Interview: John Dowie

Andy Murray in conversation with the incomparable comedian, author, poet, playwright, musician, actor, director… and cyclist.

 “I’m not famous enough, you see. I tend to think it’s a very boring structure – ‘and then I did this, and then I did that’. You just think, well, so fucking what? If you’re famous you can get away with that, but if you’re not you’ve got to try and tell a story.”

If you’re lucky enough to own a copy of the inaugural Factory Records release, 1978’s A Factory Sample EP – copies of which fetch a pretty penny nowadays – you’ll know that it features four different artists, one per side of vinyl. Right there alongside Joy Division, Cabaret Voltare and The Durutti Column is the name of John Dowie.

Dowie’s performing career throws up all sorts of curious and striking facts like this. Down the years, he’s popped up everywhere: being introduced by Peter Cook for a live performance on the new wave TV music series Revolver; appearing on the same edition of Des O’Connor Tonight as Bernard Manning and Tiffany; and being spoken of in admiring tones by Stewart Lee and Simon Munnery. He’s surely the only artist to have shared bills with every one of Victoria Wood, Adam and the Ants, Alberto y Lost Trios Paranoias, Black Sabbath and The Smiths.

Arguably the only reason Dowie needs any introduction at all is that he performed a one-man show in 1991 entitled Why I Stopped Being a Stand-Up Comedian and promptly did what it said on the tin. He’s kept busy in the years since – as we’ll see, he’s fiercely proud of his post-stand-up career – but it’s generally been work behind the scenes or else under the media’s radar.

He’s just published an idiosyncratic memoir-cum-cycling diary called The Freewheeling John Dowie, which has garnered many favourable reviews, not least here at We Are Cult. A wide-ranging, non-chronological structure was always his intention from the start. “When I’m riding my bike and it’s a peaceful day – well, your mind sort of goes off on a little wander,” Dowie says. “I’m cycling along and suddenly I realise ‘hang on a sec, I’ve gone through a whole series of thought processes and I don’t quite know how I’ve ended up where I’ve ended up’. I thought that seemed like a nice way to write a book, in a similar way that a good stand-up comedian will take you on a little journey.”

Inspired in part by the tone of Caitlin Moran’s How To Be a Woman and the work of David Sedaris – “I like his writing because it’s biographical stuff but he structures it like a piece of fiction” –  Dowie created a sprawling, labyrinthine and, yes, freewheeling memoir that could take off in whichever direction he saw fit. Besides, he felt that writing a basic, chronological memoir wasn’t an option. “I’m not famous enough, you see. I tend to think it’s a very boring structure – ‘and then I did this, and then I did that’. You just think, well, so fucking what? If you’re famous you can get away with that, but if you’re not you’ve got to try and tell a story.”

Thankfully, in Dowie’s case, it really is quite a story. In amongst cycling between an assortment of European campsites, he reflects on various aspects of his career, from his Birmingham childhood to his earliest days performing in Arts Labs with fringe theatre groups. This was a decade before the alternative comedy boom – indeed, Dowie’s often called one of the scene’s forefathers – but many of the same cultural attitudes were already in place. “I used to tour with a group called The General Will, where the writing was done by David Edgar, so obviously it was very left-wing politically. All those theatre groups – Hull Truck, or John Bull Puncture Repair Kit from Bradford – they all had alternative sensibilities. Having grown up in the Sixties, when people were marching against racism in America and so forth, you wouldn’t go on stage and start doing jokes about black people. It just was not going to happen. So they wouldn’t be doing sexist material or racist material. Nobody with half a brain-cell could have done.”

For a couple of years in the mid-70s Dowie headed a touring comedy rock outfit, Big Girl’s Blouse, before developing a solo act which blended stand-up with songs, or rather a kind of spoken-word poetry with a musical backing. This lead to him having a brief recording career, initially with Virgin, though he doesn’t feel it was particularly noteworthy. “Oh no, that’s a total embarrassment. It was meant to be a laugh. I didn’t even consider the idea that people might listen to this muck. Jesus! No, the stuff that I put out on record is trash.

His best known recording is probably 1977’s British Tourist aka I Hate the Dutch: “I’m a British tourist and I’m very, very rude / I hate the stinking foreigners. hate their stinking food / I don’t like French or Germans, I don’t care for Belgians much / But worst of all, worst of all I hate the Dutch.” Needless to say, it was a satirical piece rather than a heartfelt outpouring.

Dowie was unceremoniously dropped by Virgin, but by then he’d already hooked up with Tony Wilson in Manchester who was promoting shows at Hulme’s Russell Club under the Factory banner. Dowie explains, “He couldn’t afford two bands so he used to get me in as the support. I used to spend quite a lot of time hanging out Tony. He was a lovely guy, sadly missed. Then he offered me a space on his EP thing.”

This was the aforementioned A Factory Sample, with Dowie’s tracks produced by CP Lee. “I didn’t really expect anything was going to be happening with it,” Dowie says. “It was just something to do with your mates. Then I moved away from Manchester, so I didn’t have much to do with Factory after the first record. It wasn’t somewhere I felt at home. Fatuous Records, I used to call it. I didn’t really fit into all that stuff. It’s pleasant to be associated with, but I wasn’t really doing anything worthwhile.”

Throughout the ‘80s, Dowie hovered on the brink of mainstream success, and his stand-up shows from the time are still regarded as epochal by those who saw them. Then, just as comedy proclaimed itself to be the new rock ‘n’ roll, Dowie walked away from it. Since the mid-90s, he’s resisted all offers to go back. “By that time I’d sort of wrung it dry really,” he says. “If your heart’s not in it then you can’t do it. Somebody said to me, ‘why don’t you go off and do a greatest hits tour?’ – you know, all the big comedy routines I used to do, put them all together again. But I mean, you can’t just do it like an act! It has to be meant. And I don’t know – if I could do that, why should I? Why not get somebody else to do it? It’s just – I dunno, it’s so showbizzy. I wouldn’t even want to consider doing that. I couldn’t do it, anyway. I mean, I would just freeze. I’d go on stage and freeze in horror and fear and embarrassment. No, no. I can’t be doing that.”

Instead, Dowie turned his attention to stage shows, in the capacity of writer, director and occasionally performer. Jesus My Boy, a one-man show in which sub-standard Bethlehem carpenter Joseph puts a few things straight, became a theatrical smash around the world. Then, when Dowie became a father, his interest in children’s entertainment was piqued. “We used to watch two television programmes in particular, Fireman Sam and Postman Pat. And Postman Pat was fucking awful, a terrible, terrible show, but Fireman Sam was fantastic! A guy posting a letter, well, come on, where’s the drama? But you’ve got serious drama with a fireman.”

When he took his children to see the Fireman Sam stage show, though, Dowie was severely underwhelmed. “I could not believe that the people who made Fireman Sam could allow such a paltry theatre show to be shown to the same audience. It was unforgivable, unforgivable. Also, you’ve got to remember that it might be the very first time that a child has seen a theatre show, so it has to be as brilliant as it possibly can be.”

He was duly inspired to write Dogman with Tony Haase, a children’s stage musical about an Superman-style alien hound who crash-lands by a lighthouse, with music by Neil Innes. During the initial run, directed by Victor Spinetti, Dowie played the title role himself:

“I’m far more proud of my children’s play than I am of any stand-up I ever did. When we did the Dogman show in Edinburgh we used to have four hundred or so children in the audience who were engrossed by the story. That’s just the best thing ever. Don’t come around to my dressing room and tell me to go back to stand-up comedy – not compared to that, thank you very much indeed.”

Dogman was adapted as a picture book, and more recently the response to The Freewheeling John Dowie has encouraged him to consider writing more books in future. “I’d like to do another book at some point, but there’s no point in doing it if nobody wants it. I’m not going to fling another pot of paint in the face of the embattled British public. It’s just vague at the moment, but I have got an idea for something.” Throughout his career Dowie has rarely been short of ideas, and they’re usually worth keeping tabs on.

❉ You can order ‘The Freewheeling John Dowie’ HERE 

❉ Andy Murray is Film Editor for Northern Soul and a regular contributor to Big Issue North. He’s also the author of the Nigel Kneale biography Into the Unknown and co-author (with Dr Mark Aldridge) of the Russell T Davies biography T is for TelevisionHe’s not the tennis guy, obviously. But he did once receive a publicity photograph of him to sign by mistake.

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