Alan Davies interview
If there's an authentic flavour to the kitchen work in BBC Two's new comedy Whites, starring Alan Davies, it's thanks in no small part to the time the cast spent perfecting their chops under the watchful gaze of the chefs at Jamie Oliver's London restaurant, Fifteen.
It might also have something to do with Matt King, co-writer with Oli Lansley, basing the scripts on his personal experiences of working in restaurants, and the qualities of an impressive cast, including Darren Boyd, Stephen Wight, Isy Suttie, Katherine Parkinson, Maggie Steed and of course Davies as Roland White, a talented chef who is just a little past his sell-by date.
"Roland had a lot of talent in his twenties and could have been a Gordon Ramsay, but it didn't happen for him for various reasons," says Alan. "Now he works in a good restaurant in a nice hotel, but he's no longer at the cutting edge. He's in his forties and has lost his motivation. He doesn't really like going to work and his wife has left him... so there will be quite a large audience who will identify with him already."
Whites is a fast-moving comedy filmed in a handheld camera style that Alan feels gives a closer approximation to the reality of a fully functioning restaurant. "Kitchen Nightmares is hilarious and I understand why people watch it, but I sometimes feel it's a bit staged for the cameras. It's not as chaotic in really good restaurants - everyone works hard but it's actually quite quiet. It's the heat of the stoves that strikes you most. When we did our training at Fifteen, everything was happening so fast that they seemed to dance around one another, it's quite impressive to see."
Having been given a basic introduction to using knives - "don't wave them about, always hold them pointing down at the floor" - does Alan think that he and the rest of the cast would pass muster as convincing chefs? "I can impress the layman, but a chef would just laugh," he says. "They showed us how to cut with the blade against your fingernails and never let the point leave the chopping board. The more you get your head over it and turn to the side the more like a chef you look."
In what is very much an ensemble piece, Alan says the fun part for him in making Whites is the teamwork, something that his character tends to avoid, preferring to rely on his long-suffering sous chef, Bib Spears, played by Darren Boyd, to do all the work while he takes the credit. "Bib is really put upon," says Alan, "Roland treats him like dirt, they're like an old married couple. Bib would like to leave but he can't because Roland always manages to hook him back in.
"Below him, there's the threat of an ambitious new chef, Skoose, played by Stephen White, who is a very funny actor. Skoose is borderline psychotic and has ambitions to replace the under-pressure Bib. The restaurant and the kitchen are two separate entities and the heads of each are sort of equal, so Roland and Caroline, played by Katherine Parkinson, are also at each other the whole time - and they sort of fancy each other, so there's that tension as well. Above them, the owner of the hotel has passed away so his wife, played by Maggie Steed, runs it, and she's bonkers, as is Kiki the waitress played by Isy Suttie.
"It's such a talented cast and I'm very optimistic that it will be a good show," he says. "It has taken time for this series to come to air, we did a pilot before it was commissioned last year and Matt actually had the idea about 12 years ago, probably while hunched over a stove somewhere, thinking 'this is going to make a great comedy one day'... and it has. He and Oli have done a fantastic job, it's an entirely credible kitchen environment."
Having waited for the right role to come along, it seems to be the way of things that Davies now finds himself starring in three programmes within a month. A regular on the BBC panel show QI, he can also be seen in Channel 4's three-part documentary, Alan Davies' Teenage Revolution, reflecting on the passions of his youth, which includes the development of his moral objections to eating meat. "I was anti-vivisection in a big way and was involved in chickens' lib, which was opposed to battery farming. That made it impossible for me to eat meat; I haven't had any since I was a student."
Ironically, Roland becomes most riled when vegetarians refuse to eat his dishes - "one of Matt's lines is that a cow is all the pieces of meat you can get in a handy leather bag" - although he rarely approaches the fury of a Gordon Ramsay in full flight. "Roland's an egomaniac - a self-appointed 'executive chef' - but he's lazy," says Alan, who denies the somewhat obvious assumption that his character is based on Marco Pierre White [presumably owing to similarities of name and hairstyle] or indeed anyone else. "He's a recognisable type, a midlife crisis guy. He's pathologically dishonest and manipulative, but he's also lonely and not somebody you'd want to be, although he's quite fun to be around."
It's a role he clearly relishes and, he admits, it's the kind of thing he had been trying to create for himself. "Although scripts came my way, there was nothing that I thought was really funny," he says. "I've written sitcoms myself, but it's quite hard to pick your way through the commissioning process. I wrote one about a lonely middle-aged man who couldn't quite find any joy in his life. While I was doing that, the same company I was writing it for was remaking Reggie Perrin - when that came on I went white!"
Fortunately, the BBC's head of comedy, Mark Freeland, was about to send him the script for Whites, a show that he feels is genuinely funny and imbued with the quality of the best American comedies, of which he is a fan. "Matt and Oli take their lead from shows like Entourage and I love 30 Rock," he says. "In America you can't differentiate between drama and comedy acting... I'm not saying this is like them, but those are the influences. I miss old fashioned [British] sitcoms, I grew up with them, but I think in their heyday the performances were theatrical and the relationship with the audience was essential. Those days seem to have gone - shows these days are much lower key and understated."
Does he feel that Roland has the necessary attributes to be loved and loathed in the traditions of the great sitcom characters of the past? "You're always heading for a fall comparing yourself to famous sitcom characters," he replies, "but the best ones have appalling traits. Look at Del Boy, he's completely dishonest, always lying to his friends and relatives, but you love him. Even with Ricky Gervais doing David Brent, you still like him, although you wouldn't want him as your boss. I hope Roland has that mix of vulnerability as well as the repellent characteristics."
There's one attribute that Roland does possess for which British audiences never seem to tire - he's a chef. Alan has recently experienced this ceaseless fascination with cooking at first hand. "I've been doing a lot of promotional work and whatever shows you go on they all have to have cookery slots, it's incredible - Lorraine Kelly had some guy cooking a fig and ricotta tart at half-seven in the morning."