I felt a sense of betrayal.
Two days earlier, I had interviewed Jim in front of a live audience for 2 hours at The Backyard Comedy Club in East London. To the best of my knowledge, there were no media people there so I figured that one of my friends from the comedy industry (several comics were there watching) had passed on this information. Even though I wasn’t named in the piece, it was my event and Jim was my guest. Someone I trusted had betrayed me and I had my suspicions as to who it was!
During the event, we had discussed prejudice, race and how he is portrayed by the media. At one point, Jim gave the above example of ‘the kind of thing that is usually written about me.’ The quote had been printed out of context and – as far as I was concerned – represented a betrayal of trust & friendship. I would find out who had leaked it.
When I was about 8, my favourite TV show was ‘Batman.’ I would root for the outsiders though – the bad guys. I fantasized about The Joker or Penguin triumphing over the masked populist, arse-licking do-gooder. It goes back to being the only Jew at a Christian School. Cast early on as an outsider myself, I identified with the pain of these so called “villains” and felt an affinity with their need to be validated. Others saw me as ‘bad‘ but I knew I was misrepresented & misunderstood. It taught me early on to buck popular opinion and to steer clear of bandwagons. I’m not interested in what most people do. I care about why. Perhaps, deep down, I was jealous & hateful of the popular masked crusader. Batman was the Captain of the football team and I was the quiet, scheming Riddler, dribbling alone in the corner.
Some years later, Daleks, Zygons & Cybermen became my imaginary friends – and, soon after that, it was Werewolves, Vampires, Jason & Freddie. Watching horror films, this was also an effective fear management strategy. If I rooted for the terror, it could not harm me.
I loved Professional Wrestling too, most of all, the heels. I’d go to see it live and, at the age of 16, landed my dream job working for one of England’s biggest professional wrestling promoters. I would sit at ringside with a microphone, say “seconds away, round one” and ring the bell – my first experience of public speaking, in fact. I had access to these larger than life TV characters – Mick Mc Manus, Big Daddy, Giant Haystacks and, my favourite of all, Rollerball Rocco. It amazed me how charming the “baddies” – the heels, as they were known – would often be backstage. Frequently, it was the blue eyed ‘good guys’ who were the actual arseholes. This was my education into how public perceptions could easily be manipulated ….. and were often entirely at odds with reality. Others could think what they liked but I knew the truth. My theories about the human race continued to be reinforced. Most ‘normal’ people were idiots and I wanted to be around those who had transcended normality. That’s where I felt inspired…. and at home.
I have spent much of my life with people who have achieved extraordinary heights of greatness but I do not feel that I have achieved that myself. Sometimes, that frustrates me but all of us want what we don’t have. Perhaps we all sometimes feel that way.
What is it about the villains though?
When I first moved onto a boat, an older guy used to live near my mooring at Apsley marina. He had been one of The Kray Twins’ most violent henchmen. His name was Jimmy Edwards and he had written a book called ‘Survivor.’ As soon as I found this out, I got a copy and carried it with me everywhere until I “accidentally” bumped into the author. Soon enough, I had a signed copy and was being regaled with first hand stories about Ronnie, Reggie & what it’s really like to kill a man.
Perhaps this fascination with danger is what compelled me to do the following (I had to sign a disclaimer that – in the event of my death – my hosts could not be held liable). It all comes from a similar place.
Even though Jim Davidson has spent 40 years being portrayed as the poster boy for political incorrectness and everything that is apparently wrong with – not just comedy – but humanity as a whole, I do not see him that way or concur with that portrayal. Unless you are Brian Dowling, as long as you’ve seen Jim perform live, you’ll probably be hard pressed to name a more natural, funny and skilled comedian. If you’ve spent time with him – or watched him win Celebrity Big Brother recently – you’ll have some sense that he’s very personable too. I was definitely not asked to sign a disclaimer before interviewing him. Whatever happened, it would not be THE most dangerous experience I had lived through
Off the top of my head, national stories about Jim include being investigated at the hands of Operation Yewtree (no charges were made), walking out of a show because the front row was full of disabled people, walking out of another because the stage was too high, yet another because he didn’t like the people of Great Yarmouth, countless accusations of infidelity & drug / alcohol abuse and he’s Team Captain for all the ‘isms’ (with the exception of Sikhism).
I had met Jim Davidson a couple of times before the interview.
The first occasion was in 1989.
I spent my final year at college writing my dissertation on ‘The Childhood of Comedians’. It was a glorious time which allowed me to interview the likes of Hale & Pace, Pam Ayres, Julian Clary, and the late great Norman Wisdom (my first words were, “Gosh, you’re in colour.”)
I went to see Jim Davidson’s show at the Reading Hexagon that year and, afterwards, hung around the stage door with the hope of getting him to agree to an interview. He came out, alone, and I nervously approached him. I had his full attention and semi-coherently rambled on about what I wanted. Up close to this legend of British entertainment, I was immediately struck by the intensity of his personality. There was something larger than life about him. He gave me a contact number for his manager and – although an interview was never arranged – he completed my detailed questionnaire by post. I still have it. Jim’s handwritten answers are in a pile with over 100 others including those by Dudley Moore, Michael Bentine and Stephen Fry.
25 years later, I finally did get to interview Jim Davidson.
I used to run a comedy club (The Comedy Bunker) which was adopted and continues to thrive under the care of my friend, Phil Smith. Recently, Phil booked Jim to do a gig there. It was the first time I had questioned whether my decision to move on had been wise. Knowing, I was a fan of Jim’s, however, Phil pointed a phone at him and, minutes later, a short personal video message appeared in my inbox.
Shortly after that, I met Jim properly at another event. He’d just come off stage and we spoke about comedy for a few minutes. It was that encounter that planted the idea of an interview.
I’d done a few others but not many. Matt Lucas & Paul Chowdhry were recent subjects; next up are Harry Hill and Milton Jones. Surely Parky & Wogan started off with the local butcher and patiently worked their way up? What was I doing probing away at these A list celebrities?
And could I interview one of my comedy heroes? I’d known the others before they were famous. We had history. It was not like this. Jim Davidson was a part of my childhood – like Daleks & Burgess Meredith’s ‘Penguin’. Who was I to think I could interview him for 2 hours in front of a live audience?
I emailed him and asked.
Within 15 minutes, he’d agreed.
I was buzzing.
He asked for his fee to go to ‘Care After Combat’ – (http://www.careaftercombat.org/) a charity he started with Simon Weston in support of War Veterans and their families. He asked for it to be a low key gesture though – no need to include it on the posters. It was only the 2nd time I’d experienced an intentionally anonymous act of charity.
The other was when I was a student with a front row ticket to see Billy Connolly at the Oxford Apollo (now ‘New Theatre’). After a sold out 3 hour performance (no interval), I waited at the stage door with a handful of others to get my programme signed. He came out, allowed an old woman to stroke his beard and gave each of us his attention.
There was a drunk, homeless Glaswegian waiting there too.
“Do ya remember me, Billy? he shouted, “Ya tied me to those railings in Glasgow in 1975.”
“Of course I remember ya,” he yelled back, “Ya tied yourself to those railings, ya silly cunt.”
He thanked us for coming… and we left, happy. As I was about to turn the corner, I looked back for one last glance at the ‘Big Yin’. I watched as he pulled a thick wad of bank notes out of his wallet and gently place them into the sweaty palm of his fellow Glaswegian.
He’d got rid of us first though. It was a private act – not a public statement. The moment took seconds but it’s a story I tell whenever the subject of Billy Connolly – or ‘Class’ – comes up.
When I told people I was going to interview Jim, the responses ranged from the impressed to the horrified. One liberal journalist asked me, “Why? What’s the point?”
It’s a good question.
The answer is I like him, I think he’s one of the best comedians I’ve ever seen work and the endless stories about him fascinate me. If it was possible for me to do so, why on earth would I NOT want to interview him?
I was pretty nervous about the event. I knew Jim had the capacity to be cantankerous so I did my best to prepare for a smooth night. In the weeks leading up to it, I read up on his life, watched his DVD’s and triple checked the height of the Backyard stage. When the day finally came, I arrived early and greased the disability ramps.
Jim’s audience started to arrive from 6.30 pm. Some of them looked a bit scary. They weren’t my usual crowd, for sure. More self doubt started to creep in. Was I really up to this?
Jim arrived at 7.15 pm. He’d been on the tube – at rush hour. He was in a state of minor shock.
At 8 pm, we started.
I’d already decided that I would not attempt to compete with him for laughs. It was just as well as I felt almost entirely disconnected from my funny side. I just hoped I could be intelligent & coherent. The last comic I’d met and been in awe of had been Robin Williams in 2000. Shaking his hand backstage at Cobbs Comedy Club, my response to, “I’m Robin. It’s nice to meet you,” had been, “Nanu nanu.”
I introduced Jim to the stage. He shook my hand. Nanu nanu, I thought.
For different reasons, he may have been nervous too – certainly cautious. Ever the alpha male, however, he quickly asserted himself.
Early on, I asked about his friendship with Margaret Thatcher.
“What about it?” he said, guardedly.
“Is it something you’d be comfortable talking about?” I continued, irrespective of my instincts telling me he wasn’t.
Nonetheless, he did and it was an extraordinary story.
They had been friends for many years and he continued to visit her towards the end of her life. Her death, however, coincided with the period when Jim was being investigated by Operation Yewtree. Consequently, he was banned from attending the funeral. There was no bitterness in the tale though. He understood. The audience could see that the story was a painful memory but only I was close enough to see teardrops appear behind his glasses.
As the first half developed, I think we both relaxed more. I became less fawning and Jim became increasingly human. It had been a fascinating discussion. The audience feedback during the interval was great. People were loving it.
In the 2nd half, the subject of prejudice came up. He remarked that the accusation he hated most was being labelled homophobic. I mentioned I was gay, which surprised him. The admission surprised me even more.
“I’ve just come out to Jim Davidson,” I said, “I haven’t even told my mum yet.”
His face turned into a grimace.
“Aren’t gay people supposed to be attractive?”
I’ve had some great coming out moments (and my mum does know) but this was the most surreal and memorable one. I would describe his reaction as the opposite of homophobic. It was the point in the evening where any remaining barriers to trust seemed to disappear. When it comes to homosexuality, if anything, Jim might be guilty of positive discrimination. Whatever he does, he can’t win.
After all the excitement, I needed to pee and Jim took advantage of having the stage to himself by performing a stand out routine from his current show.
The bulk of the 2nd half was taken up with audience questions – and very well-considered & respectful those questions were too. By this point, I’d started to really like this audience.
At the end, I thanked him for authenticity and honesty.
He returned the complement and smiled, adding sheepishly, “I did lie a bit.”
Like many of the best films, the night had ended with some questions for the audience to ponder at home.
Walking through Bethnal Green with him afterwards, there was an unshakable confidence in Jim’s stride. At one point, he was walking in the road.
“Careful,” I said, “There’s a bus behind you.”
“I’ll be alright.”
The bus swerved round him.
We took a cab to Chinatown and, without an audience now, the conversation continued.
I asked him about a routine on one of his early albums where he talked about refusing to get on a plane because there was a female pilot.
“I did that a few times,” he admitted, “I don’t anymore.”
We talked about addiction, life and validation. I commented on the volume of people who had stopped him for a photo in the 2 minute walk from the cab to the restaurant.
He turned to the next table.
“Havin’ a good night?” he asked.
“Yes, thanks… hang on …. aren’t you Jim….”
He turned to another table
“Evening lads! How’s the food tonight?”
“OK, thank you…. wait a moment …. you’re J… “
Within seconds, the restaurant had stopped. Everyone knew he was there. Even the waiters were gathered around. He posed for selfies and entertained everyone for a few minutes. I sat quietly, finished my stir fry and watched people losing their shit.
Just before the restaurant’s collective orgasm, Jim signed off.
The moment we were outside, he said, “That’s my life every single day.”
“But you initiated it!”
“Yeah, I know. I need it. But those people are happy. That’s love.”
“Love or infatuation?”
“Watch again,” he said.
“Hello Mr Policeman, “ he called out to a policeman, “My name’s Jim Davidson. How are you tonight?”
“I know who you are,” Mr Policeman answered, coyly.
“That’s nice,” he said. “What’s your name?”
Mr Policeman and half of Chinatown were soon gathered around.
Was I experiencing love or infatuation? Whatever these people were feeling, I was having the same sensation.
“How are you getting home?” he asked.
“I’ll take the tube.”
“Fuck that.” He flagged down a taxi and gave the driver some notes.
“Take this man wherever he wants to go…. and take good care of him!”
As the taxi pulled away, I looked out of the rear window. I saw cameras flashing but I could not see Jim.
I feel privileged to have shared an evening with Jim Davidson. He’s a fireball of energy – and one of the most naturally charismatic people you could ever meet. Irrespective of the stories about his darker side, the Jim I know is generous, wise & loving.
If anyone tells you that you shouldn’t try to meet your heroes, slap them – hard. I’ve met all mine and I haven’t yet been disappointed. My heroes are awesome. I chose them well.
As for that piece that had been leaked to the media, it wasn’t from my event after all but from another interview he’d done with a journalist to promote – ironically – 2 shows he’s doing this week for Phil at my old club, The Comedy Bunker.
It’s a small world.
My next live interview at The Backyard Comedy Club, Bethnal Green is on Wed, May 13th with HARRY HILL.
My solo show – Angry Boater – plays for the next 6 Tuesdays at 8 pm (until the end of May) at The Barge House, Haggerston.
Tickets and full details at:
April 13th, 2015