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Helen Lederer: ‘When I was writing the book, I remembered these buttock-clenching moments’

Helen Lederer was one of a handful of women at the heart of the alternative comedy scene in the 1980s and has written an hilarious tell-all memoir about the ups and downs of trying to make it on the sta nd-up circuit.

In the decade that launched the careers of today’s comedy household names, she shared stage and screen with comedy pioneers like Ben Elton, Rik Mayall, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Ade Edmondson and Harry Enfield.

And she was in some of the biggest shows of the era, including Absolutely Fabulous, Bottom, Happy Families, French and Saunders and Girls on Top. But she was never part of the mainstream in a world where there was only room at the top for a tiny number of women, and she recounts her struggles in her new book, Not That I’m Bitter.

Helen Lederer. Picture: Tony Woolliscroft
Helen Lederer. Picture: Tony Woolliscroft

Alex Spencer asked her some questions ahead of her talk at the Cambridge Literary Festival.

Were you worried about people’s reaction to your memoir?

“It has been described as alarmingly honest. Which is a kind of interesting response, because I’m thinking, is it alarming to be honest?

“Obviously a lawyer went through it, which was reassuring being the kind of person I am, which is I have anxiety. Anxiety sort of fuelled my comedy and as an older person, I’ve come to accept that you can’t necessarily change those qualities. I talk about everything from my point of view, so I don’t dish the dirt on anyone else and also I’m far too repressed to do that, because I was brought up to be a people pleaser.

“Obviously, there were loads of disasters and mistakes and stuff, but I concentrated on me owning it, rather than pointing fingers at anyone else.”

How did you get into stand-up?

“Nobody went to drama school from my school, it wasn’t normal. But I always wanted to write and perform just like some people want to be a doctor. Sometimes people know what they want to do, not everyone, but I did know I wanted to do that. But I didn’t do it in the right order. And I kind of didn’t get great grades. So I ended up doing what I wanted, but in a very roundabout way, it seems to me.

If you didn’t go straight to drama school, how did you get started?

“I went into social work, which I think there are worse things to do, wanting to help people. While I was working I joined a theatre group. I was still finding ways to act. Then I joined a psychodrama group, but that was insane.

“But I thought, oh, psycho and drama -–sounds good. I was doing my grown up job in social work where I had to look at files a lot, and I wasn’t very good at it. Then I would go to the psychodrama group and I had to beat up a cushion. In the end, I then went to drama school late at 27 to do a very weird postgraduate year. So, nothing I’ve done is normal. It’s not like when you meet proper people who say I went to school then I went to RADA, then I was at the RSC. That’s not me. I stole a double act partner from an audition. And we were a double act for nine months. And then she went back to her original double act partner, which was fair enough, and then I just thought, right well I’ve got these gigs booked. And then I just did it solidly for five years.”

There were very few female stand ups in the ’80s – did you have to be very determined to succeed?

“I kind of marvel at my own ambition at that time. I’d phone people up to get in the newspaper called The Stage. I would call receptionists and secretaries to try and get on programmes. I must have wanted it so much and as a woman that’s not very attractive, is it, to be keen? We are not allowed to be keen, it’s unseemly. I remember at one of those BBC light entertainment parties, where you’re only allowed to attend if you’ve been in a radio programme that year. It’s very strict, everybody who’s there is chuffed to bits. And you drink the yellow wine and you’re just trying to get jobs. And I did ask a radio producer if he’d received one of my many scripts that I’d been sending in. And he turned to me and said “high maintenance”. And I mean, that sort of sums up the time really.

“When I was writing the book, I would remember these kinds of embarrassing buttock-clenching moments. And it was kind of quite a gruelling experience. But then, you know, I just found them funny. I hope the reader finds it funny.”

Helen Lederer. Picture: Tony Woolliscroft
Helen Lederer. Picture: Tony Woolliscroft

How did you become involved in the alternative comedy scene in the ’80s?

“I was at the Edinburgh Festival when I met Ben Elton, Rick Mayall and Andy De La Tour who were storming it with their big stand up show. And I hung out with them at that time because I was doing my 20 minutes on stage in between two other men. I was always sandwiched between two men. That was such an exciting time with stand up, because the year before it had been all about Cambridge Footlights. I suppose that was my best time because I was genuinely doing it. And we genuinely made a connection because we talked about what we were doing and it was quite exciting.”

Did you know they were going to be the next big thing in comedy?

“I think we knew they had that charisma. I mean, people were queuing around the block to see their show in Edinburgh. We certainly had an audience but it wasn’t quite on the same level. And so for the people who like the ’80s I talk in the book about Rik and how amazing he was. And he was very kind and sexy.”

Did you date him?

“Yes, but when we say dating, I think dating might be too formal a word, sort of a bit Elizabethan, and I think we’re talking more about getting off with, if we’re allowed to use that word. I’m not alone, I’m sure.”

How charismatic was he?

“Basically, you don’t often meet someone like that, I think. He was so handsome, so passionate, just so good and brave and courageous at what he did. And when I was doing my show there, he came to see it. They all came to see it because I was on with somebody called Norman Lovett, who was the comedian’s comedian, because he was very surreal, but I happened to be in the same show so they got to see me as well. And Rik was just full of advice for me. For those three weeks in Edinburgh, I was a colleague, and I think it’s fantastic to be a colleague, don’t you? Being colleagues is just everything because the power balance is even. Everyone would go to the Assembly Room bar, and everyone would just stop talking when any one more famous came in. So you have one eye on the door the whole time in case. It was really exciting.”

You have said you dated other comedians, do you discuss them in the book?

“I have such respect for other people. Everything is said with respect. It’s not salacious. It really isn’t a kiss and tell. I mean, I’m just not one of those people. I mean it’s a truthful book, and I really hope people will read it. And I hope if they bump into me they won’t cross the road afterwards.”

Do you feel that being a woman really held you back?

“We’re all looking for reasons aren’t we? The reason I made the book title Not That I’m Bitter is because honestly if it was bitter then it wouldn’t be funny. There are many reasons why people don’t get to the top. Some of it is because they’re crap, which might have been mine, or I didn’t push myself or there just wasn’t room or luck at the time. I think an element of truth is that the climate was ‘These are our women”. I wrote a political treatment about New Labour but there was already a political thing in play for Dawn French, which the commissioner explained very kindly, and you just go ‘OK, fine’. That was the system in the ’80s and ’90s.”

Did it feel like there was a quota for female comedians?

“French and Saunders were already in the system a couple of years ahead of me. I have to say deservedly so because everyone will think I don’t like them. And I do. I think they’re amazing. They’ve given me the most amazing jobs. You know, they are nice people.

“But women were seen as a duplication. There were loads of male comedians, I went out with most of them. But, the climate was “we’ve already got women”. We’ve got Emma Thompson, who’s brilliant, leading a show, but there was no room for any more. And then it would be considered duplication if you had another woman.”

Do you feel you were a victim of sexism?

“I kind of asked myself, will I be seen as a victim or irresponsible, with today’s values. I do feel required to comment, I’m keen to be respectful to how it is now. And I do admire the women now so much, but equally, you know, I can’t paint a different picture of how it was for me. I don’t think I’m a victim. I got myself into situations but you see, I wanted to be better. You could say now people in control should be respectful.”

Did you get into any serious scrapes?

“There were some scrapes. In my gap year I did a lot of jobs. I did a job as a masseur. I got into a situation there which obviously one wouldn’t now, and any sensible person wouldn’t now, but there’s something about me that takes risks. I think comedy is about risks. I’m kind of a small player so I can afford to tell these stories because I haven’t got anywhere to fall.

“In the book I talk about a situation at drama school, where I did some extra tuition because I wanted to be more open and a better actress. So I got into a bit of a role playing situation with someone in power. And that’s quite an interesting chapter in the sense that you wonder, was that a tacit agreement between two people? You know it wasn’t entirely normal.

“We had a few sessions where other people were brought along, and you’d sort of eye up the other person going, should we be doing this? Is this normal? But it’s like, the difference between dodgy and kinky, right? That’s how I look at it.

“Kinky I think is allowed, that’s modern, isn’t it? Because they put that on Channel 4 now, those programs where kinky is encouraged.”

You have said you went for therapy. Why did you want some help?

“When I was a social worker, it was quite normal to have a therapist. So that was my first one and then, depending on the budget and the time available, I never gave up. It’s like a new diet, isn’t it? You just go do you know, what I might need to sort that out. Or when you go, I really must go to the gym or I must stop eating bread. You know. And it’s great if something can help for a bit. Why not?

“I don’t know why I went to start with but there was one therapist who decided that I had above-average anxiety as if I was supposed to be pleased, you know, like I’ve got aboveaverage anxiety that’s great big tick. And I think maybe that explains a lot because not a lot of people would probably do my path on their own.

“I have wondered if there’s some masochism in there.”

Were there any missed opportunities that you regret?

“I did write a section about sulking a lot, which I think is quite funny. I had a period of sulking in my 40s because I didn’t get a sitcom and I just thought that would define me and I think another thing about the book is to say you know what, it’s really OK and not in a corny way if you don’t get what you want. I wanted to be Miranda but I was older and I was not, as you know, I wasn’t Miranda.”

How did you find being on reality TV with Big Brother and Splash?

“With Big Brother, my daughter said you came across as normal, which she was surprised about because obviously the characters in there a lot of them were used to being on reality TV. I held it together for an adequate innings but I think I got quite traumatised when I came out. Just because there is no escape and you have to try to be liked in the group. And the bit like Lord of the Flies, really, groups are inevitably about power, and power shifting. So even with my sociology degree it didn’t really serve me that well. It was very challenging and exposing really, but a great amount of money. Lovely. Bought some garden furniture with it.

Splash was scary because I did inherit a thing about heights and now I’m not great in a lift, especially if they’ve got glass windows. We had to jump off a three metre board. To me three metres is tall, but obviously not to Tom Daly. I remember going to the very, very top one, which was 10 metres high. And I think we had to crawl just to be able to get up there. But then Tom Daley very kindly jumped holding my hand, which was not the romance you might think. But just to get me in there, you know? So we jumped together.”

How do you feel looking back on your work?

“In my office when I die, which may be quite soon because of the stress of this, I’m going, what’s going to happen to all my files, my folders of ideas and treatments? You come up with these endless ideas and then nothing happened. Which is quite funny as well.”

Helen Lederer’s talk is at 6pm on Sunday, 21 April at the University Arms hotel. For more details, visit cambridgeliteraryfestival.com.

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