YOU can count on QI and Jonathan Creek star Alan Davies to give an honest opinion.
When he’s not winding people up on Twitter.
Last month I took part in small round table interviews in London with Alan, co-star Sheridan Smith and writer David Renwick.
Ahead of the new Jonathan Creek film – The Judas Tree – which is screened on BBC1 at 8pm on Easter Sunday.
Where he spoke about “the terrible climate of fear” in British TV today.
As well as his TV pay cut and reductions in drama budgets.
Some readers of this blog will know that, as a cub reporter, I occupied a newspaper desk once typed upon by David.
A few years after he’d left to “write jokes for the telly”.
A career that has seen him create, among other things, top class TV shows like One Foot In The Grave, Jonathan Creek and Love Soup.
Alan was, yet again, passionate in his defence of David’s work – and quality television.
You may, or may not, agree with what he had to say.
But I think his comments about the current state of TV are worth reading, without much further interference from me.
Ahead of a M.E.N. feature on the new Creek drama which will be published later this week.
Update: The M.E.N. feature is here.
He began by saying that it was “a shock and a surprise” when the last Creek film – The Grinning Man – attracted 10m viewers on New Year’s Day 2009.
“Those are the figures that we used to get in the nineties and those sort of days are long gone, unless you’re Wallace and Gromit or The Royle Family.
“People love The Royle Family and Wallace and Gromit and that’s all they really like. And then they just watch soaps, it seems to me. Or The X Factor.
“So it was a thrill to have something that was so crafted and almost old fashioned in the approach, the pursuit of excellence in the writing, the invention, the originality. It’s not commonplace in television.
“Jonathan Creek endures because of the depth of the quality and David’s intelligence and his commitment to excellence is really very unusual. It’s only matched in my experience by Russell T Davies. He really makes sure that every line is where he wants it.”
I ventured, trying to be diplomatic, that Alan had been an early pioneer when he took a BBC pay cut.
“I didn’t have a great deal of choice on that front,” he laughed.
“My agent said, ‘They want to cut your pay by a third.’ And I said, ‘What? Why? Am I not as good as I used to be? We got ten million viewers last time. Hang on a minute, I get a pay rise, don’t I in the normal scheme of things?’
“And in the end they cut it by a quarter.
“There were a lot of people with an anti-BBC agenda in the newspapers and the BBC are very sensitive to those criticisms. There’s the recession and people losing their jobs, so you just have to accept it. But you can’t say you enjoy it, getting less now than I did in 1998. You think, ‘Hang on a minute, there can’t be many people who can say that?’”
What about cuts in the Creek budget itself?
“It affects it very much. It affects the design budget in particular. ‘Let’s cut their budget in half.’ But the design team are so good.”
Alan explained that some scenes in a large house used in the new film were shot at night. “The reason why that was all in the dark was because they couldn’t decorate the set. That’s how they got around it.
“What good is it to have such a good quality writer, such an exceptional talent, such a popular show that shifts worldwide – Japan, Scandinavia, Australia, Israel, you name it, they’re watching Jonathan Creek…people have sent me hilarious clips of me dubbed in Spanish. And this is a flagship show and I’m very proud of it. Why slash the budget in half? It doesn’t make any sense to me. So that’s pretty annoying.
“It’s a shame, really, because the shows that we really love, The Sopranos or Curb Your Enthusiasm, they spend a lot more money on them and take a lot more time over making them. We can’t match the quality, we don’t have the investment. But when you find someone like David, who is so great, you’d think that would attract investment.
“It’s really hard to get anything on television. Every idea I’ve had in the last year has been rejected, without even a meeting. I’ve spent months writing scripts. I wanted to do a chat show – no. I wanted to do a sitcom – no. I wanted to do a documentary – no.
“That’s part of the reason I wrote a book. I’d always wanted to write a book…at least that’s something I can finish and it’s done. Instead of just writing things that end up in a drawer. In my experience, it’s the same with a lot of writers. There’s less and less room for original writing. There are continuing and returning dramas and there are reality shows. And then there used to be sitcoms. There used to be Minder and Porridge. Those shows don’t exist anymore. “A new series of…’ almost doesn’t seem to happen. It’s a shame.
“Sometimes things happen which are wonderful. Criminal Justice, for example, I thought was fantastic. It’s really hard to find them.
“No-one can take a chance or a risk. Everyone’s in fear of their lives. Commissioner’s careers are riding on every last decision. It’s crazy. You can’t make good things without a chance to fail.”
Alan is set to play a chef in a new BBC2 comedy called Whites, set in a restaurant.
“We did a pilot for that in April last year and we’re shooting the series in July this year. So I’m thrilled to be doing the series, I’m really looking forward to it, very funny writing, really good cast. But we could have done it a year ago. I could see the script was funny, I knew the pilot was going to be OK. Somebody must be able to press a button and say, ‘This is good. Go.’ It’s a terrible climate of fear.”
He was then asked if having a proven track record counted for anything and mentioned John Lloyd, the comedy writer and producer behind QI, Blackadder, Spitting Image and many other TV hits.
“It doesn’t count for much for me. It doesn’t count for much if you’re John Lloyd. If John Lloyd says, ‘I have an idea for a television programme,’ you’d think every broadcaster in the country would go, ‘Can we have it?’ He has to jump through all the same hoops. I think if John Lloyd says this will work as a television programme, then that’s good enough for me.
“I’m a little bit frustrated but it’s dull to complain about the commissioning process. One of the reasons why it’s so difficult is because there are so many people writing shows and so many production companies, so many people vying for a few slots. I wish there were more slots. I wish there were less soaps and more sitcoms.
“There are television programmes like Jonathan Creek and there are television programmes which are made by someone with a video camera and someone who can’t really present and some footage of something that isn’t really worth broadcasting, and they appear to occupy the same amount of time on the same television screen.
“There are awful comedians who go on at The Comedy Store. It’s the stage that Robin Williams once stood on. They appear to be doing the same thing but they’re not. Sometimes I wish that there was a Quality Channel and a Crap Channel.
“The thing I really hate, with QI especially, is being in a soup of shows on repeat channels which completely devalue the brand, as they call it these days – and I hate the fact that you can’t make the audience wait a couple of months and then say, ‘There’s a new series…great, a new series.’ Then they all watch it. I hate the things being repeated night after night. Not least because we don’t get paid for it. I hate that as well. I get a very small fee and then they run it for 20 years. I can’t stand it.
“It drives me mad. I want to be able to absent myself from people’s living rooms. I know this is a long gone hope but I would like to be off the telly sometimes, so that if I come on the telly people might think, ‘Oh there’s that guy.’ Instead of thinking, ‘Oh God.’
“You irritate yourself.”
I also asked Alan about how he winds up his critics on Twitter.
“Hours of fun on there. I get endless encouragement from people who follow me: ‘Say something else. That bloke who you said that to, get him going again.’ Don’t underestimate the public. They send me much funnier things.”
Twitter has also given “celebrities” an instant outlet to put the record straight.
“A journalist wrote something about me that wasn’t true, that was spiteful, that denigrated me personally. He hadn’t checked his facts. He hadn’t contacted me to say he was going to do it or ask my point of view, printed it in a newspaper. I was livid.
“But now I can go on Twitter: ‘You said this. This isn’t true. Why did you do that? Why are you lying? Why did you make that up?’
“And then 120,000 people who follow me can see that. So you have a little corner of comeback and they can pass it on. You can contact the journalist publicly and tell him that it is a lie. Or at best a half truth.
“I’m sure there are some journalists who think a half truth is about as good as they can manage, present company excepted.
“But, yeah, it’s a bit of fun too, to wind people up.”