from the 1920’s. As a bearer of facial hair myself I was particularly impressed by the moustaches they had to offer. Seemingly unfazed by the prospect of entertaining empty chairs, they set about their preparations with gusto. It was at this point that we were joined by the anthithesis of modern comedy who, having been introduced to Joe a bit earlier, knew we were comics and pulled up a chair. I was almost annoyed when he turned out to be both polite and pleasant, happy to chat to both of us about our lives and his. He seemed particularly curious to pick our brains about our experiences on the alternative circuit.
It was, in many ways, deeply surreal. To sit making chit chat with a man that generates so much hatred and contempt from so many of my contemporaries, inside the industry and out of it. Jim didn’t appear to be evil but then again Robert Mugabe’s probably a right laugh if you catch him in a good mood. It transpired that the organisers had decided to surprise Jim with an award to mark all the good work he’d done for The British Forces Foundation over the years. Unfortunately they decided to tell the audience this while Jim was sat watching in the sound booth and the element of surprise was somewhat lost, a fact that Jim pointed out to them via the off stage mic. It was, in many ways, fascinating to watch a man with such a negative reputation chuckling away over a somewhat farcical yet good-natured cock up.
We sat in the empty room watching the band continue their preparations. Jim indicated his surroundings and mentioned that, in stark contrast, he was once making £250,000 a week. Yep, more than I’d make in a decade in the space of seven days. Obviously those days were long gone now. Joe, always more forward and honest than I could ever hope to be, asked the question that had crossed my mind. Does he still enjoy it? Jim paused for a second and then said no. Why then, asked Joe, does he still do it? The answer was simple… He needs to pay his bills and his bills are pretty big.
Shortly after we were joined by Greg, Clive and, fresh off his set in support of Jim upstairs, Warby as well. By this point the ukelele band had kicked off their set full of vim and vigour, intent on serenading the handful of comics that were present along with a few punters who had wisely popped down to take advantage of the quieter bar. The mood was cheerful, no doubt helped by the sound of the most unashamedly positive sounding instruments in the musical world. Warby had given good account of himself and they were, by all accounts, an enthusiastic crowd upstairs. Jim was generous enough to get a round of drinks in despite his plunge in earnings since the days of Big Break. Yes, I accepted a drink from the hands of Jim Davidson, which amused me somewhat as I wondered if any of my fellow comics might suggest I sold out at that point. I would hope, if I did sell out, that I’d be worth a bit more than a pint of Fosters.
The break came to it’s conclusion and we all wandered up to watch. I was intrigued at the prospect of seeing what was about to transpire. Was this going to be a comedy show or a rally? Would I be able to watch for long without finding something to offend? Would all the talk of Jim being, when all was said and done, an excellent comedian pan out?
I’ll say this much, it certainly wasn’t quite what I was expecting. More than anything else I presumed that his act would be little more than a barrage of old or recycled jokes. Yes, there were some old gags in there, some of which pre-dated my first steps on this Earth, never mind my first forays into the world of comedy. For the most part his work on stage was anecdotal, recalling incidents as he travelled the world with his job. I was surprised to hear him leap to the defence of Jimmy Carr over the jokes he made about returning servicemen from Afghanistan creating a phenomenal paralympics team. The veterans themselves, having lived through some pretty horrific circumstances, clearly had a sense of humour and thought the joke was fabulous. Those a step or two removed were horrified and so, of course, were the tabloid press. Jim went on to tell some stories about veterans he’d met, managing to wring genuine humour out of their tragedy without once making them the butts of the jokes. It was very impressive.
Then he made a joke about chinks.
This is more like the comedy I was expecting. Essentially the joke was that the Chinese are especially good at table tennis because of their eyes. They see the world in a different resolution. I’ll be honest, I can’t remember the exact wording of the joke itself. I do recall exchanging a look with Joe as the carpet was whipped from under our feet after the genuinely touching and well-crafted stuff that had preceded it. Jim made a quip about political correctness and not giving a fuck. Those in attendance cheered raucously and it appeared, for a moment, that the rally part of the night had begun.
Then he mentioned Chalky. Oh my word. The well known character he used on stage with the thick West Indian accent during his time as a stand up, going all the way back to his time on New Faces in in the 1970s. I wasn’t looking forward to seeing what sort of response that this tired, cliched, exploitative facet of his act would receive from the all but exclusively white, anglo-saxon audience that was present. He started in the accent and then he stopped.
Then he told the story of Chalky.
Chalky, he said, was based on a lad he went to school with growing up in the east end of London. One of his closest mates was black and, for the entire time they were at school together, they both spoke exactly the same way. Then, a few months after they’d left school and parted ways, he bumped into his friend again. Now, however, he’d grown out his beard and dreadlocks and spoke in thick rastafarian patois. Jim was astounded at the change until his mate beckoned him in and said in his old East London accent… “I’ve gotta talk like this round me mates now.” It was an unexpected level of revelation. All of a sudden something I’d known for sure a few minutes earlier wasn’t quite so certain any more. This was genuinely interesting and personal stuff, delivered in a genuinely funny manner.
Then he asked the crowd what kind of immigrants they had around there and the carpet came back out from under us again. Such was the way the gig progressed, a baffling mix of genuinely funny and often touching material that was frequently interspersed with something exceptionally dubious to even my apathetic liberal-left politics. In between the cheap lines and outdated terms there was some genuinely brilliant comedy. More than anything else I found myself wondering why he kept going back to words and jokes that would only cement his reputation as a bigot.
I wondered. Joe asked.
Yep, he asked.
I wasn’t there for the moment but I was told, both by Joe and by other witnesses, that he’d actually gone up to Jim after the gig and asked why he’d felt the need to use a word like “Chink”. Why use that word, with it’s myriad of negative connotations, when he was a good enough comedian and performer that he didn’t need to. I was full of respect for Joe at this point, being straight and actually questioning this twenty-five year veteran over something in his set. Not aggressively, not in a confrontational manner… Just in a genuine quest to find out why he felt he had to resort to such words. I’m sorry I missed this moment, I would have liked to have been there. Chances are that Jim Davidson isn’t accustomed to having people ask him questions like that rather than scurry off to bitch behind his back or complain. I wondered if it had given him food for thought and I applauded Joe for actually saying something that I was thinking.
Jim had, as you might expect, absolutely torn the roof off of the gig upstairs. At the end of his set he mentioned that he would be performing downstairs with some of the comedians he’d met recently and it would be great if everyone could come join them. Shortly after the previously empty room downstairs was absolutely heaving, a sea of people wherever you chose to look. This was a huge contrast to the void that had been there earlier. Shame the ukelele players weren’t there to take advantage of it. We all met up in the corner of the room to go over the revised running order. The gentleman in charge, Mark, suggested that he run the show in two halves. Warby opening, then Jim, then the open mic competition, then me and then Joe after the break. I raised a genuine concern that everyone might well fuck off once Jim had been on stage. This would hardly be best use of our resources. Mark was fairly adamant until Jim agreed with me and suggested we go with a running order of Warby, me, open mic, break, Joe and then him to close. The deal was made and the night began.
Clive was MC for the evening’s festivities and started warming the audience up with a combination of charm, friendliness and a selection of good, old-fashioned gags. Warby, despite being somewhat concerned at having only just performed a full set in front of the same audience, did the business once again with a mix of banter, material and the last ever public performance of his Howard From The Halifax song. Yes, the same one that he performed for the last ever time at my Keighley gig back in June. Shame on you Warburton, shame.
Then it was my turn. I wondered how I was set to fare with the same audience that I’d seen hanging on Jim’s every word upstairs. I heard Clive introduce me and it was time to go. My ten minutes absolutely blasted past, helped by some fun interaction with a chap in the front row as I went through my west country/sheep shagging routine. I will readily confess that this wasn’t my smartest material. Nonetheless it all seemed to go over well and I decided to close on Dance/Wank, not something I generally do with a shorter set as it calls for a certain amount of goodwill from an audience to set up. I needn’t have worried, they lapped it up and were joining in for the finale with no shortage of enthusiasm. Let’s call a spade a spade… While we were all in this together with the aim of putting on a great gig collectively we all knew and noted the subtle undertones of mainstream verses alternative. I am by no means the most alternative alternative comedian out there, by most people’s scales I’m probably on the more mainstream side of things. Nobody wanted to be the one to drop the ball for their respective tonight and I was more than a little relieved that it went so well. Having Jim there was an odd sort of pressure too. I didn’t so much want to impress him as I wanted to make sure that I didn’t suck.
It was then time for the finals of the open mic competition. In an interesting move, local pubs had been asked to hold their own heats to find someone to go into the finals. In what might be considered a slight tactical error they then had to perform a minute of material apiece in front of an audience that was already slightly impatient for more of the star performer that they had paid to see. As a result, when the first act came on and didn’t exactly set the room on fire, he was soon lost in background noise and chatter. I took this as an opportunity to nip outside for some fresh air, fearing that the rest of the competition would be absolutely excruciating. Apparently my fears were unfounded as the eventual winner acquitted himself well but I missed the whole thing.
When the break started the bar was absolutely swamped so I cunningly made a beeline for The Bear next door to sneak a drink in. When I got there I saw Jim chatting to a West African gentleman that had been working security at the hotel. They were joking, laughing and clearly getting on like a house on fire. Jim asked whereabouts he was from and was soon exchanging tales about the region from his own travels as well as notes and observations about the culture. I really, honestly couldn’t tell you where the man had said he was from and I couldn’t place his accent. It was with great shame that I realised that West Africans all kind of look and sound the same to me. Yes, one of the nation’s most notorious bigots was stood laughing, joking and conversing with a gentleman of very different origins to his while I stood in the background with my apathetic liberal-left dick in my hand. It was an immensely humbling moment of perspective.
We all headed back to the Corn Exchange for the second part of the show. I had accepted another drink from Jim which no doubt firmly cemented my position in the other camp for all eternity. Clive kicked the show off and introduced Joe to the stage. Joe, being in many ways the antithesis of the mainstream comedy world, was concerned that his trip out to perform in front of this audience would lead to a slow and inevitable death. Soft spoken, intelligent, intellectual and charming… Joe is considerably further along the alternative curve than I am. On paper, exactly the sort of comedian that you’d expect to struggle in front of an audience built of Jim Davidson’s fanbase. He needn’t have worried, Joe was a hit. Without changing his set or gameplan a jot he soon had everyone in the palm of his hand. Thus far the last minute, late night comedy club downstairs had been a hit. Three very different comedians and each one had knocked it out of the park. Then came time for the night’s star attraction.
During the break Jim had come up to me, jokingly jabbed me in the arm and had a good natured pop at me for being inconsiderate enough to raise the bar. I took this with a pinch of salt as the source of the ribbing had been telling jokes for a living for at least a year longer than I’d been alive. In relative terms I was but a minnow, a tiny fish in a tiny pond compared to the ocean that Jim had been swimming in for the best part of five decades. A mainstream icon of comedy known and loved or despised by pretty much everyone in the country. Over the years he must have gigged before literally millions of people across the world. Why would a handful of people in a cellar bar in Devizes matter a jot to him?
As Joe came off stage I was alerted to the presence of beer and sandwiches in the cellar bar green room. Beer and sandwiches? I didn’t even know there was a green room. Naturally I headed back to take advantage of the hospitality that was on offer. It’s never wise to leave me unsupervised with a large tray of sandwiches. I emerged with a beer in my hand and enough sarnies on board to effectively turn me into some sort of carbohydrate piñata. I perched myself off to the right of the stage with Clive, Joe and Mark and watched Jim’s set unfold. I braced myself for more of the same as we’d seen upstairs.
Something was different. Something was very different. It became apparent that Jim hadn’t just been ribbing me when he threw out the line about raising the bar. None of us wanted to be the one to drop the ball that night and it looks like that mindset proved to be somewhat infectious. He took to the stage like a man with something to prove and commenced to deliver a watertight barrage of extremely funny stand up. Noticeably absent were throwaway lines about how we were prisoners of political correctness or anything designed to get a quick, maybe even cheap, response. Instead the select few in the cellar bar were treated to a rather impressive mixture of quick fire gags, anecdotes and a bit of physical comedy around a tale of a one night stand and an electric toothbrush that had me in genuine hysterics. Clearly Jim Davidson can go when he wants to.
Then, my friends, something happened that I wouldn’t have predicted for a moment.
Jim was telling a joke about being in a hotel and ringing out for a “masseuse” to come and see him. Eventually he gets through to the number and says “I want three girls… I want a russian girl, a thai girl and a ch…” He paused, turned and looked to Joe, who was stood next to me. “…And a chinese girl?”
We were caught entirely off-guard. I can’t claim to know whether he was about to utter the word “chink” and then changed his mind but that would appear to be the case. Maybe he was just humouring Joe and the rest of the right-on alternative boys. Maybe he was genuinely going out there to prove that he didn’t need to use particularly emotive and often offensive terms to get a response. Joe’s reasoning earlier had been that Jim didn’t need to go down that route to get people to laugh. Maybe Jim agreed, maybe he didn’t. Maybe it gave him some food for thought, maybe it didn’t. Either way, watching him slam the handbrake on mid-gag because of something that an act many, many years his junior told him offstage was quite remarkable. Was this going to be an epiphany for the nemesis of the alternative stand-up circuit? Was this going to be the moment where he changed his ways forever?
No, probably not. That said it was quite an incredible moment to witness in person and certainly one that I won’t forget in a hurry. Jim continued on with his set. If he’d ever been worried that we’d set the bar too high then it certainly didn’t show as he hurdled it with apparent ease. A sceptic could argue that the blistering response he received was due to his celebrity status, specifically in front of an audience there to see him. That night even the sceptics would probably have to concede that he deserved every single laugh that he got. A criticism I’ve levelled at poor examples of the old-school comedy community in the past is that their sets have no build, they just continue along at the same level throughout. Jim’s set built and built to a crescendo of humour that didn’t seem to let up for the last five minutes of his time on stage. This wasn’t “Let’s have a cheer for our brave fighting men and women!” or “Coming over here taking our jobs eh?” button pushing. This was a comedian of nearly forty years experience showing the skills that got him his place in the hierarchy to begin with.
The comedy club night had been a resounding success. After Clive thanked everyone and wrapped the night up there was a queue of folk to meet, greet and have their photo taken with Jim or get his autograph. Occasionally they would pester me too, mainly because I had a pen on me. Mark, the man behind the event and liaison for the Armed Forces Foundation, came over for a chat with me during this impromptu meet and greet. He let slip that Jim had been genuinely nervous as hell before the cellar bar gig. For many, many years Jim had only performed in theatres in front of thousands of people. A theatre stage, even at a comedy gig, is like a boundary or a safety zone. You’re distant from your audience, elevated above them and in a position of authority before you even open your mouth. Throw in a healthy dose of celebrity and you’re often winning before you’ve said a word. There’s every chance that Jim hadn’t played a packed, intimate gig in decades. There’s something very real about that sort of gig, something very immediate. There’s no smoke or mirrors. Your audience is right on top of you and you will live or die on the strength of your skills as a comedian rather than your reputation as a rabble rouser or having been on the telly. This is as real as it can possibly get and, to add to that pressure, there were enemy agents in from the alternative world all itching to report back gleefully that, when push came to shove, Jim Davidson was a shit comedian.
I’ve often referred to the fear that, no matter what a comic’s accomplishments, they’re only one gig away from the show where they’re exposed as a charlatan. On this night in Devizes Jim Davidson hadn’t just gone behind enemy lines to watch, he’d gone there to work. He’d made and lost millions, he’d been loved and hated in equal measure by people from all walks of life, he’d been beamed into a nation’s front room on a Saturday night before the days of X-Factor and Strictly Come Dancing. Self-confessed alcoholic, homophobe, bigot and purveyor of domestic violence… His reputation precedes him to the point that he can sell out any room in the country and simultaneously aggravate the local press months in advance. What was there left to do? Maybe, just maybe, there was a part of him that wanted to know that he could still get the job done when it mattered. I suspect he left the stage feeling like he proved it beyond any doubt. Maybe, just maybe, he enjoyed himself too in spite of his assertion earlier in the night that the fun had long since vanished for him. His set was excellent and there certainly wasn’t anything in there that would have raised eyebrows at The Frog, The Store or any of a dozen other alternative clubs.
The queue of folk waiting to shake his hand was quite a long one. Many of those in attendance had friends or family that served with the armed forces. They all took time to thank Jim for the work he’d done as part of the BFF and the work he’d done entertaining the troops abroad. These were folk with sons, daughters, nephews, nieces, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts and parents serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. I read about it, I see it in the news but I’m personally untouched by any of it. None of my family or friends are in the military so I can only begin to imagine what it must be like to have people you love in a war zone, never knowing if today’s the day you get the call you’ve been dreading. To every one of them Jim was a hero, an everyman doing his bit for our boys and girls in the Persian Gulf. They saw someone unafraid to say the things that get you thrown off of the TV and lambasted in the papers.
I like to think that I watched and listened more than I spoke throughout the events of the evening. It was certainly a night to examine my own preconceptions. “Jim Davidson is a cunt.” That could almost be one of the ten commandments of alternative comedy, such is the frequency with which it’s mentioned on the circuit. I can think of at least three comics off the top of my head that actually use a variation of that phrase as part of their set. Good comics too. I can understand why. Jim has, over the years, become a totem of everything that the new wave of comedy born in the early ’80s was opposed to. Merely denigrating him on stage at a comedy club often gets a huge cheer. Ironically, the same sort of reflexive cheer that Jim got when he said that political correctness can fuck right off.
Rather inconsiderately though, Jim Davidson had proven himself to be anything but a cunt over the course of the night. He’d been friendly, approachable and good natured to me, the other acts and indeed anyone that saw fit to approach him. Notorious as he may have been for bigoted terms on stage, his actions off stage appeared to be anything of the sort as he had time for everyone regardless of creed, colour or gender. How much of the Jim Davidson that is reviled in the press is genuinely him and how much of it is the image that he’s sculpted for himself over the years? Let’s face it, he’s a shrewd businessman and knows exactly how to push the right buttons to maximise publicity. Does he genuinely believe everything he comes out with or is it the spirit of the carney, saying whatever he needs to say to get the most column inches and still convince his loyal fanbase that he’s the last man that tells it like it is? I’m not entirely sure. Where does the man end and the gimmick begin? I’m not sure. After nearly forty years I suspect Jim’s not entirely sure sometimes either. Much of the time I got the impression of a man still struggling to keep up with a world that changed radically, where the words he grew up seeing as mere words have taken on the power to torpedo a career if spoken on air or on the record. He certainly didn’t seem to be a hateful man in himself, just someone that’s been in the spotlight for most of his life. Fame’s a funny thing, the moment you attain it you can become frozen in time at that moment. Every so often I’d chat to Jim and get the feeling he was still the twenty-one year old lad from London that became famous overnight. Only now he’s stuck in a fifty-six year old body wondering exactly what the fuck just happened. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like him.
After the show was over we headed next door to unwind and sink a few pints before bed. it was one in the morning, sat in a hotel bar in Devizes with the comics I’d gigged with that very night. We laughed, we joked, we bullshitted. I had far too much fun ribbing Clive about a joke in progress of his about a pet-friendly hotel. The conversation turned to Joe’s rather impressive knitted headgear and it’s suitability for the rastafarian gentleman about town.
Jim leant in…
“Do you know where rastafarians come from?”
Oh my, I thought to myself, here we go. A few beverages and out come his true colours.
Jim explained the origins of the Rastafarian faith in fascinating meticulous detail. His knowledge of the subject in hand was most impressive and he spoke with genuine interest and passion. I, for my sins, was rather drunk at this point and completely failing to take as much of this impromptu history lesson in as I would have liked. All I could do was sit there and listen to him with my apathetic liberal-left cock in my hand feeling somewhat ashamed of myself. I’d automatically thought the worst and been completely wrong. My assumption was based entirely on my preconceptions of the man speaking. Did that make me something of a bigot?
Then again if someone had taken me aside a month earlier and told me that I’d soon find myself in a bar in a hotel in Devizes being educated in black history by Jim Fucking Davidson I probably would have laughed myself crimson. Funny how the world turns. After a couple more pints I bid everyone goodnight and went to my room. After the events of the night I couldn’t sleep for the way my mind was turning over. I ended up having a long, hot shower to try and quieten the maelstrom in my head. It had been quite the night and I certainly wasn’t quite sure about some of the things I’d been certain of twenty-four hours previously. I wonder if there’s anything else I’m wrong about.
There was a farmers’ market outside the hotel the next morning. I bought a steak and ale pie. You know where you stand with them.
Gig Score: 8/10
Lesson Learnt: Never prejudge an audience, a lesson I’ve learn many times over in the past and yet one that I still need to be reminded of.