'Friday 13th Oct 2000. I finish my job at the hospital. A couple of weeks later I’m sat in a car-park dressed as a giant berry thinking was this a good idea?'
Dave Spikey is a multi-award winning actor, writer, presenter and performer, and one of the best-known and much-loved stand-ups in Britain. In another Stand Up For Comedy exclusive, Col Howarth picks the great man’s brains about the series of T-junctions that have brought him here, hooking up with that Peter Kay and the forthcoming leg of his current tour (2016) PUNCHLINES.
‘A llama escaped in Preston. It got into a kid’s playground and created havoc. A bloody llama in Preston! The Lancashire Evening Post described it as a wild beast. It’s a bloody llama! The teachers were screaming. The pupils were going mad. The llama’s freaking out. The headline was Llama Drama Ding Dong!’
Dave Spikey is celebrating newspaper headlines as great sources of punchlines and comedy potential. But before we talk about the latest leg of his tour Punchlines which is kicking off in March lets find out how he ended up in this game.
‘Our lives are like a series of cross-roads and t-junctions. I wanted to be a doctor but whether I was bright enough I don’t know. My dad was a painter and decorator. Working class and self-employed. No job too small. Estimates free.’
‘He had an accident which meant he would have to be off work so we had no money coming in. I had just started my A-levels and I had to go out and get a job, theoretically just until my dad recovered.
‘So my dad was in the hospital after his accident and he said they were looking for lab technicians. I applied, got the job and never went back to school. I loved working at the hospital. I was a quiet lad. Never the typical class clown. I was studious. So after 2 years of studying biomedical sciences at Salford University, I was the only one who passed all my modules.
'I applied to go back to university and do medicine and got a couple of places but I never went because I was just enjoying life too much.'
It was through working at the hospital that the creative bug started to nibble, but Dave always preferred to be in the background.
‘I got involved through some mates who I played football with. They’d started a revue society. My mate Steve said you’re funny. Come and write some sketches for the revue. They were all hospital based about things like waiting times in A&E. This is 30 years ago, and things have hardly changed. I liked being in the background, writing and producing.
‘I wrote all these sketches. Staff moved on but I carried on directing and writing, and I took it over. It did well, and we started getting a fair bit of recognition locally. It was perhaps inevitable that sooner or later a performer would not take my direction well and say Do it yourself then, stick it up your arse!
'One day they told me I’d have to go on-stage. No notice. I dreaded it. But as soon as I started getting the laughs it was a bigger buzz than being backstage. I got the bug. People started saying you’re funny, you should be a comedian. I started doing a few open mics and talent shows. The first 10 I did I stormed them. I was like hang on this is going to be brilliant.’
This was around 1990 when Dave was 39 which is inspiring in itself not least for us latecomers!
‘In those days there were no comedy clubs. I was doing new talent shows and open mic nights at concert secretary venues and the Phoenix clubs.’
For 'concert secretary venues' read working men’s clubs, labour and constitutional clubs and community halls: places where working class families came together (and still do) for their Friday night dose of entertainment and a spot of tote or bingo, a pie and a pint, or to watch one of the neighbours on stage performing Sinatra covers.
Geoff Mather’s blog Perspective UK North at www.northtrek.plus.com provides countless gems relating to the concert secretary and the northern club scene. One hilarious account involves one of our national treasures, who was announced on to the stage by a concert secretary as follows. Imagine this is your MC!
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen! Now, before we start tonight's entertainment, I know that some of you have noticed that you are eating your pies with plastic spoons. There is a very simple explanation for this. Last night, when the steward counted the cutlery, five spoons were missing. Now, spoons do not go missing on their own. Somebody has those spoons. And the situation is that, well, if you are going to behave like children, you must expect to be treated like children. I would like to see those spoons returned, please. And now, without further ado, your entertainment for tonight, Mr Les Dawson!
Dave may have been a bit alternative for this kind of crowd!
‘I was the wrong kind of comedian. I was very conversational. It was observational. I never had a mother-in-law!’
The secretary venues and working men’s clubs would provide endless source material for Phoenix Nights and the club’s long suffering archetypal Northern club owner Brian Potter.
In another of Geoff Mather’s gems he recalls the words of Rochdale-born comedian and warm-up man Dudley Doolittle from an interview in 1985. A guy on stage in Yorkshire said:
Right, ladies and gentlemen, top of the bill here. They’re not my cup of tea. In fact the committee’s gone over my head. Four singers from America. The Drifters!
In the early 1990s Dave started making connections, and things started to move.
’I met Agraman - The Human Anagram. Agraman started up a club in Chorlton called The Buzz. It was music and comedy, a bit like Saturday Night Live with a music stage and a comedy stage.’
Agraman aka John Marshall, founded The Buzz in 1989. By the time it closed in 2004 it was the longest running comedy club outside of London and it had hosted countless acts, many of which went on to become stand-up royalty: your Coogans, Thomsons, Vegases and Ahernes. In 2005 John Marshall received the prestigious Les Dawson Award for Services in Promoting Live Comedy in the North West.
‘He took me under his wing a bit and I was there every other week. I was working with Eddie Izzard, Jack Dee and Lee Evans just as they were breaking. I’d just won the North West Comedian of the Year competition. I beat Dave Gorman in the final. I’ll never let him live it down! I love Dave Gorman!
‘But I was still working at the hospital and doing very well at that. I worked my way up to being Head of the Haematology Laboratory and it all came to the next set of crossroads.’
Enter. Stage right. Peter Kay.
'He lived up the road from me. I used to nip out from work and we would write and pool our ideas, and we had a lot in common: the same comedy heroes like Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and Ronnie Barker. We never stopped writing and we started working together straight away.
‘We did a few things. We did Mad For The A6, which we improvised for Granada Television. Then we got The Services and then That Peter Kay Thing. Then they commissioned Phoenix Nights 1 and 2.
‘Fri 13th Oct 2000. That’s the date I left work. A couple of weeks later I’m sat in a car-park dressed as a giant berry thinking was this a good idea?’
Together, Dave Spikey and Peter Kay amassed countless awards, acclaim, household recognition, and places in the nation’s hearts and in comedy TV history. Their characters Jerry St. Clair and Brian Potter were brought together by shared experiences and a rose-tinted view of those working club days, both as performers and as kids out with their families on a Friday night.
This following excerpt is from an interview in The Mirror in Dec 2012. Peter Kay is describing his urge to write the second series of Phoenix Nights in an uncanny case of art imitating life:
Over the years I keep writing things down. I wrote something the other week. Brian books the Drifters, Jerry books the Drifters, someone else books the Drifters.
Since then, Dave’s success has cemented his status as one of the nation’s biggest and most loved comedians and comic actors. A double British Comedy Award Winner, a Royal Television Society Winner and a BAFTA Nominee. A four-series stint as one of the original team captains on 8 Out of 10 Cats and a stand-up career that has generated the highest acclaim from every corner of the national media.
Despite all of this, Dave remains the friendly, affable chap that he always seems to have been. I first bumped into him at the Bury Met Arts Centre about 20 years ago. I was working there and he was performing during the Bury Met Comedy Festival. He was the friendliest man I’d ever met: the same chatty guy who used to pop into the Signal Radio studios to the delight of the presenters, and fire out puns and punchlines on air.
‘I’ve been lucky for all sorts of reasons. It is such a competitive industry now. I have had a great career that I’ve loved and I’ve had a second chance of another career. I’m not madly ambitious, but by the time I did comedy my mortgage was almost paid up and my kids had grown up. I had no massive responsibility financially to have to make a success of it. I’m privileged.
‘They were saying you need to be moving to London, and there is pressure to be down there. I got a phone call last week: We’re casting for a new Channel 4 show. Can you come down tomorrow morning for a read through. I couldn’t! I live in Chorley! I’ve lived here for 25 years now. My mates are my mates, my family are here, my kids are grown up and live locally. Why would I want to go to London and abandon all that?’
That’s not to say that we can’t see Dave Spikey on the road, and at the time of our chat he was preparing to take his current show Punchlines out for a run of theatres, lyceums and pavilions from March 2016. The run will take in the likes of Brighton, Newcastle and Crewe amongst others.
‘I used to do a run of 80 shows at once and I don’t want to do that anymore. I want to keep it fresh. It’s a personal thing. I have to take it easy. So I do 25, have a break and then write a bit. Then I do another 25. People have really bought into it.
‘In this show I’m analysing my favourite punchlines and how we get to them. I project the punchlines onto screens and we discuss them. I do the jokes that arrive at those punchlines and people still laugh even though they know them. It works brilliantly.
‘Everyone reads punchlines in their own way. With their own interpretation, pacing and intonation. Punch: something that takes you by surprise. So I use misunderstanding and misdirection, and the audiences still laugh because it’s still a surprise.’
For details, dates and more visit www.davespikey.co.uk.
Thank you to Geoff Mather: www.northtrek.plus.com