Aug 27 2011: Birth, School, Work, Church: An Interview With Dave Allen (Big Issue in the North, 1998)
I travelled across London, having not long been living there, on the morning of December 12 1998 to meet Dave Allen, in order to interview him mainly in relation to the release of a videotape (yes, this was the days before DVD became the dominant medium) titled Dave Allen On Life, essentially a two hour highlights package drawn from his 1992 BBC TV series. This had been notorious at the time for the license Allen took with a newly liberalised regime to include material that fell somewhat outside the more family-orientated Dave Allen At Large of the 1970s and 1980s, whose format – with its theme music of Alan Hawkshaw’s Blarney’s Stoned, and set-up featuring Allen on a stool with a glass of whiskey (actually ginger ale with ice) and a cigarette, all intercut with slickly produced sketches – remains his best known work.
I’d grown up watching Allen’s shows and meeting the man himself was something of a concern: what if he turned out to be an arse and the experience shattered all those fond memories? No need to worry, as it happened. In person he seemed exactly as you’d hope: amiable, happy to talk about pretty much any subject, insatiably curious about people (I’d been interviewed myself before I got to ask him any questions) and convincingly open (if prone to digression) when questioned himself. The transcript below represents only the taped part of the interview. Before switching the tape on, we’d chatted while Allen finished breakfast, and when the tape ran out we continued chatting for a further 25 minutes or so over coffee. The location was the Langham Hotel, opposite the BBC, where – eventually – Allen went off to do further interviews for radio that afternoon.
Wayne Burrows: I suppose the first question I’d like to ask is about the first gag on the new tape, where you talk about having retired. My dad appreciated the irony of it, that you’d retired, but that in order to support your retirement you had to work.
Dave Allen: I think all fathers would understand that, that’s a natural part of the process. You might retire, but I don’t know anybody who has fully retired. People might retire from doing one thing, but they’ll either finish up painting their son’s house, or the mothers will be doing the washing, so no, nobody ever really retires. For me, it’s not like I’m a bank manager who reaches a certain age or something, then just stops working altogether. It’s not the same thing. You can just go on as long as you want, really.
WB: I ask because a lot of people, when I’ve said I was doing this interview, have been asking ‘why hasn’t he been on TV recently?’: wanting to know why there’s been no new series. I wondered if it was because you’ve decided to take it easy now?
DA: Well, there’s also the thing that I haven’t, in reality, ever done a great deal of television. It’s been spaced out with other work and travelling, so I would say that there’s always been at least a 3 or 4 year gap between any television shows I’ve done, even back in the 70s. It just seems that you’re doing one every week, because of repeats, and you’re really not doing it that often. I might do a series of six programmes and then not touch it at all for another 4 years, and that’s how it’s always been with TV. Plus, TV uses up your material very quickly: a short series might easily absorb four years’ worth of things I’ve been using in live shows – and once it’s been on TV, everyone’s heard it, so I can’t really use it again in other places. There’s that to consider, too.
WB: I guess that’s the thing, really, that people like myself won’t necessarily see the live shows and concerts you do, so we tend to associate you with TV.
DA: …and you don’t see the travel, of course, if I’m in Australia, or Canada, or New Zealand or Hong Kong or Singapore or anywhere where there are English-speaking people I’ll travel to and perform… Admittedly, I’ve cut that down a bit, because I don’t want to spend all my life sitting in aeroplanes, looking for my luggage and waiting for the plane to hit a mountain.
WB: One of the things that surprised me when Teresa [Allen’s PA] sent me your biography was that there are so many things on there I had no idea you’d done, like the work on the documentaries, The Melting Pot, things like that… There was a whole range of things there I suspect many people don’t know about you.
DA: It’s not deliberate that those tend to be a bit obscured, I suppose they’re just things that came up over the years as sidelines and interesting things at a slight angle to what I normally do. I mean, I’m a comedian, but I’m not totally locked into that forever, and there are other things I’d like to do, and enjoy doing – and I’ve been lucky enough to have the chance of doing some of them. But I suppose they’re not the things I’m known for to most people.
WB: So how did The Melting Pot come about, for instance?
DA: Well, I’d done a chat show over here, in the early 60s, and the man who ran ATV at that time was a documentary-maker, and he said to me ‘have you ever thought of doing a documentary?’. It was as simple as that, really, it wasn’t thought out in any way, it was just a case of me replying ‘yes, let’s do it’, and taking it from there.
WB: It seems a particularly interesting entry on your CV partly because it must’ve been quite fascinating to do that documentary at that particular time  when there was so much going on in America, socially and politically, that would have huge impacts later.
DA: Yes, I mean, New York was certainly a hairy place at the time, and we called it The Melting Pot because that was what New York was supposed to be, with all the immigrants from Europe and Central Europe, all the migrants travelling over there in the 19th and 20th centuries. It’s the idea expressed in the inscription on the Statue of Liberty – you know, ‘give me your poor and hungry, your huddled masses yearning to be free’ – and yet at the time we were there it was a series of different groups of people, all very angry, and very much opposed to each other. So there were tremendous increases in drugs and violence and police corruption. There was Black Power, then there was White Power resisting gains that black people had begun to make during the Civil Rights marches and laws. There was the beginnings of Gay Power, actually – it was called that then, the starting point of what became the gay movement in the 70s and 80s. I think we were probably the first people to interview the four lawyers who were involved in the start of that. They’d started it because, basically, they were being harassed by the police in certain bars in New York, and – I’m trying to think what the one big bar was…
DA: Stonewall, yeah, that’s it, and we were there when that was actually happening, and we were talking to these four lawyers, and they said ‘we’re holding a meeting, come along’. So we went to some hall in Greenwich Village, where there were about 400 people, mainly gay but some more general political activists as well, and it was quite an interesting thing to see. They were talking about having a march in and around Central Park, and I think they had a march in the end with about 200, maybe 250 people there. Now you’ll have Gay Pride celebrations in New York with thousands upon thousands of people, many of them not gay themselves, but just there to enjoy the event. I suppose that process was just getting started when we were there in 1969, and it was amazing, really, to see that tiny seed of resistance, those 200 or 250 people in Central Park, you know, that seed just starting to germinate into what is now not only a huge tree, but a whole forest that’s grown out of the stand they were taking there.
WB: It sounds like it would make an interesting release in itself, as a sort of social history?
DA: Maybe, I mean I don’t know who has the footage anymore, if anyone does, and I’ve heard of no plans to do anything with it if the films do still exist. Perhaps they’ll surface again one day. But the whole thing was an interesting experience, just to be sitting in the city, watching the city, and more than the people it was the city itself we were looking at. There was all the violence in the street, the noise everywhere – and then you could go into Central Park on the Sunday, when no cars were allowed, and over in one corner you’d have the New York Greeks playing Greek music and dancing Greek style, and on the far side you’d see Japanese people playing Japanese music and dancing, then there’d be the Irish groups, and Lithuanian groups, and Armenian groups, all these different groups of people, and the one thing I felt at the time was that they were all singing and dancing, but none of them was dancing with each-other, they were all dancing…over there, separately. I think, if I remember right, it came together quite nicely, the whole programme we did, but it didn’t have any answers, or a sense of telling viewers that ‘this is what we’ve got to do’, it just watched the city and the people, and let that ask a question each viewer could think about for him or herself at the end of the programme. I suppose, for me, the principle behind it was just that if we want to live together, we’re going to have to understand each-other better.
WB: I suppose that approach might suggest that your father’s career as a journalist in Ireland has had an influence on you, and I wondered how much you’re conscious of that…not just in things like the documentaries, but also the way there seems to be a strong parallel between the role of a journalist or documentary-maker, observing and reporting on the way we live, and the kind of comedy you do.
DA: Yes, I think one thing I did get from my father was a sense of curiosity about things, but whether that comes from yourself, or being around him growing up, or is inherited in the genes or something, I don’t know. I’d tend to think it’s just the environment you’re brought up in and obviously my father was a very big part of that, for me. But I don’t think it’s too unusual: we’re probably all, if we’re fortunate, brought up to question things, to ask questions, not just to take the appearance of life and the places we live in on their outside value alone. For example, my father wasn’t in any way religious, but he didn’t ever say ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ to religion either: he wasn’t a believer, but he wasn’t an avowed atheist or anything like that either. So when it comes to the time that you are, you know, sensible enough or trust yourself enough, then you can choose to go with it or go away from it, but it’s your decision, not someone else’s decision, not a decision your father or mother made for you, before you were able to think properly for yourself. I’m aware that in a country like Ireland, where the Church had so much influence over people, that’s been one of his great gifts to me.
WB: …and of course religion’s been one of the big subjects, in a sense, in your comedy, hasn’t it?
DA: Well, it has and it hasn’t. It’s only…would probably only constitute maybe ten percent or five percent of what I talk about, really.
WB: But it is something that people do tend to remember about your routines…the material satirising the priests and the absurdities of the Church.
DA: Yes, that’s true – that five or ten percent had a way of staying in a lot of people’s minds, for good or bad, but I think that’s probably because until then no-one had ever really talked about religion very much on television, outside the quite reverent Sunday programmes, and certainly not in a way that poked fun at it. When I started out, people still tended to talk about the Church in hushed tones, whether it was the Synagogue, or the Temple, or whatever variation on the theme it was. Church of Ireland or Church of England, it was always like ‘ooh, he’s a nice priest, he’s a vicar, he’s taking Holy Orders… yes, my daughter’s a nun’, you know, and people would be, ‘wow!, is she really? That’s wonderful, you must be so proud of her’. There was still that sense that being part of a Church was something unequivocally good, that being a priest meant you were a good person, by default. So I kind of jerked them off a little bit, stirring them up, treating that attitude with a lot less reverence than many felt it deserved – not out of malice, because a lot of the people I wrote about, some of the priests I played in different sketches, were more-or-less modelled on fellows I knew, or stories I’d been told by people who knew how these things worked. But my real point was that if you’re going to have an organisation as big as the Catholic Church, or the organisation of any religion, you’re going to get every sort of element of person within that organisation, just by the law of averages. So there’ll be your fascists, some very kind people, and there’ll be masochists, sadists, drunks, drug-abusers and every other sort of human being, good and bad. It’s all part and parcel of anything that big. But you could never say that about religion, in England or Ireland – you’d be told you shouldn’t think like that, ‘how dare you imply a priest might touch a bottle, they’re Holy people, they don’t do that…’. But it was there, behind the scenes. You’d have kids in school going ‘groped you again, did he?’ after school or choir practice, and they’d answer, ‘yeah’, and you just went through it, you know, because if you ever went back to tell your mother it was more likely you’d get a clout around the ear for saying bad things about the priest and the Holy Brothers than that anything might be done about it!
WB: So the reason it had the impact it did was because it was at a time when there was still so much respect and reverence for things like the church and monarchy…whereas now there are things like Father Ted in the mainstream, which are pretty much the opposite of that, I suppose.
DA: Yeah, and I think all that kind of thing happens because somewhere down the line someone begins to break the mould, and once the mould is broken then you can go on to break it a bit more, you can spread it out, make those cracks wider, let a little more light into it, if you like. It’s the same with anything. I mean the BBC at one time used to have a Producers’ Guidebook – this is absolutely true, I’ve got one at home – and if you read this thing, and tried to follow its guidelines to the letter, you realise you couldn’t say anything at all, you really would not say a word, about anything. Even to the point that it says ‘singers must not sing with an American accent’ …
WB: Was that including American singers?
DA: Well, my point exactly, though I think American singers were often kept off BBC radio in its earlier days. But it’s really not all that far away, these kinds of prescriptive rules, it’s early television. They had all these very strange guidelines, so you know the Killicuddy Reeks in Ireland, which is a place? But you weren’t allowed to say the name of that place, because the implication was that the Killicuddy family stank, there was a double meaning you weren’t allowed to risk anyone hearing! So they had things like that and when you began working there, and trying to write material for shows, you couldn’t believe it! You couldn’t say ‘damn’ or ‘blast’ or ‘bum’ or ‘bottom’, you couldn’t refer to any of the body’s openings, you couldn’t refer to people having body-odours or pimples, and you certainly couldn’t refer to anything even slightly related to sex or bodily functions. So you’d find ways to bend and break those rules, just a little bit at first. And eventually you can get to a point where someone says, ‘did you see that, he talked about venereal disease on television last night’, and it’s nothing to do with saying it for the sake of it, it’s about putting it into a context which is open with a bit of knowledge, that’s all. When I look back to my own boyhood, nobody at school ever told us anything about venereal disease. Nobody. So you have 600 boys, all – or certainly the greater part of us – desparately rampaging around trying to find somebody we could stick our dicks into, which was all boys our age could think of, you know? Sixteen, seventeen years old…hairy monsters stoked with curiosity about sex and driven to experience it at any cost… and nobody said anything about any kind of sexual education, nobody told us anything about birth, about where children came from, or how they were born. Sperm, ovaries, menstrual cycles…we knew absolutely nothing about any of those things. Sometimes I’ll watch a programme, and they’ll be talking about women becoming pregnant for the first time, and there are old women talking about it now they’re in their sixties or seventies. And they had no idea, they didn’t know they were pregnant, they didn’t even know they’d had sex, because they didn’t know what it was all about because nobody ever allowed these things to be discussed, in school, at home or in any other place. So you kind of try to open up those things, and maybe somebody else takes that baton and runs a bit further with it, and somebody else picks it up from them, and with religion, eventually you get Father Ted. And within the format of Father Ted, under the guise of ‘ha ha, they’re all dopey, funny characters’ – the corrupt priest, the inane priest, the lush priest, the caretaker lady and the wacky careerist bishop, who are all broad comedy characters – they’re also making very strong statements, because the church does have a tremendous problem with priests regarding booze and drugs, and there are paedophiles, and there are priests who know absolutely nothing they’re supposed to: ‘there is your father, to give you advice on how life is’, you know, but who has never lived outside the Church, and knows nothing about it. And parish priests in Ireland, for years, they’ve been noted for having their housekeepers, who – whether it was consummated or not – was generally someone who was absolutely in love with the priest, who’d given up her life to be with him. So all those things in that programme are carrying much deeper undercurrents based on the reality of the Church in a place like Ireland, but they get away with it – well, not not so much get away with it as find it’s accepted more, perhaps – because it’s disguised as comedy. Maybe it’s more accessible to people than other kinds of criticism of those institutions.
WB: I understand Dermot Morgan, who played Ted in the series, was known as an outspoken critic of the Church in Ireland, yet he had the heads of the Irish church attending his funeral…
DA: Well I was surprised that he had a church funeral. I think that was probably… well, I don’t know, so it’s not something I can talk about. I have no idea who decided that he would have a Church funeral, whether it was Morgan himself or his family, and it’s really none of my business. But I was quite surprised that it was a church funeral. And of course the church will take the opportunity to use that, because in a way, it’s like the bad sheep returning home, the sinner renouncing his mistakes in life. They would say, ‘yes, they might criticise us, but in death they return to the fold’, that kind of thing. So they’d use it as a piece of…propaganda or whatever, you know? It was quite a surprising thing.
WB: I know some people joke that if ever they became religious, they’d choose Catholicism because as a Catholic you can sin all your life, then as long as you repent on your death-bed you can still go to heaven. It seems quite forgiving next to certain strains of Protestantism, sometimes.
DA: Well, I think there’s probably some theological argument against that, but it’s all about the confession box, in the end. Psychologically, it’s very good. I mean, it’s shored up by the heirarchy of the Catholic Church, but in actual fact, to allow yourself to feel sorry for doing something you’ve done, or to admit to mistakes you’ve made, is not a bad thing, because it relieves a certain amount of psychological pressure and is quite a healthy thing to do. But then the catch is, if they’ve created the sin in the first place, if the sin you’re feeling bad about, which the Church took from ordinary life and decided was a sin, and you’ve done this thing and are now feeling bad about it, it – well, it leaves you a bit unsure about whether the chicken comes first, or the egg, in terms of how wrong what you’re feeling bad about really is. So, for example: if I were to convince you that by walking across this room you were going to commit a sin, and we both know very well that you’re going to have to walk across there at some point in your life, I’ve made it inevitable you’re going to commit a sin. But who am I to tell you it’s a sin? It’s one of those… And the church loves sinners, the church always says ‘we love sinners, but we don’t like the sin’, but they’ve created the sin in the first place. It’s full of complications like that. Years ago, when we’d talked about going to confession as kids, we all used to call it the ‘fire escape’…the ‘fire-escape’ was going to confession. And in a sense it was, we weren’t joking, it was a term for it, because you’d go in, get rid of all your sins, and if you died in that purified state you wouldn’t go to Hell. So it’s good to question your behaviour, but I don’t think you should feel bad about having done things just because the church tells you they’re bad – there are many sins that aren’t bad things, just things you might need to do because of circumstance, and many other things the church gladly condones, and even encourages, that really should be regarded as sins.
WB: In the Dave Allen On Life series it’s notable that your routines start with retirement, ageing and death, then work back through birth, sex, childhood and work. It seemed there was a conscious desire there to take on some of the things that are now treated with the reverence the church used to be, in the days you described earlier. It sometimes seems as though paid work is a new no-go area for criticism, something we’re not encouraged to question these days.
DA: Yes, I mean absolutely, because it’s the same thing, it’s somebody else’s ethics being imposed on you: ‘you’ve got to work!’. One of the things I always liked about England was that the general ethic was that you didn’t want to work – you had to work, to survive, but you didn’t work too much. No more than necessary, and you didn’t break your back working, or feel guilty for taking it easy when you could. That seems to have changed now – now, everyone has to be ‘passionate’ about working, everyone is devoted to their jobs in a way that never really happened before. In the past there were things like tea-breaks, and afternoon tea-breaks, and the first thing you’d do when you came to work was have a cup of tea, then maybe, you know, do a bit of work. It was a way of being at work, but making a point of not being entirely defined by being at work – a little bit of resistance to being there. I watch the thing now with people who smoke, because they have to go out of the buildings now to smoke. So how much of the day is taken up? Any smoker who lights a cigarette has probably been thinking about lighting the cigarette for ten or fifteen minutes and preparing the way to escape. So he’s up in the building and – we’ve already got fifteen minutes thinking, remember – so he leaves his desk and goes down to the pavement, which is another two minutes. Then he’s out there. He meets some friends and they have a chat, smoke some cigarettes for ten minutes, then thinks, ‘well, I’d better get back to work’, and so he goes back up to his desk. Another two minutes. So by the time he’s thought about it, gone down, had a smoke, it’s been half an hour…and when he gets back, it’s tea-break again. So it’s all that, and I love to see the way people make these situations tolerable for themselves, despite every being effort made to keep us all inside the lines. We do need an occupation, meaningful work, something to do with our time, but the difference is between an occupation and work. If you have an occupation you have work, but work is not necessarily an occupation, in that it may not be occupying your attention while you’re there. The great thing about any sort of work, I’d have thought, is to do it and not be conscious of the time, or even feel that you’re working.
WB: By an occupation, do you mean a situation where you’re being paid for something you enjoy, that you might be doing anyway, even if you weren’t paid?
DA: Well, I don’t know quite how I’d define the difference, but I think it’s something that is clear when you see it, in the way people are occupied by the thing – whatever it is – they’re doing. I know a lot of people who’ve now retired from the jobs they used to do, every day, and all along they’d had something else they were doing – a hobby, I suppose, but often more than that – something like watercolours, perhaps, or gardening, or making things in their sheds. But after retirement they might find it evolves, or they set up a business doing that thing. So it then becomes the case that, at the end of their lives, or in the twilight at least, they finally discover the one thing they really like doing and it’s paying them better than the work they had for all those years before retirement. It seems a slightly bizarre state of things to me that so many people spend so much of their time doing things they don’t really want to be doing. When you observe that sort of thing, and talk about it, it’s absurd and funny, but it might make people think a little bit more about how they live their own lives when they listen to you. It’s a hope I have, sometimes, but the main thing is that it’s true and funny. Everything else has to come second to that.
WB: It’s interesting to hear you say that because another thing that’s often struck me about your routines was the way you – and maybe this is putting too much of a literary emphasis on things – but the way you had a bit of that thing you get with Irish writers, people like like Beckett and Synge, where humour gets mixed up with this quite bleak take on how things are, how the world is…
DA: I don’t know – I mean, it’s not conscious for me, and I don’t think too much about how what I say might relate to that very fine literary tradition, though I have obviously read and enjoyed some of those writers’ works. But I do think – and this may be where any common ground is – that a lot of Irish people are brought up on a verbal basis, in the sense that talk and stories and language are part of growing up. I can’t remember my parents ever reading me stories out of books, but I can certainly remember them telling me stories in conversation. The reading that I did was my own reading, when I went off and read books on my own, and I had two brothers, and they used to talk about things they’d read, and I wasn’t supposed to read, which made me want to read those things too. So my brothers would tell me things, and my father would tell us stories, and my mother would tell us stories, but they didn’t read them to us from books. My father was a wonderful natural storyteller, so you could just sit there and he’d tell you – not jokes, even – just things about what the countrvside was like when he was a boy, or stories about people and from his own life. We lived not far from where he’d been born and lived as a boy, but it had changed, and he would say, you know, ‘when I used to come up this road here, there was an old steam tram that used to take us to school, and they had to shovel coal into this tram’, and we’d think, ‘My God!, The olden days!’. I go there now, of course, and it’s a city. Where there were probably a hundred people living in the whole area round there in my father’s day there’s now about 150,000. It’s got streets and cinemas and shops and graveyards and pubs, I mean, everything… but it’s funny when you’re talking to people and you get that sense of a place before you knew it, or come to know people you’ve never met yourself. There was an old lady called Mrs Hunt who had lived in the lodge when we were boys, and she was always talking about things like that. We’d be waiting for the bus to go to school and she’d be out there, and told me about a lot of different things. If somebody had once gone by on a horse and cart she’d have talked to them. Or she’d see a car, and someone would go to her: ‘Jesus! did you see the car that went up the road the other day?’ and that was it, they’d be away. ‘Where was it going?’; ‘Ah, I think it was going to Tala’. And so they’d have a fucking conversation about a car! And there were all sorts of things like that people would talk about to pass the time. The river was there, and fishing, and there were mountains, and the weather plays a great part in country life. And it’s never enough to just be saying ‘it’s wet today’, no, it’s always ‘Oh, I remember, oh-ho, you think this is wet? I remember 25 years ago it was comin’ down like sticks for a week!’, it was almost competitive at times. And with my own kids, I’d talk to them about the first pair of wellington boots I got and about how I had to find a puddle to walk in when I had them on. And it wasn’t enough to be an ordinary puddle, it had to be just that much from the very top of the boots, so when you walked in it, the water rose up, and there’d be a point where the water went, oooh, just to the top of the boot and the trick was to nearly but not quite get any inside. Kids listening to that go, ‘yeah’, because they don’t just get a new pair of wellingtons, they get the new pair of wellingtons and an adventure thrown in with it…which is always better. And then there were trousers. Your trousers were always longer than your raincoat, because people bought clothes not to fit you, but to grow into, so you’d have your raincoat up to here and your trousers, those short trousers, always hanging down below your coat, so they always got wet when it was raining. You used to get chaps down the insides of your legs because they were all corduroy and they made a noise when they were wet, kind of rasp, squelch sound. There was the fact that boys never used the fly, they’d lift the leg up, and have a piss out of the leg, that way. So there’s urine down your leg, the rain and cold, and in the winter there’d be frozen icicles of rain and urine around your legs. But I’d tell these stories to my kids and they’d get involved, and it’s about exploring something, getting someone really involved in what you’re saying, instead of just, you know, the bare facts, that anticlimax of ‘oh well, we bought a new pair of trousers today’…
WB: I guess that approach is very much the same as in the kind of comedy you do, which isn’t really jokes, and is more like storytelling…spinning the everyday material into ever more elaborate shapes?
DA: Yes, I hope so. It’s the details and the embellishments and sometimes the digressions that bring a subject to life and make it memorable for people. If I just say, ‘ah, there was a night I had a bit too much to drink’, it’s not at all funny or interesting by itself. But if I start to tell you about how I got drunk, and where I went, and all the ridiculous things I did, said and thought in that state, well, the chances are you’ll have been there too, at least once, and so will at least 95% of any audience I put myself in front of. So it becomes easy then to recognise the experience I’m describing, even if the details are all different, and in that recognition you can find the humour, and the human absurdity and the delight of it all, and that’s what will make it funny in the end. So in that way, yes, when I perform it’s only a slightly different thing to what I’d do when I talk about trousers and wellington boots with my own kids.
WB: I suppose the last question, given that we’re running out of time, is that with Dave Allen On Life being a compilation of material from – is it the ’92 Dave Allen series…?
DA: Yes, all the material on this tape is from that series, which I made for the BBC.
WB: …I wondered if there there any plans to do new material now, or in the near future?
DA: Well, I also did a series for Carlton in 1995, which was another eight shows there, but it’s really a question of whether I want to do it or not. At the moment I’m not really thinking about it directly, but I don’t stop writing or coming up with potential new material because I’m not doing anything with it just yet. I don’t say, ‘right, I’m not doing anything now for a few years’. I sit around, and I jot things down, and I sketch out ideas and play with them, maybe one here, another couple there, and just try to find enough possible items to do something with. Then once you’ve got enough of them straight in your mind, you can do something. That’s the way I’ve always worked. Get it down, be sure it’s material you want to do and then go to someone with it. I don’t like it when somebody says ‘Would you like to do something on television?’, and you say ‘yes’, and then they’re immediately saying: ‘Right, so we can start filming in six weeks’ time…’ and you’ve got nothing ready. I much prefer to have it – and loads of it – then say, ‘This is what I’ve got, I think there’s enough material here – let’s get a couple of writers in to sort it all out, and then we’ll do it’. But it’s not vital to me to be doing more TV. I don’t like being put under pressure, especially to come up with the stuff. That’s the danger.
Producers, they’ll say, ‘Oh, yeah, let’s do this’, but the last thing they think about is the performer and the writers, and they are the two most important items in any show.
WB: You see a lot of it, don’t you? Someone does a very successful first series and then six months or a year later comes a second series which is very weak in comparison to the first…
DA: Yes, well that’s it exactly, and I always feel very sympathetic to the performers in cases like that because they’ve been badly advised. In this business, you’re only as good as your work and if you’re going to do it you also need to have the space to do your best work. Anything less than that and you’re not doing anyone – yourself, your audience or even the producers who are trying to push you into rushing things – any favours at all. Take your time and get the material how you want it. At least that way if it doesn’t work you know it didn’t work for a good reason, and you can still be proud of it. It didn’t fail just because you hadn’t been given enough time to get it right.