A frank exchange of views with Jim Davidson
It's a rare creature indeed who can combine an OBE, three Showbusiness Personality of the Year accolades and a TV Times Award for Funniest Man on Television with a top 20 placing in a nationwide poll of the 100 Worst Britons. But then few Showbusiness Personalities, if you must, polarise opinion like James Cameron Davidson – a performer so divisive he makes Marmite look like Ban-ki Moon.
The South Londoner made his name in the late 70s on proto-X Factor gong show New Faces, which led to five series of his own ITV variety show and the lead role in a couple of forgettable sitcoms. In later years, he fronted bafflingly long-running snooker-based quiz show Big Break and, as if to affirm his place at the heart of British television’s family entertainment landscape, was chosen to replace Sir Brucie himself as host of The Generation Game.
That he did all this while continuing to perform what his press publicity calls a “near-the-knuckle stand-up act” – a euphemism for a toxic mix of racist, sexist, homophobic extreme right-wing bigotry – is remarkable. That he kept this dual career going through a series of scandals and revelations – including wife-beating, alcoholism, bankruptcy and allegations of abusive behaviour – suggests he must have been in possession of some very compromising pictures of some very powerful TV executives. Or maybe it was the charity work that swung it (Davidson is a famously energetic campaigner for the British Armed Forces, for whom he still performs regularly – hence the OBE).
Or maybe, as the man himself argues, he is simply the product of a different era: an era when people – good, honest, decent people – saw nothing wrong with idea of a white man talking in patois while pretending to be a tokin’ Jamaican stoner called Chalky White. Even today, while he may be kryptonite to TV commissioning editors, Davidson continues to pack theatres up and down the country, appealing to – presumably - good, honest, decent people who have no problem with enjoying a good laugh at the expense of blacks, Asians, gays, the disabled and (save our sides) rape victims.
Now 58, Davidson remains as unreconstructed and unapologetic as ever. Throughout the course of our conversation, he admits to deliberately goading people he suspects might take offence at him, and appears to positively relish reciting parts of his act that are not so much near the knuckle as down to the bone. At one point, he tries to suggest there is clear blue (in every sense) water between the real Jim Davidson and the one on stage, but you only need to read his blog or his tweets or his various pronouncements on behalf of his beloved Conservative Party to see you can barely slide one of his many divorce papers between the man and the act. Though he says he tries not to be, he’s also clearly fixated with the younger generation of more on-message comics who have elbowed him off our TV screens (a subject addressed at length in a somewhat self-serving play wot he wrote called Stand Up and Be Counted).
In the interests of full disclosure, however, I should state that, while what follows might read like an interrogation at times, Davidson and I actually seemed to get on rather – perhaps worryingly – well. I can’t condone his act, which I find hateful and, crucially, not at all funny. (Let’s be clear: Chalky White is like a Jeremy Hardy routine compared to some of the material I found during a trawl through Davidson’s YouTube clips.) But I can’t help gridgingly admire his Teflon resistance to criticism: Jim Davidson might dish it out, but he can take it, too. Far from being a prickly or peevish interviewee, he’ll engage with anything you throw at him, and his not unfriendly teasing about my leftie student Guardian-reading credentials had me laughing, despite myself.
WARNING: Contains offensive humour and language. Obviously.
Hello Jim. So you’re on another big tour…
Big tour, little theatres. The thinking is I’m going out to do the big ones in the autumn with a slightly different show – but I’m keeping that one under wraps. So I thought I’d go and do all the littley ones again.
Do you write a brand new show for every tour or…
Write? What does that mean?
Think up, then. Or are there a few old favourites you like to pull out of the bag?
I’m not sure yet, ’til I get there. Young comics say ‘Oh I’m gonna write some new stuff’. I don’t know how they do that. I just go on and see what comes into my head. Everything changes doesn’t it? I mean on the day you’ve got the weather, the news, the theatre, the locality, people in the front row, people coming in late, this and that. So there’s a good 20, 25 minutes of just messing around and feeling which way people are going to go. I quite like that, ’cos you think: Oh God, here we go. You get the pain from the adrenaline rush. The fear.
You still get the fear after all these years?
Oh, horrible. When you think of it, it’s an odd job, isn’t it? Going out and speaking to people for an hour and a bit. About nothing in particular. And being aware they’ve come out to have a real good time, and no matter how you do and how you are, you’re going to be compared with another comedian they go and see. Let’s hope it’s Eddie Izzard.
You think you’d fare well against Eddie?
I can’t understand a word he talks about to tell you the truth, so I shouldn’t really have picked him, I should have picked a comedian comedian.
You’re unlikely to have much of a crossover audience, wouldn’t you say?
I don’t know. I wouldn’t go see him.
How would you describe your audience these days? Have you noticed them getting older as you have?
No. They really range from… I would say, good honest working and middle class people. In fact everybody comes to see me. Everyone comes to see me get things off me chest – probably the same things they’ve got on their chests.
So what would you be getting off your chest this week?
Dunno. Those two boxers knocking **** out of each other, on the same day Muhammad Ali celebrates his 70th. What else would there be? The NHS. I go mental about the NHS. They should shut it down, then we wouldn’t have all these problems. If you can’t afford to pay for private medical insurance, die. [LAUGHS] It’s that type of thing I talk about. Some people say, how can he say that? Well you say it to get a laugh from people with half a brain – which is all you need to see me.
How much of it do you believe, though?
I like to take things to extremes. I really think we’d be better with everyone being able to afford private medical insurance. I think it’s funny that people demand the NHS, knowing that it’s crap. Knowing they’re going to go up there with a veruca and come back with an arm gone from some infection. But they still say, well, it’s my right. I think, hang on, how about we get the government to give you £600 a year for private medical insurance? Bugger that, I’ll buy a widescreen television. That’s the type of thing that makes me laugh. And also foreign aid, I’d speak about foreign aid – why we do all that.
You’re not happy with that?
Are we not just repaying our debt for all those years of turning the world over?
Did we? I thought we taught it how to stop eating each other. And throwing spears at each other and things like that. Places we didn’t go they’re still ****ing animals, aren’t they? Have you been to Belgium?
I’m just trying to get a handle on where your real opinions stop and…
I don’t think people want my real opinions. They want an opinion from me that’s going to make them laugh. I think we can all be a bit too Ben Elton, can’t we? You’ve just got to have a laugh. No-one tells jokes any more.
But if those opinions wind people up and offend them, that’s good for you, isn’t it?
Yeah, course it is. How would I offend them? First of all they’ve paid to come and see me. How can I possibly offend them? They know me. They come to have a laugh.
You know, when I go to a party or something and there’s someone there who is exactly what you’re talking about - someone who would take offence, the sort who would never go to a Jim Davidson gig, someone who reads The Guardian, perhaps - then I go even more bigoted and horrible.
I’ll give you an example, I was [he actually starts sniggering, like a naughty schoolboy] with the Grand Provost of Glasgow, and his wife – and they were rank Labour supporters. And I was at the top table with them at this Scottish showbusiness ball. And she went on about how she didn’t like my sense of humour and how she didn’t like this and didn’t like that. And she said ‘do you like Glasgow?’ And I said ‘yes - there’s not so many darkies living here as there is in England’. Well, she nearly ***ing had a heart attack with shock. Now that is something I didn’t mean at all, but I just couldn’t stop myself from upsetting that woman. She was lucky I said darkies. I was in a good mood.
You’re easily provoked, then?
Nah not really. I just couldn’t stand her getting on her high horse. She was saying to me, ‘why do you vote Conservative? I suppose there’s some good in you somewhere’ You don’t expect that, do you? Of course there’s no good in me.
It seems to me that there are two Jim Davidsons: there’s the Generation Game, Big Break, family entertainer with all the charity work and the OBE and the Variety Club awards…
Yeah, how did that come about? I could never get my head round that. Someone must have come and seen me on stage and thought: I know, that dirty, filthy, awful, bigoted comic is just what we need for a family show on the BBC. It’s bizarre, isn’t it?
Do you miss that side of it? Would you like the chance to do more family entertainment type stuff?
I liked The Generation Game, although it was a very difficult show to make. And to an extent I liked Big Break, although it wasn’t particularly taxing. I think they stopped making The Generation Game because it was just too expensive and too hard to do.
Have you burned your bridges a bit with that audience?
No, because I was doing the Generation Game at the same time I was doing Sinderella - a dirty, filthy panto. I think audiences know what they’re going to get – they trust me. If I do a pantomime – a clean one – they know it’s going to be okay. But if I’m doing stand-up and it’s adults only, they know they’re going to get both barrels. I’ve been lucky in that way – probably unique in that way.
The lead character in your play Stand Up and Be Counted was a thinly-veiled version of yourself…
Actually it was a thinly-veiled – a very veiled version – of what people’s perception of me is. And what went wrong was I played that part – it should have been Bradley Walsh, but he had to pull out. So with me doing it, people went, it’s very good but it’s really just him apologising for being him.
A lot of critics who saw it said they were surprised by how much they enjoyed it…
[LAUGHS] Yeah, I’ll take that. It’s like a score draw, innit? You know the annoying thing with me, though, it’s like the Johnny Speight syndrome: I played a guy called Eddie Pearce and the more horrible he was, the more they laughed and liked him. I didn’t like that much, to tell you the truth. It probably wasn’t written correctly – I think some audiences missed the point.
Was there an element of you trying to justify yourself through that character?
Not really. There was an element of me, through the character, justifying the way comedians of his day are. And saying, you guys are not funny. And there was the black guy, who was as racist as Eddie, and bigoted. And there was the gay guy, who was only playing gay so he could get on television, because it’s all gay people. You’ve got more chance of getting on television if you’re gay. So everyone was just out to be famous – that was the bottom line.
You said in a radio interview last year: “Yes, I would like to apologise for Chalky. It's not something I would choose to do now.” Are you acknowledging that the world’s moved on?
The only reason I wouldn’t do it now is because Chalky’s redundant, because no-one has a West Indian accent. If you’re going to do a joke with a black guy in it now, he’s a black guy, he ain’t Chalky.
I’d kind of got it into my head that you must have mellowed over the years, but I was checking out some YouTube footage and I was quite shocked…
What did you see?
There was some quite shocking stuff: at one point you describe Philippino women as LBFMPBR [I won't repeat what that stands for – Google it if you really must]. Isn’t that, in all seriousness, grossly offensive?
It all depends, really. [A PAUSE] Yeah, I suppose it is. You’re right, you’ve got me there. But then, isn’t bigotry slightly to be laughed at? If the Pub Landlord said that, would you be offended? Because he’s wearing a blazer and went to public school?
But what Al Murray is saying is: this bloke is a tosser, isn’t he?
Is he? You think so?
You really think that? Does he ever do an act when he’s not playing the tosser, then?
But you know what I mean: we’re supposed to laugh at him?
To hide behind irony, and to hide behind a character – he’s just a ***ing coward. Telling the only jokes he knows and the only way he can get away with it is making out he’s someone else and he don’t mean it. I mean, we’ve had enough of that, really.
[CLEARLY RECOVERING HIS FIGHT NOW] I went on to say that Philippinos are stupid as well, didn’t I? You haven’t been to Dubai, have you? Don’t go there and try to order four Big Macs, one packet of chips and two Cokes.
Doesn’t that raise a point, though, that people who work in McDonalds, they’re at the bottom of the chain, aren’t they? Life’s pretty rubbish anyway..
Maybe comedy should be attacking the corporate people at the top instead?
You mean I can’t do jokes about… [VOICE DROPS TO A GROWL] You’re a lefty aren’t you? You’re a ***ing pinko. [LAUGHS] Listen, you can think what you want, I think people who work in McDonalds are ***ing good targets.
You sneaked in being all middle of the road, didn’t you? And I’ve got you with the Philippinos and the McDonalds. It was in Dubai though, where I was a tax exile, living there with all the other right-wingers.
Talking of Dubai, you did some stuff in that show..
And you’re from up north too, aren’t you?
I’m from Leeds, yes.
It’s all coming out now. And you were a student, weren’t you? I bet you got a degree from Cambridge.
You know what Danny La Rue said about Cambridge? Wonderful place but those ***ing students spoil it. And he meant it – he absolutely meant it!
We don’t have Conservatives in Leeds – they’re not allowed.
Of course they don’t have any Conservatives up there – no-one goes to work. It’s ***ing pointless. You’d never get any votes.
Anyway, back to Dubai. In that show, you’re talking about Indians and doing that wobbly-head thing...
Indians do wobble their heads in Dubai. Now, should I not mention that?
I don’t know… It’s offensive, isn’t it?
To who? It’s not offensive to me. It’s not offensive to the Indians in Dubai. And my best mate, Bobby, is Indian. He’s actually Glaswegian Sikh. He starts out Glaswegian, and then every Bacardi and coke that goes in, he becomes Indian. And at the end, he is p***ed and his head is like it’s on a spring. These are facts, and I mention that on stage, and he thinks it’s hysterical, because it’s true.
I think Indians when they wobble their heads, it’s quite endearing. We don’t have Indians wobble their heads here. I spoke to the boss of the Indian army - General Singh, would you believe - and I said: Have you met many of the English Indian community? And he said ‘they are totally ruined – they are all English’. Which I thought was quite good fun.
You know, sometimes you guys – and I’m generalising now – tend to miss the elephant in the room. But you do. If you walk into a room and it’s full of black people, would you say, ‘I went to a party the other night’, or would you say ‘I went to a party the other night, full of all black people’. Do you know what I mean? I think, come on for heaven’s sake – let’s have a bit of respect and start to enjoy our differences. Even if someone takes the p*** out of you – for Christ’s sake, come on, let’s get going.
I don’t want to do the old ‘a lot of my friends are black’ cliché, but I’ve got black mates, I’ve got lots of Indian mates. In Dubai our best friends were mostly Indian… only ’cos there’s so many of the buggers! And that’s the way I see life. I see life as, let’s take the p*** out of each other, and have a bit of fun. But I’ll be the first to leap to anyone’s aid, to say ‘I think that’s racist and offensive’. The difference between you and I is where we draw that line. I think we both have the same idea that we don’t want to upset people. But I would say to you: come on mate, come and watch me do a show... give me an Indian audience and I’ll do that, and they won’t be upset. People will always find a reason to wrap people in cotton wool, and I don’t think they need to be wrapped in it. The ones that come off the worst with me are the English underclasses. And everyone thinks they must be up for grabs, surely: Jeremy Kyle’s audience. They are a race of people, aren’t they? The right to take the p*** out of them ***ing lowlifes has got to be every comedian’s first aim in life. Surely.
But the point is that black people and Muslims are not lowlife, are they?
Yeah but what’s the difference? They’re still targets for a comedian.
Is there anything you would consider off-limits in comedy?
I think everything should be up for grabs, and it’s up to the comedian himself to choose which ones he wants to have a go at.
What about jokes about dead soldiers or policemen – the stuff that’s close to your heart. Is that fair game, if it’s the right audience?
Yeah it is. It all depends how it’s done. Jimmy Carr and I went up to Selly Oak Hospital; there was a guy there with no legs and Jimmy said: well that’s my standing ovation out the window. And there was a public outcry, and I leapt to his defence by saying, that was for that soldier and his mates, who have that sense of humour. And he nicked into that sense of humour, and did bloody well. I have that same sense of humour with the military: if the public could see what us guys talk to the military about, they wouldn’t like it at all, really. They’d try to leap to that soldier’s defence, when he doesn’t need any help. He’s quite happy to have the p*** taken out of him, ’cos it makes him feel normal. In black and white, comedy’s horrible, isn’t it? I’ve been on stage in the old days and seen Bernard Manning to do the most appalling, awful racist jokes. But he’d say ‘it’s only a ***ing joke’. And he really thought that. He didn’t understand racism, he couldn’t get his head round it. I see where you’re coming from. It’s just my line of ‘don’t go beyond that’ is different to yours. Maybe we should meet in the middle a little bit.
Watching some of your shows out in Iraq and Afghanistan, what alarms me is the way you’re telling these sorts of jokes to soldiers who are out in Muslim countries and supposed to be winning hearts and minds…
No they’re supposed to be shooting bad guys.
But it’s quite disturbing, to me, to see them lapping this stuff up.
Nah, I think they quite like that stuff. They think it’s funny, and I think that’s funny.
Looking back on your career, you’ve won all these awards and got the OBE…
I got the OBE from a Labour government! Services to The Guardian.
Did you not think of turning it down?
No I bloody didn’t! I tell you what, though, if you put it on your business card, as I did, and you go to America, do you know what they say? This way Mr OBE. Now there’s a race of people that need gunning down.
The Guardian readers are probably with you on that one.
Oh they are. Dominic Holland – you know the little leftie comic with the glasses? He said to me, ‘oh you mustn’t do this, you mustn’t do that’. I said, ‘what about Yanks?’ He said, ‘oh that’s alright - they’re successful’. I said, ‘I don’t think they are’. Political correctness all depends where you hang your political hat.
Maybe people just think the people in power are better targets than the powerless?
Yes but that’s coming from the left, isn’t it? I had a brother-in-law like that, he was a docker, he’d say: ‘the bosses, what the **** do they do?’ Well they pay your wages. It’s that mentality: I believe you get in a position of power through hard work. I think you get to work in McDonalds through not studying at school enough.
You talk a good fight, Jim, I’ll give you that.
I try my best.
So what are you most proud of?
Oh, some great moments. There was my dad, p***ed out of his head on This Is Your Life. I suppose I’m really proud of my live act… [LAUGHS] but you probably wouldn’t agree. I’m quite pleased with my technical ability to perform. All the other stuff is just the bits that go with it.
You tour relentlessly. Is part of that paying for all the divorces?
Well you don’t earn that much money. We’ve just been doing the figures. When people go into a theatre, what do they do? They sit down, have a little look round, see who’s there, what the audience is. Me, I count the lights and the PA and stuff like that. My manager, he’ll work out what people are paying, what are the seat rates, why is there a gap there – they’re £17.50, they’re £22.50.
The biggest earner on a theatre tour is the VAT man – he probably earns more than the artist. He’ll take 20%, the theatre will take 25%, then there’s the cost of the advertising, the this, the that, the support act. You don’t earn a fortune, unless you’re one of the new guys who’s playing the NIC or the SECC.
Peter Kay made millions off his last tour.
Yeah, and good for him. It’s all working to an audience that are their peers, if you like: the 18-30s, who have disposable money. We had that: me and Jethro, when we first started, you’d just stick your name up and it would sell out. Now those people are my age, and though you get a younger crowd coming along as well, most of the young people want to see the comedians of their time. Until they see Eddie Izzard and they realise they’ve made a huge mistake.
But you were declared bankrupt a while back, so do you work for the money or the love of it?
I was only bankrupt because of the tax man – that don’t count. Do I do it ’cos I love it? No, I work for the money, really, I suppose. I do enjoy going on stage, I love it, but if I had the choice I’d probably think of something else to do. Something in showbusiness, but where I could take a risk and it wouldn’t bother me if it didn’t work. Rather like Pink Floyd making an LP they don’t care if no-one listens to.
What’s your biggest regret?
Oh I think I had a wife or two too many, maybe.
Are you still paying for them?
No, not any more. And… I don’t know. I think I left my education too late in life. I neglected school and just went fishing. And too rich too early, I guess. Drank too much, women, drugs… and the rest I just frittered away!
Are you happy?
Yeah. I’m happier than I was. A bit more content. I’ve got mates who sit and watch the television and watch those panel shows and the Ross Nobles and all that and go [WHINY VOICE] ‘Oh he’s s***, why aren’t we on the telly?’ I say, ‘come on boys, we’ve had our share of luck, let the young ’uns do it while we go to the pub’.
That’s a good attitude.
I think so. I tell myself that. Probably go to bed and think ‘oh f***, why are they earning much more than me?’ But I don’t own up to myself.
(c) Cambridge Newspapers, 2012