Hilary Wardle

Dave Spikey interview

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Dave Spikey is an actor, stand-up comedian and writer, best known for his role as Jerry St. Clair on Phoenix Nights. As he prepares for a new stand-up tour, Spikey chats to Hilary Wardle about live comedy, his love of local news headlines, animal welfare work, working on Phoenix Nights, and whether the hit sitcom is indeed returning for Comic Relief next year.

Hi Dave – how are you?

I’m great thanks. I’m in Spain at the moment recharging my batteries. I’ve been practicing my Spanish but it’s not going well. The other night I tried to ask a waiter for the bill but ended up ordering cheese instead. The Spanish for bill is cuenta, I was saying queso. I ate the cheese, then tried again and got more cheese. I thought it was free.  I come back to the UK on Tuesday; I’ve got a warm up gig or two and then the week after I’ll be straight into the tour.

Tell us a bit more about the tour – what’s the show called?

It’s called Punchlines. Basically, the initial premise of the show was that I’d just do punchlines, but I realised that probably wouldn’t work. Instead, I give the audience every punchline I’m going to use at the start of the show- I put them up on a big projector- and then I do the stories behind them in the second act. Though like any comedian I’ll also misguide the audience along the way: I disrupt the stories so that when I tell the punchline there’s still a surprise- and a laugh- at the end.

What do you mean by the term ‘punchline’ exactly?

I’ve taken a broad definition of punchlines. The main way I encounter punchlines is in the pub at night. People come out with a funny remark and you try and top it: you can get two or three punchlines in any normal conversation. I’m also including news stories in that list.

Local news headlines are a perfect example of a punchline: they’re a short synopsis of a story to make you laugh. For example, there was this time a llama got loose in Preston and ran around in a children’s playground: the kids were all going mad. The Lancashire Evening Post covered it with the headline “Llama Drama Ding Dong”. That’s a punchline in itself. I’ve collected quite a few of those along the way. There was another story in the Hartlepool Mail about the police; they had to board a boat to apprehend a drunk guy at 4am. My immediate reaction was: “What are they going to do with a drunken sailor so early in the morning?”

How did you come up with the material for the new show? 

It’s taken about a year as usual. You’ll write a routine or a few jokes, try them out and no one laughs so you have to change it. Sometimes there’s stuff you can tweak to make it funny, other times you do get quite attached to material and you convince yourself it’s going to be funny but eventually you have to give it up. I’ve gathered a lot of stuff over the years and it’s just about pulling it together really.  I don’t want to do a list of gags, I want a theme.

Do you still spend much time in and around Bolton?

We do go to Spain quite a bit but we still live in Chorley, Lancashire. I’m there most of the time. Early on – particularly when I started with 8 Out of 10 Cats – there was a bit of a temptation to move down to London, there’s a worry that you’ll miss opportunities by not being there- but I resisted it. The good thing is I can still get down there by train in a couple of hours if I need to.

You’re well known for your animal welfare work. Are you still collecting animals like the Christmas turkey you saved a few years ago?

We’ve not got as many animals these days, no. We ended up with 30 ex-battery farm chickens and the Christmas turkey that I rescued and then kept, but we didn’t replace them when they died because I’m away so much. I’m still a patron of quite a few animal charities though, including one in Spain called LAPS. I did a comedy show in support of them recently.

I’ve actually got an animal related story in my new show, it’s about a fight I had with a bloke on the beach in Spain. I saw him taking photos while kicking something on the ground: it turned out to be a beautiful crab. He wanted to get a good photo of it but it kept trying to go back into the sea, so he was kicking it back up the beach. My wife told me to go and sort it out so I ended up having an argument with this bloke while holding a crab. I was basically stood there shouting: “I’ve got the crab!”

Is that the punchline?

No, it’s got a better punchline than that. It’s an action punchline. Basically, the crab gets the last word.

There have been rumours lately that Peter Kay is planning to stage seven live Phoenix Nights shows next year. Have you heard anything about that?

Yes, this sort of story surfaces every now and again, there have been a few things like this over the years. A couple of years ago there was talk of a film. I think I’d have heard by now if that was going to happen. Personally I think it’s just Peter being a bit tongue in cheek.

If you did get a call, would you go back and do more Phoenix Nights? After all, it wouldn’t be the same without Jerry St. Clair.

That’s what I’m known for, but it was 10 or 12 years ago now. It’s been a long time; you have to draw a line under things in case you can’t do them justice if you go back to them. I’m obviously still proud of it, though. I was at the airport on my way out here and a lad came up to me and asked me to autograph his two Phoenix Nights DVDs. I was really surprised and said: “Have you got them with you?” He pulled them out of his bag and said he takes them on holiday with him whenever he goes away.

Have you got any new TV projects in the pipeline at the moment?

When it comes to TV I never stop writing. I wrote something about ballroom dancing in Blackpool recently with (Phoenix Nights co-writer) Neil Fitzmaurice. It was picked up for a pilot; we cast Alison Steadman and had a big reading down in London. It was going to be great, but at the last minute they kicked it into touch, which does happen sometimes. I’ve got one or two things in the pipeline with the BBC just now, one with a big production company, one radio thing – I like to keep busy.

It’s been about twenty years since you quit your day job (as a haematologist at Bolton General Hospital). What’s been the highlight of your comedy career so far?

Playing Jerry in Phoenix Nights was a massive highlight. In fact, everything about filming Phoenix Nights was so fun. We knew it would be good from the get go, and we really worked at it. We wouldn’t sign off on a scene until we’d wrung out every last ounce of comedy from it.

There’s other highlights too of course: I’d been doing stand up for ten years before Phoenix Nights came out. Winning the Manchester Evening News Theatre Award for my first tour was amazing. I was also interviewed by Parkinson, which was a massive highlight. Then there was the time I was on the Royal Variety Show with Paul McCartney, he’s a hero of mine for his animal rights work…and for The Beatles as well, obviously. That’s a lot of highlights, isn’t it? Take your pick!

Dave Spikey: Punchlines launches on 25 September at Chorley Little Theatre and runs until 28 November. For more information and full tour dates click here.