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Arabella Weir interview: ‘Mum was a terrific person but was totally ill-equipped to be a mother’

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Fearing that Arabella Weir’s Cambridge gig in March 2020 might not go ahead as planned, I decided to catch one of the stars of The Fast Show and Two Doors Down performing her latest show, Does My Mum Loom Big in This?, at London’s Leicester Square Theatre in February of that year. It turned out to be the last comedy performance I attended for quite some time...

Arabella Weir on stage. Picture: Edward Moore
Arabella Weir on stage. Picture: Edward Moore

Now, the mother-of-two – a familiar face on our screens for more than 25 years – is returning to the city, to the Junction to be precise, on January 20 to finally present Does My Mum Loom Big in This? – an amusing and at times harrowing look back on Arabella’s dysfunctional childhood, her perilous career and her life as a single working mother.

Speaking to the Cambridge Independent from London, Arabella’s full response to my question about her general state of wellbeing somewhat surprised me. “I woke up at a quarter to seven, and I don’t know what it’s like in Cambridge but it’s a grim old day in London...

“I was supposed to meet my oldest girlfriend for an 8.30am stomp around Hampstead Heath and thought, ‘No, I’m going to cancel her’, decided not to, and have just come back and had a cold bath – so I’m feeling pretty spartan! I’m just feeling very sort of gung-ho because the fact is it turns out that doctors are right – exercising does make you feel better.”

Arabella Weir. Picture: James Deacon
Arabella Weir. Picture: James Deacon

The actress/comedian/writer says that she tries to have a cold bath “every second day”, adding: “But I have discovered, rather annoyingly, that the actual health benefits, such as they are, are to do with getting some nerve in the top of your head cold.

“I think it’s called something like Aviva – like the insurance company. Apparently that’s the nerve you have to immerse in cold water to get the full benefits of whatever it does in terms of endorphins or something, and I don’t always manage to put my head under. But yes, this is my spartan, Presbyterian Scottish upbringing for you.”

Arabella Weir on stage. Picture: Edward Moore
Arabella Weir on stage. Picture: Edward Moore

As the title suggests, Arabella’s upbringing plays a major part in Does My Mum Loom Big in This? (a play on words of her most famous Fast Show catchphrase, “Does my bum look big in this?”), and she says she is “very much looking forward” to coming to Cambridge: “A, I like Cambridge and B, I like that theatre very much – and C, I think I can get the train from Finsbury Park.”

Has the show, which was first performed in its original version at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2019, changed at all since February 2020? “It’s probably, dare I say, better,” says Arabella, “well, I’ve been doing it for longer than when I did the Leicester Square Theatre and it’s probably changed a bit but not that much.

“It’s probably just got more, as the kids say, finessed – and I’m probably enjoying it more. I remember being absolutely paralysed with nerves at the Leicester Square Theatre, probably just because I was in my home town and doing it for quite a lot of peers and people I was close to. Now I love doing it and every time I do it, I enjoy it more and more.”

Arabella Weir. Picture: James Deacon
Arabella Weir. Picture: James Deacon
Arabella Weir on stage. Picture: Edward Moore
Arabella Weir on stage. Picture: Edward Moore

When I last spoke to Arabella, in early 2020, she was still working on adding a second half of the show, which was co-written with Jon Canter, with whom she also collaborated on the BBC television series Posh Nosh.

“Well the second half is much... the first word that comes to mind is ‘lighter’,” she suggests, “because of course the audience doesn’t have to listen to the horror stories about my mum, even though, I hope you’ll agree, the whole point is that I tell these stories and then lightness comes from how I reacted to them, or how I have reacted to them as I’ve got older.

“But the second half is all lightness because it’s all stories about me as a mother and how I imagined I was going to go into it – and, with my mother as my template, not making a single mistake. And then of course here I present all the mistakes I’ve made, deluding myself that I was never going to make any mistakes. I was going to be in every way a perfect mother, unlike my own mother had been...

“But I think there’s less anxiety [in the second half] for the audience because they’re not hearing about the terrible things my mother did; they’re just hearing about a person who is obviously a liar because she’s on stage talking about how she’s ruined her kids’ lives in her own unique way.

“I obviously don’t think I’ve ruined my kids’ lives but they would say to you they couldn’t bear this, that and the other. I’m sure they’d have their own horror stories; they won’t have horror stories quite at the level of my mum’s but they will have their own – not least of all with me dancing to Drake on stage, which is one of the things my daughter says has ruined her life.”

Arabella Weir on stage. Picture: Edward Moore
Arabella Weir on stage. Picture: Edward Moore

A number of the stories and anecdotes Arabella recounts during the show about her mother are indeed harrowing. “I think definitely one of the points that I’m trying to make is that people of my mum’s generation, not necessarily of her class – but that was an element as well – had absolutely no guidance and no awareness of what an actual proper serious job parenting is,” she observes, “and so kind of just breezed into it and thought, ‘Right, I won’t do anything I don’t like’.

“I think the point that I’m also trying to make is this is what happened to me and this is how I’ve survived – and this is how it’s shaped me and this is who I am now. Someone asked me if it was cathartic but I’m way past catharsis because if I was doing the show as a catharsis, I think that would all be too raw and painful. And the other point I think I’m trying to make is a sympathetic one.

“There was no help and no – in terms of the era – chance of publicly saying, ‘Look I’m not coping, I’m struggling’, because of course whatever class you were, you were just supposed to get on with it... The idea that you’d go, ‘Look, I think I might be depressed’... there was none of that dialogue out there.

“I think my mother was depressed, and then it was made worse by the difficulty of parenting and then her marriage not going well. She wasn’t equipped emotionally for any of that; she was literally equipped to be an intellectual, read books and look nice in a cocktail dress.

Arabella Weir. Picture: James Deacon
Arabella Weir. Picture: James Deacon

“So that’s the other point I’m trying to make in the show, is for people like my mother – despite the money and the intellect and the opportunities – if you were struggling with mental health, there was no recourse.

“OK, people started talking openly about psychotherapy in the ’60s but not really. I mean 20-year-old men are struggling with talking about mental health issues now. We’re just trying to get the dialogue out there of it’s OK to struggle, it’s OK to say you’re struggling, tell people, don’t not tell people...

“You can have as much in the way of worldly goods as my mother did, and the unique intellectual and educational possibilities, but it won’t separate you from any other person who is struggling and not able to articulate it.”

In the mid-to-late ’90s, The Fast Show, and Arabella’s catchphrase “Does my bum look big in this?” (although I most enjoyed her ‘No offence’ and ‘She’s different with boys’ characters) entered the national consciousness in a big way.

Was her mother aware of all her success? Did she watch The Fast Show? “She’d never have watched it if I hadn’t been in it, and I don’t think she watched it regularly... My mum read dense books in foreign languages, an entire book a day.

“A bit of her was proud of The Fast Show, mainly because I think it made her look good, but she was also pretty critical of my contribution. To be fair to her, and she once sort of admitted this, I think one of the defining issues for our relationship was that my mother was jealous of me.”

Arabella elaborates: “I think she was jealous of the opportunities that I would say I made for myself, because I bloody well did make them for myself through hard work – certainly not at school but as an actress, starting out and plugging away for all those years.

“And I once said, ‘I think you’re jealous of me’ and she said, ‘I think you might be right’. I think she was jealous that I’d sort of managed to harness... because I was nothing like as intellectually accomplished as my mother, but my mother didn’t harness her opportunities. I think because she was held back by depression and low self-esteem.

“Now I certainly have had my own share – in spades – of low self-esteem but I thought I’m not going to let it hold me back. I think I thought, ‘Everyone in the room hates me but I’m going to do this anyway’.”

Arabella Weir. Picture: James Deacon
Arabella Weir. Picture: James Deacon

Arabella, who has written another solo show she plans to take on the road at the end of this year, adds: “Mum was an absolutely terrific, incredibly funny, intelligent, witty person – she just was completely ill-equipped to be a mother and she didn’t think she had to be one.

“She didn’t think it was a job, it was like ‘You have children and then they annoy you’, not ‘You have these people and then you’ve got to sort of work at it’. But yeah, I think she was pleased with The Fast Show but it wasn’t University Challenge!

“She did ring me up once saying, ‘You’ve just been a question on University Challenge!’ and I went, ‘Oh, right’. She said, ‘Can you believe that?’ and I went, ‘Well, yeah’. She was absolutely astonished but she didn’t go, ‘Well done you, darling’ or anything. What she did is what most Scottish parents do which is go on about how talented [the others are]. ‘Paul Whitehouse, he’s absolutely marvellous...’ I never got that.”

Arabella Weir. Picture: James Deacon
Arabella Weir. Picture: James Deacon

As well as trying to get a bit of writing done while she hasn’t been out on tour, Arabella reveals that she has also recently been doing “a lot of DIY” – “which is my new thing because I’ve learned how to use a drill, which I’m very excited about,” she says proudly. I know it may sound like a very tiny achievement, but to me it is epic.

“My mum was very, very unpractical in that way and you just thought every time you needed a painting put up, you’d go, ‘I’ll have to get a bloke in’, and when I found myself as a single parent, I thought, ‘I don’t have to get a bloke in, maybe I could learn to do that – it can’t be that hard’.”

Does My Mum Loom Big in This? will be on at the Junction’s J2 on Thursday, January 20. To book, visit junction.co.uk.

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