theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
Jenny Éclair has just opened in Mum’s the Word at the Albery, ‘the hit comedy for anyone who ever had a mother’. She is playing alongside a diverse collection of performers from Patsy Palmer (EastEnders) and Carol Decker (the group T’Pau), to Imogen Stubbs (RSC/NT) and Cathy Tyson (Mona Lisa/Band of Gold). The cast also includes Canadian actress Barbara Pollard, one of the original devisers of Mum’s the Word.
This is the show that gives the low-down on mothering, and Éclair herself has a daughter whose temperamental teenage angst has her mother laughing in recognition — ‘seen it, done it, you know’.
We met up towards the end of last year as she was coming to the end of a tour of The Vagina Monologues with Miriam Margolyes and Rula Lenska. Éclair had already accepted Mum’s the Word, a show not dissimilar in its approach and staging to Eve Ensler’s ubiquitous piece.
SV: Are you settled?
JE: I’m nice and cosy and I can smoke so that’s the main thing. There are great photos of Anna Friel at the première of her latest film … she’s out on the steps having a fag ‘cos she couldn’t even smoke at her own party. And there’s a great picture of her in this fabulous white gown but still on the steps. You know, this terrible difficulty now of being able to have a cigarette without your coat on. I’m so glad I work from home. We’re the last bastion of the smokers, I thought. The only one that isn’t is Miriam. Miriam doesn’t smoke so we don’t smoke in there because she will moan and grumble and whinge and whine and go on and on and on. Mind you, she farts! Miriam is champion. I think, she’d blow them all out.
I didn’t realise that originally you wanted to be an actress.
Well, I didn’t know there was a job as a female stand-up comic, really, because there weren’t any role models when I was growing up. In the sixties, I lived in Berlin and we didn’t have television so the first time I ever saw anybody funny on television was Fanny Craddock, in fact. I thought she was hilarious and I think a lot of the comedy I do stems from the fact that I find sort of witches hilarious. And so I really, really was convinced I was going to be an actress. It’s taken me a very long time to actually get round to doing much West End. In fact, this [The Vagina Monologues] is only my second West End job. I did Steaming about five years ago. I’ve only ever worked with all-female casts as well. So, I don’t feel fully fledged as an actress really. I’ve done quite a lot of monologuey-type stuff and some radio things and bits and bobs. I’ve found that the easiest way to get myself acting jobs was to write the shows meself. I was talking to Miriam, actually, because I do have a slight fringe mentality whereby I think if I write something that I can put in the back of a transit van and tour with, that’s the job jobbed, d’you know? And I don’t really need other actors and actresses taking money off me and all that sort of thing. I’ve worked a lot by myself so it is quite nice doing things with other people. But I am quite happy doing my own stuff as well.
And careers advice at school is usually pretty meaningless, certainly it was for our generation. It was secretary, nurse—
And air hostess, and they only give you jobs where you can understand what people do. I mean, most of the population do things that I do not understand at all. I don’t know how they spend their days in these jobs they have with titles that seem to be in another language. And you see them all on train stations coming home and you think, what have you been doing all day?
That’s fine if they’re happy.
Well, they don’t look very happy, do they! So yeah, so I was a terrible show-off as well. And it’s slightly in the blood. I have a grandmother on my father’s side that was a dancer until she got too fat and mad to dance. And everybody else in my family are barristers — my brother and sister are both barristers, that sort of thing. Dressing up and showing off and enjoying the sound of your own voice. So yes, I was originally intending to be an actress. I did go to drama school. I’m highly trained! The stand-up I do is fairly theatrical anyway. I think it’s more of a character than anybody ever realises. I mean, I do refer to her as ‘stage Jenny’ because if I was her all the time, I’d be dead by now. She is the one that leads me astray. I mean, it’s a bit like being a schizophrenic but it’s a healthy form of schizophrenia. But she is the bad girl in me. And she’s the one that gets the hangovers and does all that.
Are you as gutsy as you come over on stage?
It’s an extension of me. I mean, I don’t think I’m a wimp. I’m as vulnerable as most performers about criticism. I hate criticism, I can’t take it at all but in the same breath, I’m not very good when people are nice to me. That makes me cry as well. And I sort of want to punch both parties. When people are horrible to me, I want to punch them but when they’re really nice to me, I also want to turn it round so it all goes horrible. I prefer a fight. I think I quite like being the underdog. I think the worst times in my life have been when I’ve won something and then that makes me panic. I’m very, very competitive as well. My God!
As you’ve said elsewhere, you’re bloody-minded and you just go for it.
Well, I think women have to, you see. It’s not so much that we’re not allowed, it’s just that the next step for a male comic will be his own TV show, and it’s a very direct thing. Women have to go round the houses and up the back alleys, round and about. You don’t get stuff on a plate. You have to ferret about and keep [going]. The determination is just not giving up. It’s just being so bloody-minded people go, ‘Oh, for fuck’s sake, she’s still here. I suppose we’d better buckle.’ It’s making people buckle in the end. I don’t think when you’re a 40 plus blonde, it’s that easy. But I’m quite happy with where I am at the moment because I think it’s all quite worthwhile the stuff I’ve been doing. I have been doing quite a lot of voiceovers, which is a bit easy. Twenty years I’ve never had any voiceovers and then suddenly, this year, I get 10. And then, of course, you get slagged off for doing them, and then they dry up anyway.
But the whole thing about coming from theatres, because I wanted to be an actress and ended up as a stand-up, was the politics. It was basically [that] when I finished drama school in 1981, all the small rep companies had closed down and there was nowhere for a young, just-qualified actress to go. Alternative comedy was just starting out and I think, you know, comedy abhors a vacuum, and with the demise of rep companies, you’ve got performances in rooms above pubs. So it was just, you know, a cheap version, a cheap, new version of entertainment. I was always going to be a character actress, anyway, and I think stand-up is a good training for that.
It’s an illness being a stand-up comic. It’s a total mental illness. If you get it right, though, it’s much more of a doddle than theatre because [The Vagina Monologues] is relentless because the disciplines in the theatre are very rigid and I’m quite lucky because I’m quite old school and I did have a drama school training. I think there’d be a lot of stand-up comics who’d be very, very shocked by how vigorous it is being in the theatre, mentally and physically, and the turning up on time — gigs go up late all the time. Stand-ups wander into a gig at the five, half cut. Though that’s not so much any more. There’s a new wave of clean-living stand-ups. It’s a much more casual, undisciplined art form. I still really, really like it but I do realize that I couldn’t be cutting edge any more. I mean, my style of stand-up is no longer that fashionable. There are new kids on the block and it’s really time to butt out a bit.
Are you writing more of your own stuff?
I’ll always do stand-up, I’ll always have an hour-long show I can do — I’ve always got that under my belt and I do keep up the process of writing. I have a writing partner and every so often we meet up and we’ll sort of have a brainstorming session. The sitting down and writing is kind of covering my arse a bit in case it all goes to pieces, really. But I wrote my first novel [Camberwell Beauty] and I did struggle with that. It came out in 2000.
I remember reading you years ago in one of those girls’ magazines.
I used to do a poem a month for Company magazine. One small poem — they didn’t care what it was as long as it was two inches long. I used to do some articles and I still write articles now and again if anyone asks because I find it quite difficult to say no, because I can’t believe anyone sort of picked me. It’s a bit like being picked for a team: you just sort of go, yeah, I’ll do it. I was a poet, you see, I was a punk poet first of all because that was what was fashionable at the time and I thought, I’ll have some of that! And then that went out of fashion and it was obvious I that had to be a stand-up.
A friend of mine is local to you and often sees you in the supermarket.
I’m very unorganized with my shopping. I actually loathe it, I loathe the fact that a weekly shop costs more than a really nice pair of shoes and it just gets eaten. Really boring. Are those your questions? Let me see! How do I cope with work and family? My bloke’s been made redundant which is fantastic. It’s like having a wife. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Men shouldn’t work. I’ve just got the one thirteen year old. She’s quite sweet. They’re great fun. The thing is that when they do the sort of temperamental thing, it’s just so, so, such a cliché, it’s almost laughable. You know, the sort of rolling of the eyes, the boredom. Seen it, done it, you know. It’s no surprise and you are just so not being original. So it just makes me laugh. My mother’s so strict. She’s never been very impressed by anything I’ve ever done!
It can be tough not being acknowledged by one’s parents for achievements.
In some respects I do think it’s quite good. I do think it does make you the person you are because it pushes you and pushes you. I mean, I think I run on spite and greed most of the time but I think [this is] because my parents were so totally not at all bothered. My mother’s never cut out an article, or kept a magazine. She’s read my book, she really enjoyed that. That was one thing she could say [something about] but she’s not a gushy mum. And of course I’ve made the mistake of turning my daughter… She’s the best thing in the universe and one day she’s going to get a nasty shock when she goes out into the big, bad world and there a few people who don’t think she is. I think she might get a shock. I think it’s going to be harder for her. Nobody expected me to do anything. By the way, I’m going to see if I can get you house seats.
To be honest, I’m so tired—
You’re knackered. I feel exactly the same. Do you know, I think this is one of the reasons why… When we did Brighton, it was wild, it was fantastic. And I thought, people in Brighton just aren’t as knackered as the people in London. People in London come to the theatre; they’re almost dead by the time they get there. They’re so relieved they’ve got there but then it’s a sort of — half of them sit down and think, ‘I could have a little kip now.’ It’s the fight, isn’t it, living in London. I thought, why don’t I live here [Brighton], it just seems easy. The shopping’s fantastic, the people are really, really nice to you. [Where I live] I’m on the front line every day — there’s just some kind of aggression going on. Sometimes you catch yourself, don’t you though, just flying off the handle and being an utter, utter bitch and then ten minutes later, mortification sets in. You’ve got to watch it. I always remember my friend Helen Lederer was really, really rude to somebody in the bank and the girl just turned to her and said, ‘I used to think you were really good but now I just know you’re a right bitch and I’m going to tell all my friends.’ And you think ooh, ah, okay.
When does the tour come to an end?
We finish on Saturday. And then there is another tour next year but it all depends on availability and all that sort of thing. I will be doing The Vagina Monologues when I’m 82 but you know, I’m really grateful because it has helped, it really has, it’s a good thing on my CV. I don’t regret doing it for a second. And I did it twice in town. I did it with Jerry [Hall]. I took over from Pam Ferris. Jerry is fabulous. She’s got such poise. You’re not a supermodel for twenty years without learning something, you know. She has presence. And great fun as well. It was a really nice cast: me, Josette [Simon] and Jerry. I’ve been really lucky, though, with the casts. I’ve not had a minute’s problem with anybody. Miriam is just a font of hilarity. And one of the hardest-working women in the world. You should interview her — she loves publicity! We had a week off last week. She was in New York doing her Dickens one-woman show. Flew back. Did the Danny Baker LBC London Live Breakfast Show, and came in to do this. I do feel I have to work my arse off, though, just in case. Everything’s quite good at the moment. I’m waiting for the sort of horrid bit to start because it always does, doesn’t it. Right, I’d better start my make-up then. Is there anything else you need?
Would you have any advice for aspiring stand-ups?
I wouldn’t advise any female stand-ups to go into it because I can’t bear the competition, obviously! I do dread reading new names. For some reason, though, there’s a lost generation of stand-ups. There are the ones right at the top of the tree where you’ve got French & Saunders and you’ve got Victoria Wood, who are sort of untouchable and then there’s a big drop and then it goes Jo Brand, and then there’s another big drop and there’s about four of us that started about the same time that sort of wobble along, we’re fine. And then there’s a really big drop down to a few names that people who know their comedy know. And that’s wrong. Huge gap, huge gap. Where are the thirty year olds? Nobody’s really being pushed forwards. Nobody’s really right at the front of that herd. There’s nobody anyone’s really talking about, going, ‘fucking hell, have you seen this woman, she is fantastic!’ It’s really worrying. But I do think there’s a lot of women who’d rather go do their comedy in a much more subtle way with the character comedy and the acting and, you know, Smack the Pony. I thought, oh great, we’ve got them, that’s really good. Despite the fact that we have the best character actresses in the world, we are lacking good female, young stand-ups. Thank God!
Sarah Vernon © 19-03-03
Originally published on R&V 19-03-03
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