Helen Lederer interview: ‘I’m ready to be bad again’
Comedian Helen Lederer has spent the last two years being a good person and right now she’s desperate to be bad again.
The good deed she has done is set up a literary prize for funny female writers and although she is delighted with the success of Comedy Women in Print (CWIP) , it’s been a lot of work, she admits.
“I am an ideas person, every so often I do something and it doesn’t always turn out to be good, but this idea is the one that worked,” Helen says. “However, it does take a lot of work. If one had a disposable income and was Hollywood-rich, it would be a lot easier, but I’m just an ordinary person making this happen.
“Given my experiences in comedy, I felt I was the right person to do it, but it has taken over my life. I’m desperate to write my next novel, to write my memoirs and do some radio, but I have all these dreams of fun work and I get up every morning and there is stuff to do on CWIP. There is no escape.
“I never knew how much you just have to sit in front of a computer and do things... I have created a monster and in this climate the amount of time one spends to inspire support of money and people and talent is huge.
“Before lockdown I could go out to meetings to persuade people to come on board and buy them drinks and coffees and, of course, now you can’t do that, so you have to invent new ways to be convincing, to celebrate it with enthusiasm.”
Helen has spent a lot of time and energy getting people on board and ended up with an impressive panel of female judges, including actresses Joanna Scanlan (The Thick of it) and Pauline McLynn (Father Ted) as well as authors Emma Kennedy and Marian Keyes. Now she is hoping other women will step forward to take up the mantle of celebrating the next generation of funny female writers – and give her time to explore the other side of her personality.
“I want to be bad, now,” says Helen. “Setting up the prize has all been about being good and helping people and I believe in that. At one point many, many years ago I was a social worker. I wasn’t a very good one but I did want to help people. So I’m into being nice and helpful and I care, but there is also a part of me that is a comedy person. I like the bad stuff that goes down. And I like to have the freedom to talk about it. I want to be able to go into that side of things. I want to let rip a bit.”
Best known for her role as magazine writer Catriona in BBC One’s Absolutely Fabulous, Helen also appeared in Bottom with Adrian Edmondson and Rik Mayall and spent years on the stand-up circuit.
But it was her comedy novel Losing It, which was nominated for the P G Wodehouse Comedy Literary Award, that got her thinking about the lack of a female-only comedy writing prize.
“What inspired me was that I had already been a judge on the Costa literary award and on the Women’s Prize, which was then called the Orange Prize. And then my comedy novel had been nominated for the P G Wodehouse, which was a comedy prize but I thought there wasn’t a prize specifically for both women and comedy.”
Helen didn’t win and neither did other prominent female writers and it came to her attention that only three women had won the prize in the previous 18 years.
“Some people have ideas and then don’t do anything about it, but I did and suddenly it was a lot of work and I had no idea that to make the idea real would take another three or four years.”
As a lucky coincidence, just as Helen was launching the CWIP awards, bestselling author Marian Keyes was speaking out about being overlooked for comedy prizes. Helen contacted her to see if she would become a judge on the new prize, which became a turning point for their success.
“I had already tried to approach women influencers and they had said ‘no’, quite quickly,” says Helen. “I had a lot of nos, but then once Marian said ‘yes’ to being a judge, people started to go ‘OK’, because we had a bit more credibility. It gives it integrity and people realise it is important and not a bad idea.”
Helen says she wanted to showcase the huge range of women’s voices and humour that were not being heard.
“When I started out in stand-up comedy in the ’80s there was a system where only a small number of women were championed. There was an assumption that you could only have a small amount of women taking part at any one time. I wanted to change that so you can have a number of very different women all at once being championed and celebrated and talked about. Women’s humour on the page was not being given respect and visibility. I wanted to bring things back into line.”
The winners of the two published categories in the CWIP award receive a cash prize while the winner of the unpublished novel receives a publishing deal with HarperCollins. This year’s published winner, Nina Stibbe, will be in conversation with Helen at the Cambridge Literary festival in November.
“I think the important thing is to get more women comedy writers respected if their work is good,” says Helen. “The aim of CWIP is to encourage the differences between women, so we’re not just a little niche. What I find funny is not what another woman finds funny as a comedian. I know immediately if I’m not hitting the mark and that’s something in the ’80s we were a bit nervous to disagree with each other. Women’s comedy is as broad as it is wide and this is trying to debunk preconceptions, but proving you can debunk it requires quality work. I hate the fact that some people don’t win, that’s why I’m not a judge myself but you have to have a competition to create the platform.”
However, running a new literary award has proved all consuming, and Helen says she is keen to get other partners on board to shoulder the burden so she can write her memoirs and a new novel that is on the back burner.
“I’m seeking other people to work with because I’m getting excited about writing and doing my own stuff,” says Helen. “Before I pop my clogs there is a bit more to do. I need to rewrite my novel that I’m working on, and I decided it was best to go with the memoir first having just done a prize for novels. I don’t want people to go ‘oh my god, she’s a **** writer when I have set up the Comedy Women in Print prize. There’s a certain amount of pressure now.”
The memoir is set to be a tell all book that will include Helen’s time on the alternative comedy scene in the ’80s. Will it name the famous people around her at the time? “I will take advice on whether I can name names. I have put the names of the people involved in the draft,” she says. But it is going to be about “self-sabotage, errors, naivety – all those things that are quite funny.”
“It will talk about what happened in the ’80s and the people and why am I funny, why am I doing this to myself when it’s so difficult. You know, it will be the nightmare gigs, the showbiz stuff, the rebuttals, the bad relationships – all the bad stuff that I think is very funny.
“The role I play at the Comedy Women in Print is that I’m the nice eager beaver person who turns up and pays for the drinks, and I think the memoir will be the antithesis for that. Time to be bad, I think, no one is good all the time. It’s over, it doesn’t do it for me any more.”
Helen does wonder how she is seen by others: “My step grandson told me I am eccentric. But I don’t think I’m eccentric at all. He didn’t mean it as a criticism but it amused me that people would think I’m eccentric. I don’t relax with certain people, straight people I guess, but I never saw myself as eccentric, so I’m not sure what that means. I was impressed though, good word.”
Two years ago Helen went back to stand-up at the Edinburgh Festival, but although it was enjoyable, she is in no hurry to repeat the process.
“I wanted to prove to myself I could do it. It was important to me. I had a good experience but while writing my novel and doing the literary festivals I realised I like this. At a lit fest people would choose to come and see me in a tent, or whatever, so you would have a different kind of relationship with the audience.
“Obviously there’s a lot of nerves involved in stand-up but it was writing my book that took me into another place completely. I enjoyed writing it. I enjoyed doing literary festivals and then I thought, ‘OK now I can go back to stand-up’. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed the stand-up but I just wanted to have a positive experience.”
Now seems a good time to concentrate on writing, with acting and live comedy opportunities blocked by coronavirus rules.
“Writing is more do-able at the moment. I would love to do some radio but opportunities are different at the moment. Maybe things will come back next year to more normal. We don’t know, so we have to live our ideas very much in the present and writing is something I can do now – you don’t have to wait for a production company or an investor, you can actually do it yourself. I very rarely do nothing.”
Helen Lederer will be in conversation with Nina Stibbe for the Winter Cambridge Literary Festival, which takes place on November 19-22. The full programme is due to be published on October 16, with tickets going on sale on October 19.
For details, visit cambridgeliteraryfestival.com.