by Sean O'Neill
The Lancashire born stand up comedy legend that is Dave Spikey has come along way since his first TV appearance on ITV's New Faces (back in the 90s). With his last show 'Best Medicine' the Eight out of Ten Cats star and co-writer of Phoenix Nights returned to a subject inspired by his first ever job as a Haematologist at Bolton General Hospital (a subject he even won on Mastermind with).
The man himself took time out from his hectic schedule to tell us about the his material, the NHS , animal cruelty, new projects, his career highlights and low-lights and provided Liberation Frequency with a major insight into the real man behind the household name.
What subjects and themes featured in Best Medicine?
I used to work in the NHS, I worked there for years and so obviously that’s the medicine angle. I do quite a bit about my life in the NHS behind the scenes, stories that will raise a few eyebrows as well. And also because my dad was a man of many sayings always used to say to me ‘David laughter is the best medicine’ which is why when I was six I nearly died of diphtheria. But erm ‘Dad I can’t breathe’ ‘Knock, Knock’ oh here we go again.
So it’s looking at things in life. Life’s funny, I think life is a comedy drama… I just think if we look hard enough everything has a funny side to it and it’s just high lighting those little areas of life that I think are funny.
From where do you draw your inspiration and what most influences your comedy?
Life influences the comedy and you know just observation. My wife get’s so annoyed at me when we’re out as I’ve got this little radar in my head and I pick up on funny things that people say and try and expand on them and exaggerate them and make a story out of them….It’s just people. I think for me comedy’s got to be true to yourself and anything I find funny I’ll do.
Could you share an example from Best Medicine with us?
Yeah of course I can. I sort of despair about the NHS. I’m not a very political animal but because I worked in it for thirty years I despair about the state of it when I left in 2001.…I still have a lot of friends there who tell me it’s got a lot worse. Because of under investing…they can’t afford good staff anymore. So you get idiots working in the NHS, I just think that’s hilarious in a way. It’s very black humour. It’s no wonder they’ve all these problems.
Last summer I had a minor operation. When I was being admitted, this stupid nurse, really stupid nurse, took all my answers down to the questions and said ‘before I put your little wrist band on do you have any allergies? And I said well yeah ‘I’m allergic to penicillin’ and she said’oh that’s good’ and she wrote that down and she said ’anything else?’ and I said I don’t know if it’s relevant but it’s summer and ’I’m allergic to wasps’ and she looked at me and said ‘allergic to wasps?’ and I went ’’yeah wasps’ ‘Do you mean, do you mean when they sting ya?’’ and I went ‘No when I stroke them I come out in a rash’.
If you were to sit down with the government and say what you could do to sort the NHS out. What would that advice be?
Oh God that would be about a ten point plan. You look at your management structure; you’d get people in to do the paper work. I actually got to the top of my job in very great area of expertise and I spent half my time just filing paperwork. Get people who have been trained to do a job, back to work. I’d take back the cleaning services and the portering services. When they privatised the cleaning services that’s when we got MRSA…and all these different bugs. When I was there we didn’t have them we had one or two outbreaks, we didn’t have massive problems because the cleaners who worked in the wards were part of the team and they got reasonably well paid. Now they’ve privatised it’s just a money making venture. Instead of having three cleaners in your lab you’ve got two. They’re not instructed properly…there’s no morale. It’s no wonder that everywhere is bloody filthy. There’s loads of stuff I’d do.
Can you share best and or worst stand up or filming experiences?
My best in stand up …I suppose was being on Parkinson really. I’ve always loved it and it’s always been like the pinnacle really of television programmes to get on. The thing is I got asked to do two shows in the same week. The Royal Variety Show and Parkinson. I did The Royal Variety and funnily enough Michael Parkinson was one of the compares. So I met him earlier and he was a really, really nice man. And I didn’t do great on The Royal Variety Show to be honest. I was on really near the end and the nerves got the better of me. I did ok but you know you think afterwards that could have gone better. I got away with it. It was the Queen staring at me that put me off looking at her watch thinking ‘What time is it?
So a couple of days later I was on Parkinson and er ...so I sort of not redeemed myself if you like but I had a really really good one. You know I really really enjoyed it and I couldn’t believe I was walking down those steps to that music. It’s a thing I’ve always wanted to do and it’s a massive ambition fulfilled. I was on with Paul McCartney, Keira Knightley and Katie Melua. Real 'A' list people and I was thinking what am doing here? I was working in the hospital a couple of years ago. I sat there in between takes just chatting to Paul McCartney who’s one of my heroes you know from The Beatles but also because of his animal welfare work of which I’m a massive patron of as well. That was my high point.
And your low point?
So you want my low point now? My low point was very very early on in my career. I had nowhere to work when I first started in comedy because there were no comedy clubs as we know them in the early nineties round here in the northwest. So I had to try and find work in the working men's clubs. It’s a popular misconception in this business that I came from the working men’s clubs circuit but I didn’t I did about less than ten and died on my arse in about seventy five per cent of them. So this one gig I was booked to do Blackburn Railwayman's club. So I turned up at the door…and the bloke said ‘what do you do? I said ‘I’m a comedian’ and he went ‘Oh God we don’t get comedians here’ That’s the last thing you want to hear. I went in the dressing room and the boss came in and said ‘Right you go on and do forty minutes. Then you have the supper and the bingo and all that then you go back on and do your dance spot’ and I said ‘What do you mean dance spot?‘ he replied ‘That‘s what we do that‘s what everybody does they come here and we have background music.' And I said ‘I’m a comedian’ he went ‘You’re not are you?’ I went ’yeah’ and he said ‘Who booked you’ and I said ‘I don’t bloody know’ ‘so anyway we still want a dance spot’. So I went on and I did forty minutes and they hated me, they just ignored me. They kept turning round looking from their pints at the stage as if to say you still here then.
So I did that and then came off in the interval and I was so down so depressed and he came in and said ‘What’s all that about then?’‘Well you know I’m obviously not the right comedian for the place I’ll go if you want’ and he went ‘no you wont you’ve got to do your dance spot yet’ I said ‘I’m a comedian’ he said ‘you’ve got to go on and do your dance spot!’. He went and left me in this desolate empty cold dressing room and I was looking out the window and I could see my car in the car park and honestly I was within two seconds of just climbing out the window and running away and I didn’t because your pride gets the better of you. So he came back in later and said ‘Your dance spots on, you’re on!’.
So I went back on stage and just did the same forty minutes comedy that I’d done the first, cause that’s all I had and they ignored me again for forty minutes and then I went home’. It was the most depressing desolate experience I’ve ever had.
You co wrote the brilliant cult series Phoenix Nights. How did you find the transition from Comedian to Actor in the series?
At first I found the anticipation of it was very daunting. Because I’ve never acted apart from in amateur dramatics which is how I got into comedy really. I had to audition for the part, people would sort of think I’d got Jerry’s part just by writing it really. We all picked our parts but because I’ve never acted Peter quite reasonably said ‘I’m sorry but you’re gonna have to audition for this’. So I remember I went to this hotel for the audition and it was the most nervous I think I’ve ever been. So I auditioned for it. I got it but I was still very daunted by the whole experience but then I realized that everyone else in the show were in the same boat because we just cast stand ups in it we had very few Actors. So we were all sort of helping each other out sort of thing, we had that camaraderie.
Do you have any plans to work with any of the Phoenix Nights cast or writers in the future?
You don’t sort of have plans in this game to be honest. You know, you just see what turns up next. Funny enough I’ve just done a part in a film that Neal’s written and produced called ‘Charlie Noades R.I.P’ and he couldn’t get a lot of backing for it so he called in a few mates who’d do it for him. I’ve done it, Justin Moorhouse did it, Janice Connolly did a bit in it and Archie Kelly. The whole Phoenix Nights Crew is in there, John Thompson did a bit and John McArdle and it’s a nice little film. I play a priest in it, it’s nice to be asked to do stuff like that and it comes out of the blue; you’d never plan to work with people you know.
Funnily enough I’ve just been for an audition with Janice Connolly ’Holy Mary’ (Phoenix Nights) for the new Ken Loach film. We were both sat outside really really nervous cause you know Ken Loach he just improvises.
But you can’t plan to work with friends again but you’d love to because it’s nice working with your mates.
You worked on a comedy drama based around a Sunday football team do you know when we may be likely to see that?
The disappointing thing is that I had it knocked back by television. At the last minute they decided they had no where to schedule it. They didn’t know where to put it and said ‘really really sorry but we’re not going to make it‘. But every cloud has a silver lining I went back to Mark Herbert at WARP Films who won a BAFTA last week with Shane Meadows. Shane directed a ten minute piece for me a year ago in Sheffield. It was a massive thrill for me. So I just went back to them and I said what can we do and he said why don’t we try and make a film out of it. So that’s where we are up to at the moment. They really really believe in it which is brilliant for me. So at this stage we’re just trying to find funding for it.
I do honestly think that you look at stuff and you stand back and you do think this is the best thing I’ve done this and it is. It’s brilliant I think. So fingers crossed anyway.
You have ambitions to move into directing. What kind of project would you like to direct?
I’d like to start off with something simple. I’d like to do something like a small comedy drama. For example the reason I said that was because I wrote a one off for the BBC about painters and decorators called Magnolia. Which is not too demanding and is just a nice easy comedy drama sort of thing and when it finished and it came on the telly I was sort of disappointed in it; although it got really good reviews. It was good don’t get me wrong but it wasn’t what I’d written. It was wasn’t what I’d got on the page and a lot of people said that to me it wasn’t half as funny on screen as it was on the page. So the only way to get round that is to make sure you direct it basically.
A director once said to me ‘never have the writer on set’
But I think you do I think you need the writer. I mean that’s where Phoenix Nights benefited a lot because there are three of us on set most of the time. If the scenes not working you’ve got to get the writer in. We moved scenes around in Phoenix Nights, we scrapped scenes, we ran two scenes into one if they both weren’t working and re-wrote them on the spot.
There’s a scene at the end of the fun day where I’m Jerry the Berry and I’m stood at the end and I’ve no clothes to put on because somebody’’s stolen them while I’ve been Jerry the Berry on the bring and buy sale. And we stood there and we just couldn’t make that last scene funny. So we all got together and we re-wrote it and it’s funny. We did that because otherwise it would have been just alright and we never wanted to do just alright. We wanted it to be the best it could be.
You have a very admirable approach to charity work and you have been brilliant in raising money for a number of organisations. What motivates you to do this?
I just think it’s who you are really. All my life as far as I can remember, my mum always says this, all my life I’ve just cared about well everybody really but animals in particular. Those less fortunate. I don’t know where it comes from I had a very happy childhood, no traumatic incident that triggered it all off. You know I just care really.
There was an incident. I do it in the act - where I first went to work at the hospital and it traumatised me for along time. I just said nothing traumatised me and now I’m telling you a story. So this is the one thing really.
When I first started work I worked in micro biology and part of the testing was on animals. On mice and guinea pigs. I just didn’t think that much of it at the time. I was just out of school a bit naive just wanted to do my best. And one of my first jobs my boss told me I had to kill these guinea pigs cause we’d just tested TB on them. And I’d got to know these guinea pigs I loved them and six months later I’d got to kill them all. The prescribed way, the humane way, the RSPCA way is to break their necks. We used to gas and chloroform the mice which is bad enough anyway. I can’t believe I did it now I can’t believe I did it. But I did it because I didn’t want to lose my job and I was threatened by the boss who was a real bully. I think it really traumatised me for ages and I refused to ever do it again and said to them 'sack me if you want'. Luckily they phased it out soon after that but it stayed with me. That sort of added to it really and I became vegetarian quite soon afterwards. As I say it was just something that really affected me. Because I had that caring side to me I think.
Before I was even a comedian I used to rescue animals. I had like a little sanctuary. I used to have a big back garden. So I was a soft touch really in a way. But when you get into this position if you like to call it celebrity, I hate all that I lived in the real world for thirty years. All of a sudden because of your position you can promote charities and bring them to the public consciousness. You can raise money for them and do all that sometimes just by turning up and saying hello or launching a charity. You know it’s a privilege we shouldn’t really neglect. It’s something that doesn’t take very long and you can just go and do it. And if it helps a charity then why shouldn’t you do it? So it’s just part of my job really I think.
Would you share with us the events on your recent trips to Vietnam and China?
Yeah. It’s a great thing this charity work. It’s very fulfilling. It’s a privilege to do it. On this one occasion I was doing work for Animals Asia. I did two big shows and I sent all the money to China. I got an email saying you know this money’s enough to free a couple of Bears from bile farming, which is a form of torture…. They said can we call one (Bear) Spikey and one after your missus after Kay. So I went yeah of course you can…. So they said we’re opening a new sanctuary in Vietnam If you could do the honours it would be brilliant. So we flew to Vietnam and back and then to China and back. We did seven flights in six days. I went to see the work they’re doing at this new sanctuary. Vietnam have banned bile farming but they’re not enforcing it. So these bears are still being kept in these cafes now.
People can go in for a cup of tea and then go I’ll have some of that bile off that bear there. So they just stick a bloody big needle in it’s liver. In China’s it is worse as they’re kept in cages with big catheters in their livers so they can’t move for twenty five years. Imagine that, your lifetime stuck in one position with a needle stuck in your liver. The trip was very, very upsetting in parts and… it made you very angry. But it was very uplifting as well seeing the work that people are doing. There was a lot of hope there for the future. You can’t go marching into China a country with it’s traditions and it’s history and start telling them that you should being doing stuff…. So you’ve just got to say these are the alternatives, synthetic or herbal you don’t need to be doing this to these poor animals. And hopefully over the years it will drip feed in.
I understand on one occasion in Vietnam you filmed in one of the bear cafes. You got footage of a bear being operated on for tourists and sent it to the Vietnamese government?
I’d got a camera crew with me. I couldn’t get some one from over here. So I asked them if they had someone from Hong Kong to come over. So I sort of directed it. It was like a video diary I suppose. So we’d been to this cafe and then we went somewhere else to look at these other poor bears. And then on the way back they said have you decided which bears you want to called after yourselves? I had and they said what about you Kay? She said I can’t decide, there was one that looked mentally scared you know, a really odd looking little bear. She said ‘It was at that Black Bear Cafe shall we just call back and have another look at it?’ So obviously they weren’t expecting us because we’d been and done the filming and gone. So we pulled in just as this massive Korean tourist coach was pulling away. The panic the mayhem as they ran around so obviously as it’s illegal now. And they were running screaming and shouting. So we started running with the camera it was like something you’d see off the telly. And they were running and running back to the bottom of the cages.
Anyway we found this bear completely unconscious in it’s cage. It was one of the bears that was supposed to be being freed. And when we questioned them they just kept saying no there’s nothing wrong with it. Jill Robinson who runs the organization, she’s really brilliant and full on, barged her way into this outhouse and we found all the needles and all the fresh bile just on the counter. They’d not had time to clean up. So we filmed all this and then sent it to the Vietnamese government and said this needs shutting down this place because they’re still doing it and they just sent a letter back eventually saying that’s not enough evidence you could have planted all that. You’ve got to film them doing it. I think we’re going to have to try and do that though one way or another.
Is there any possibility that film will be released as a short documentary?
Yes there is. I’m in talks with Granada to do a new series called ‘Inside out’ I think. It’s gonna be a half hour programme on local people and their work and I’ve certainly got half of one of those programmes.
China's track record on animals welfare and human rights is bad. I’m not slagging off the whole country but the regime is generally accepted as a totalitarian regime. Do you think the international community should have let them have the Olympic Games?
I don’t personally no. There are two ways of looking at it. Yes you do that and then that gives you a platform on which to address and highlight their record on human rights and animal rights…I wouldn’t, I would have said you can’t have it until you’ve cleaned your act up. Have you seen what they’re doing now? Bulldozing people and making them homeless just to make the Olympic games!
What does the future hold for Dave Spikey?
Erm I dunno really. This sounds a bit twee I’ve done everything I want to do really. I can’t believe I’m doing this after working for thirty years in a hospital. Every day is like Christmas Day. I’d love to direct like we’ve talked about before. I think the two projects I’ve got at the moment are a bit to ambitious for me to direct, but I’d love to get into something in the future where I could get into directing films and stuff. I’ve got a commission that is almost definite to write a play; which is obviously a different discipline all together. It is the Octagon which is a fantastic theatre who have asked me, I went for a meeting last week and they’ve actually commissioned me to write a play for them.
Will you direct it?
Oh no I couldn’t direct it in theatre I’m going to watch him (the director) do it though. I’m gonna go and help (he laughs). I’m gonna help him on the periphery and just keep an eye on it. It’s an idea I’ve had in my head for a while but it’s not fully formed yet. I think it’ll be about eighteen months to two years before that’s ready. I need to develop it with actors in a theatre environment. So I’m hoping that’ll be a success and that’s it really.
For more about Dave Spikey click here: http://www.davespikey.co.uk/