Reconstructing Jim Davidson

  • 25 February 2011
  • From the section Magazine
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Jim Davidson

Jim Davidson, starring as a bigoted comic in a new play he has written, has apologised for any offence his humour might have caused in the past. So would it be possible for such a controversial figure to make a comeback?

He was once one of television's most popular comedians.

But some of Jim Davidson's humour, especially his jokes about race, disability and women, has caused outrage over the years. And in the mid-1980s, the tide turned in favour of a generation of politically-aware comics, epitomised by Ben Elton.

Although Davidson returned to primetime television in the 1990s to host the BBC's Generation Game, his particular brand of comedy seemed rooted in the past.

Now he is touring with his new creation, Stand Up and Be Counted, a play about Eddie Pierce, a washed-up, bigoted comedian in his 50s who is forced to confront his prejudices when he shares a dressing room with a young, black, up-and-coming comedian.

This week, Davidson apologised for any offence his humour had caused in the past and admitted he missed the money and the fame of a career in television.

Comics like Bob Monkhouse and Frankie Howerd went out of fashion for very different reasons. Rather than being offensive, their humour just came to be seen as uncool. They managed to reinvigorate careers that seemed to have lost their way, but could Davidson?

1. Repudiate the past

Accepting the offence caused in the past is a start, and Davidson has suggested he has regrets about characters like Chalky White, a crude stereotype portrayed with a fake Jamaican accent and cannabis joint in hand.

"If I've offended anyone, I will apologise," Davidson, now in his late 50s, said in a radio interview with BBC Radio 4's Front Row this week. "But in the 70s I didn't have a lot to apologise for. Maybe all the audience that came to see me and made me rich and famous should apologise to their ethnic neighbours.

"But I never really thought of it then. Yes, I would like to apologise for Chalky. It's not something I would choose to do now.

"This play is not really Jim Davidson apologising but it might go some way to say 'Hey, I was wrong' and I've reflected this in the character of Eddie Pierce."

He said Eddie's character, described in the play as a "sad and lonely old man", is partly based on the public perception of himself, which he thinks is a misconception that is difficult to correct.

But some critics might suggest Davidson is somewhat less than fully repentant. Speaking to the BBC again a few days later, he says he had no wish to be back on television, which he says is for young people.

"I've not got anything to prove. The BBC don't put out an apology every night for Love Thy Neighbour and the Black and White Minstrel Show."

2. Be likeable

You have to like the person that's making you laugh, says Karen Bayley, a comedian who runs her own club The Comedy Junction in Birmingham.

That's why comedians like Bruce Forsyth, "a lovable old rogue", are accepted more readily than Davidson, for whom it would be hard to start afresh, she says.

"The problem is that he defended himself for so long. The horse has bolted. With other comics, you might accept an apology but it depends on whether they are likeable or not. A lot of successful comedians have that."

3. Adapt with the times

"Bob Monkhouse was a big fan of today's comedy and kept up with it," says Bayley. "Spike Milligan went to comedy clubs all the time to see what was relevant. They adapted their content to reflect that."

Others managed to pitch themselves to a new, younger audience. Rolf Harris became a hit at Glastonbury by tapping into a new appetite for kitsch.

4. Play yourself

The career of Les Dennis seemed to be on the rocks. The work had dried up after the success of a comedy double-act with Dustin Gee and later as a presenter for 15 years on ITV's Family Fortunes.

Image caption Extras was Dennis's chance to reinvent himself

One comeback attempt on Big Brother failed to spark a revival, but in 2005 he appeared in Extras with Ricky Gervais, playing himself in a searingly honest appraisal of his faltering career.

That appearance earned him a new-found respect and he has been in demand ever since, currently appearing in Alan Ayckbourn's Drowning on Dry Land in London's West End.

"To play yourself in a fictional setting is very, very difficult for any actor," says Ivor Dembina, stand-up comedian for 25 years and resident host of Hampstead Comedy Club. "I thought he stepped into it rather well.

"It takes bravery or courage, it takes something to admit your failures in such a public way on such a successful programme. If anything, my estimation for him went up."

Michael Barrymore appeared on Celebrity Big Brother as he tried to revive his appeal after the tragedy of Stuart Lubbock's death at his home. Although he finished runner-up, it failed to bring much work.

Playing someone else can also help breed mainstream success too. Mike Reid, purveyor of very adult humour on the comedy circuit, became a household name as Frank Butcher in the BBC's EastEnders.

5. Find a younger champion

"What you need is someone who is hip and cool and fashionable to champion you," says Bruce Dessau, a comedy critic who writes a blog on London's Evening Standard website.

"Bruce Forsyth appeared on Have I Got News For You with Paul Merton. Bob Monkhouse did some gigs with younger comedians. Frankie Howerd was massive in the 50s, slipped out of favour in the late 60s and then Peter Cook had him on The Establishment in Soho and that kicked off his comeback."

Ronnie Corbett enjoyed an upturn in fortunes after appearing in Extras and he also had the likes of Rob Brydon and David Walliams singing his praises.

6. Do an Oprah-style confessional interview

An expert in publicity and career management might suggest that improving an image is best started with a bare-all confessional television appearance.

It would not be easy because the public perception of Davidson is not very good, says PR guru Max Clifford, who has known the comedian for 30 years.

"That's why he's not on television any more, so if he's going to be successful, he's going to have to reinvent himself, which would be very hard but not impossible.

"He's got to appear as a totally different person in a major television interview, saying something like 'I'm not drinking any more'. Some soul searching. And proving he was convincing and sincere, then things could start to change. In order to change Jim Davidson, you have to change the public perception of him."

About 12 months of regular charity work prior to such an interview would help, says Clifford, along with widely admired famous people occasionally praising him for his support.

7. Wait for 'uncool' to be cool again

Comedy changes over time, allowing for people to come back as their style of humour is reinvigorated, says Mark Boosey, editor of the online British Comedy Guide.

"Comedies like Miranda and Not Going Out are making the 'old skool' studio-based sitcom format cool again, for example.

Image caption Cannon and Ball have reappeared in cameo roles

"Bobby Ball has been on Not Going Out a couple of times off the back of this. Mick Miller, another comedian who went out of fashion for a bit, is back too. He's been acting alongside Johnny Vegas in BBC3 sitcom Ideal, and appeared on Jason Manford's ITV stand-up show Comedy Rocks."

Politics has a massive influence on comedy because it shapes the mood of the country, he says. The recession, for example, has stigmatised "flash" comedy and elevated humour that is "down-to-earth".

Comedians who are in their wilderness years are hoping that their style will find favour again. But some who might not be on TV much, like Jethro or Roy Chubby Brown, can still sell out venues because they have committed fans.

But coming back from being perceived as offensive is a lot harder, he says, unless society's attitudes change as a whole.

The rise of edgy comedians like Frankie Boyle and Jimmy Carr might leave some to question whether some present-day comedy is much different from Davidson's. Carr was criticised for telling a racist joke about Gypsies, and also threatened to sue Davidson for telling a joke he considered to be his own.

A Jim Davidson comeback would be miraculous, says Dessau, but at least the success of Boyle and Carr suggests that comedy has moved away from the disapproval of the 1980s when Davidson was shown to be so out of touch.

"It's a bit like flared trousers," Dessau says. "If you stick around long enough, you might make a comeback into fashion again. It would be very hard for Jim Davidson, but stranger things have happened."

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