Tony Hawks tells Alexis Bowater why life is sweet way down west
- Credit: Matt Austin
He’s the comic known for readily taking up the suggestions of others but perhaps the best idea he followed up on was his own…to move to Devon. Tony Hawks tells Alexis Bowater why life is sweet way down west Photography by Matt Austin
For Radio Four comedy lovers like me, hearing Tony Hawks is a fond, familiar experience full of warmth and good humour.
So it was a delight to meet him in a beamed Devon pub half way up the Teign Valley for lunch and share a gossipy rundown on his book and an afternoon that ran away with us into near twilight.
Tony is famous for many achievements, not least hitching around Ireland with a fridge and playing the Moldovans at tennis: extraordinary adventures which he wrote up into quite hilarious books.
Both extraordinary undertakings were prompted by a bet. And this time we are talking about his new venture which was, partially so, too.
Once Upon a Time in the West…Country has the title of a fairytale and a story therein with a fair smattering of magic. It tells the story of a man who went west, leaving behind his life as a born and bred townie to embrace the life of rural Devon.
Perennially unable to resist a bet, he rises to the challenge set by a South Devon heckler at one of his shows and ends up cycling with a micro pig named Titch coast to coast in appalling weather.
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At the time I was lucky enough to be a bit player in this hilarious drama, helping from the wings by alerting the news media as our hero and his friend charmed their way through the heart of the county. It was midwinter, the wettest and coldest of times, and he threw himself on the mercy and kindness of our Devon folk to cycle from Ilfracombe to Plymouth’s Mayflower Steps in less than a week.
Oh and they certainly had some scrapes, the funniest in Tavistock at the Bedford Hotel when Titch and Tony end up together abed. I wouldn’t like to spoil the punchline but it’s a great set piece.
“I think that the constant thing, the thing I liked the best because it was such a foul week with the weather, the nicest thing was coming into a place wet through and unzipping this thing (he indicates his jacket front),” Tony tells me.
“The receptionist at The Bedford looked like she had been having a bad day and I just unzipped this thing and Titch popped out, it was so cute and made her day. I think revealing a pig out of the coat was the best thing about the whole trip.
“I did a show at the Northcott and Titch came along, a few months afterwards. I don’t think she remembered me. I thought she would. I thought we had bonded. I didn’t get a feeling.”
The entire tome is a love story: not only to his new found young pigletty friend but to the county he comes to, the village he ends up in and the woman he brings with him.
Tony’s partner Fran hadn’t known him long when the idea came to him, unbidden in a dream, during a far eastern holiday, to move west out of London and find a home in Devon.
And that they did. High up in the Teign Valley, surrounded by the helpful helping the hapless incomers, this city boy threw himself into village life and, it’s fair to say, it threw itself at him.
Village meetings ended up with him being voted the chair, tractor runs ended in disaster, church fetes turned up hitherto unknown dangerous sports, epic battles with the Dartmoor National Park were fought.
The Devon charm clearly worked its wonders. Among the myriad attractions he mentions, it’s the people who stand out, and the community - with which the pub begins to fill on this darkening Saturday afternoon. Tony’s partner Fran joins us with his delicious Devonian son, just nine months old. They are a family clearly relishing nesting away from the frantic pace of London.
“Here things are not as important as they appear to people in cities,” says Tony. “I think there is a Devon time, if you like, where people will do things as and when they fit in to life. You don’t have to get rich financially, you can get your riches from the countryside and the beauty - so materialism is not quite as important.”
Warm, witty, well-observed and a charming travelogue, this new Tony Hawks book isn’t a fairytale but it does nevertheless have a very happy ending.
So the next time you hear him on Radio Four, broadcasting from London on The News Quiz, Would I Lie to You?, Just a Minute, or I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, you’ll know he may be there in body, but his heart is well and truly here.
Once Upon a Time in the West…Country is published by Hodder and Stoughton and goes on sale this month (April).