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Low life

The indiscreet charm of Jim Davidson

All the old jokes are there. But he seems kinder and milder – even when heckled

2 August 2014

9:00 AM

2 August 2014

9:00 AM

Le tout Torquay was there, cramming into the Princess Theatre with a drink in each hand ten minutes after the show had begun. I pressed in among them. Jim Davidson, in a black shirt, a baggy old pair of jeans and business shoes, was already onstage introducing his show and bantering with people in the front row. ‘What’s the matter with you in the wheelchair, love?’ he said, cupping his ear at her. She was blind, she said. ‘Then what the fuck are you doing right down here at the front?’ (Laughter.) ‘Can you see anything at all, love?’ She couldn’t, she said. ‘Well, just to give you an idea,’ he said, vainly smoothing his hair, ‘I look a lot like Brad Pitt.’ (Laughter.)

The Princess Theatre holds 1,500 and it was pretty much full. Many of those arriving late were also quite drunk, and at the back of the stalls the hubbub of chatter and laughter made a similar background noise to that of a cocktail party. A woman in the row in front of me was so drunk her head was lolling. From time to time she’d come briefly to her senses and bawl out some mystifying word or phrase such as ‘It’s you!’ or ‘Rolf Harris!’, then lapse back into semi-consciousness. The ballet it wasn’t.


Jim Davidson must be well used to drunkenness because he good-naturedly paid these disturbances at the back no attention. Either that or he’s getting a bit deaf in his old age. Then he asked for a big hand for the young warm-up comic, and went off, and the warm-up man manfully warmed us up until the interval, when we all went out for a fag and more drink, and to wonder how Jim Davidson would cope with the bizarrely incomprehensible heckler in the second half.

After the interval it was all Jim Davidson. The curtain went up and he walked onstage in a smart three-piece suit and tie. ‘I bought this for going to court and it seems a shame to waste it,’ he said. (Laughter and affectionate cheers.) ‘As some of you may know, I went to live in Dubai for five years to be in an ethnic minority there. And then I came back to be in an ethnic minority here.’ (Laughter and rumbustious cheering.) ‘Any of you met Jimmy Savile?’ he said. (Appalled silence. Then a lone female whoop.) ‘There’s got to be a few quid in it for you, hasn’t there, love?’ he said. Amazingly, said Jim, Jimmy Savile’s persona was the same in everyday life as it was on camera. And then he went into his Jimmy Savile routine and we were away.

We had his drunken Glaswegian father urinating routine; his deaf signer at Nelson Mandela’s funeral; his sex with a fit, hairy pensioner; his going to the lavatory, voiding a stool, turning round to examine it, and there’s nothing there routine; his trying to sleep in the Big Brother house and being disturbed by the sight and sound of two female housemates ‘going at it’ with a vibrator routine. On paper it sounds puerile. But with his rare gift for visual and verbal mimicry, and his persona of a nice guy who has plumbed the depths of a certain kind of working-class vulgarity, and remained a nice guy, he elevated us, by piling joke upon joke, into a collective ecstasy of continuous, incontinent laughter that was akin to duende. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea. The two middle-aged sisters across the aisle from me sat stock-still and observed him impassively throughout through identical spectacle frames. And perhaps a percentage of the laughter was rooted in nostalgia and affection for the man himself and his various travails. But his ability to unite his audience and then lift it, as a high tide lifts all boats, and keep it joyously afloat on waves of laughter, bordered on the shamanistic.

The drunk woman must have dozed through most of it. Then she woke up and resumed her shouting out of mystifyingly irrelevant comments. ‘Ask Jimmy Tarbuck!’ was one. ‘Ealing Broadway!’ another. But Davidson didn’t seem to notice her until the audience revolted by groaning in unison at yet another inanity, with irate individuals from all over the theatre urging her to shut up — and worse. ‘What’s that?’ said Jim, cupping his ear to towards the back of the stalls. Someone in the front row enlightened him. ‘I think I must need my ears syringed. Drunk, I suppose, is she?’ The intermediary in the front row thought that she probably was. But the new kindlier, milder Jim refused to verbally humiliate her. Instead, he muttered, ‘Terrible thing, drink,’ and walked to the wings, where a pair of hands presented him with a large double something, which he downed in one, and resumed his act.


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