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Fiona Allen: ‘I never really meant to do stand-up’

Despite appearing in numerous successful television series beforehand, it was arguably Smack the Pony, Channel 4’s memorably off-the-wall sketch show, where actress and comedian Fiona Allen first made her name.

Now she’s on tour with her debut stand-up show and will soon be bringing it to Cambridge.

Fiona Allen. Picture: Natasha Pszenicki
Fiona Allen. Picture: Natasha Pszenicki

Titled On the Run, the show follows on from Fiona’s sell-out tour and Edinburgh run in 2023, and the star, whose other TV appearances include Shooting Stars, EastEnders, Goodness Gracious Me, Skins and Death in Paradise, has added 13 extra dates for 2024 – including one at the Junction in February.

On the Run charts, among other things, Fiona’s recent journey to the stand-up stage, her thoughts on family, marriage, sex robots, passive aggressive school mums and supermarket dress codes.

“I never really meant to do stand-up,” she confesses, speaking to the Cambridge Independent from Berkshire, where she now lives, “but I don’t know why, I just thought I’d like to do some because I’ve been acting for years and years.

“I did a few open spots when I was in my 20s, just something to do when I moved to London, but I never carried on with it because I got a job within 12 weeks, acting.

“Really that’s all I’ve ever done – apart from voiceovers – so I thought ‘I wonder what it would be like?’ I suddenly started to think ‘this could be fun’.

“I did it; I thought ‘I’ll give myself three months, see if I like it’ and I did three months and thought ‘actually, I quite like this’.

“And it was other comedians saying to me ‘I presume you’re going to write a show?’ and I’d never even thought of it. Then it was people going ‘oh well you should’ and ‘are you going to Edinburgh?’ and I was like ‘I don’t think so...’

“Then all of a sudden I’d written the show and gone to Edinburgh and was `doing a little tour – and so it’s all happened very quickly. So yes it’s the first one and I really like it, it’s loads of fun.”

Fiona Allen. Picture: Natasha Pszenicki
Fiona Allen. Picture: Natasha Pszenicki

Fiona is married to Mike, the son of the late Sir Michael Parkinson, and the couple have three children. The last few years have seen her divide her time between work and family.

“It’s very much what was happening to me,” she explains, referring to the show, “if you’re working, and it doesn’t matter if you’ve got kids or not, but for me it was work, kids, work, kids, work, kids for years and years and years…

“And yes I love my job acting, I absolutely adore it – and I like doing voiceovers too – but you sometimes do, as a parent, get to a point where you’re kind of ‘well what about me?’ because of course when you come home it’s just never-ending stuff.

“It’s constant in the evening – getting things done and jobs done and kids’ stuff ready for school the next day, and of course when kids get a little bit bigger there’s still a lot to do, but it’s different and they can kind of manage themselves if they want. I think they just don’t want to, do they?

“So for me it was just something else to do; I just thought as much as I love my acting, I thought ‘well this is a little bit of an adventure, I want to try and see if I really love it as much as I think’ – and I did.

“I talk about ‘the life’, which can sound mundane, but I think lots of us have that in the daytime. What do we do? We do the washing, we go off on holidays and come back and nothing changes, you’re still amongst the grind, aren’t you, at home?

“Although I love my home and I love being in it – I don’t want you to get the wrong idea there… but I talk about what I know for the last few years, which is work and kids, and the desire for a little bit of a change for a bit – but without realising. I think that’s the thing, I didn’t quite realise it until I started to do this.

“So yeah, I talk about that, I talk about characters, I talk about my Spanish mum and my northern dad, I talk about my sister – so it’s family stuff – and I talk a lot about driving, which I know sounds weird but I do so much driving in this job that it’s become a thing.

“I talk about going off to different places and holidays and little things like that, I talk about passive aggressive school mums – I really enjoy that because they do make other mums’ lives a misery in the school playground sometimes, and I always question where’s the sisterhood?

“The only way I can express that is to talk about them. It’s a funny way but definitely I think that’s something that people don’t say and I think we absolutely should say it because it exists, and I think it’s important to say that.”

Fiona Allen. Picture: Natasha Pszenicki
Fiona Allen. Picture: Natasha Pszenicki

Fiona says of On the Run, which was originally called Mum on the Run (she later concluded that that title was a bit “harsh” on her children): “It’s just silly and good fun, occasionally a little bit surreal, and really just very me”.

Asked who she thinks it would appeal to, she replies: “I’ve been working that out and it’s quite difficult, because nobody has bought a ticket… unless a few people have seen me in clubs, because I’ve done that for a little bit now, but people are buying tickets to see me because they like me as an actress and they like Smack the Pony, not because they think I’m a funny stand-up.

“So I won’t know until I write another show – then I’ll know if people like me as a stand-up because they’ll come back… but I was trying to figure out what my audience was; I’ll turn up in some places and there are people my age, might be a bit older, and then sometimes students come.”

“And I ask them afterwards, because I always chat to people, ‘out of interest, because I’m talking about being a mum and working and all this stuff, how old are you?’ and they’re like, ‘we’re students, we’re 20, 22, 19’, or whatever, and I say ‘did you like it?’

“And they say ‘well yeah because it’s really relatable, we thought it would be funny’ – and they watch Smack the Pony with their mum.

“I’ll get people who are 19, in their 20s, in their 30s and their 40s and their 50s and their 60s – it seems to me it’s across the board.

“And I get groups of friends that are women coming, and then I get a lot of couples because men like my stuff too. So it’s lots of different people, which I think’s great.”

Fiona Allen. Picture: Natasha Pszenicki
Fiona Allen. Picture: Natasha Pszenicki

As a teenager, Fiona left her home town of Bury for the bright lights of Manchester and became part of the Tony Wilson empire of the Hacienda Nightclub and Factory Records.

When she decided to become an actress, she went to London and soon won two Emmy awards as the star and co-writer of the hugely influential all-female sketch show Smack the Pony, alongside Doon Mackichan and Sally Phillips. The programme ran from 1999 to 2003, returning in 2017 for a Comic Relief special.

Why is the show still so fondly remembered? “I think that it was three women messing around being silly,” replies Fiona, “which you hadn’t really seen before.

“I think we did some very interesting, forward-thinking, clever things – and also things that everyone can relate to.

“I was in Kent doing some stand-up last night and a couple of ladies came up and they were talking about particular sketches they liked.

“One of them was asking me ‘why do we keep replaying it and looking at it?’ I said ‘well it’s no different than your favourite record that you want to hear again, it’s no different than your favourite food that you like again’.

“We just like to revisit things that we like.”

Does Fiona have a favourite Smack the Pony sketch? “Well I was filming with a black bull, and I loved filming with this bull, and the idea was that she was a bullfighter – which I’m totally against by the way.

“She was a matador and she fell in love with the bull so she ran away with it to Wigan. We were on the run and I loved that – that was one of my favourite days because I’m a massive animal lover.”

Fiona, who believes Smack the Pony should be brought back, in case anyone was wondering, will be appearing at the Cambridge Junction (J2) on Thursday, 8 February. She will be chatting to people afterwards and would love to know what they thought of the show.

Fiona Allen. Picture: Natasha Pszenicki
Fiona Allen. Picture: Natasha Pszenicki

Tickets, priced £19, are available from junction.co.uk. For more on Fiona, go to fionaallencomedy.com.

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