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Isy Suttie interview: ‘I was a teen ouija board queen’

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Before Isy Suttie was a comedian she was famous for something entirely different in her home town - being her school’s number one ouija board practitioner.

Teenage Isy was the go-to girl for all spooky matters and professes to have called up “absolutely loads” of spirits in her early career as a ghost whisperer.

In her new show, which is coming to Cambridge as part of the Sound and Vision festival in April, she’s looking back at some of the stranger adventures of her youth and wondering if her kids will ever have the same freedoms she enjoyed.

“My show is going to be about growing up and becoming a mum and thinking about my teenage years. I’m still trying to retain that sense of curiosity and adventure I had back then,” she says.

Isy Suttie. Pic by Matt Crockett (55700103)
Isy Suttie. Pic by Matt Crockett (55700103)

Back then means growing up in a small town in the Peak District where Isy, who is best known for playing Dobby in Peep Show, had to try and make her own fun as “there was nothing to do”. She reveals how a new world opened up when her mum showed her how to set up a ouija board - with an alphabet written out on the board and ‘yes’ and ‘no’ scrawled at the top - to call up spirits of the dead.

“She showed me how to do a ouija board, which I think now is a bit odd. I'm not sure a parent would do that now,” says Isy.

“I was about 11 or 12. I think in one way it was quite cool but in general she was quite average in how protective she was of me. She wasn’t showing me how to boil a kettle when I was three or anything like that. She was just a normal mum but maybe with a streak of adventure in her.

“I was just always trying stuff out, just trying to entertain myself. I was always like, trying to kind of push the envelope and I grew up in a really small town in the Peak District, which is really beautiful, but like a lot of small towns, there wasn't loads to do. Now I’m wondering if my kids will ever be like this? I don't really want them to do that kind of thing, now that I'm a mum.

Over the years we spoke to loads of people who died in the plague and in the war, but who knows if it was real?

“I quickly got into like ouija boards in a big way and would even do them on my own, every day. I used to do them with my friends too and I kind of got known as someone who would start ouija boards. It was almost like a burden as so many people wanted to do it.

“I have spoken to so many spirits. Over the years I’ve wondered if it was real - either it was or it's some weird thing where you swear you're not pushing the glass with your finger towards the answer, where you are tapping into a part of your brain that really feels like it isn't you. It never ever felt like I was pushing the glass and I kind of became an expert in noticing where other people are pushing it as well. Because often in a group people will push it and it's just a different kind of movement when someone's pushing it and also the end of their finger changes colour.

“Over the years we spoke to loads of people who died in the plague and in the war, but who knows if it was real? I never found anything out that I didn't know, if you know what I mean. There was never any proof in the sense that they never told me a fact that I could check on and see if it was true. And as I get older, a bit of me thinks was it me? I just don't know.”

She seems to have escaped her dabble with the dark side unscathed. In fact, she and her friends were quite dismissive of the people who ‘came through’.

Isy Suttie. Pic by Matt Crockett (55700146)
Isy Suttie. Pic by Matt Crockett (55700146)

Isy says: “I remember being at a party in Sheffield and we got really bored with the spirit. We were asking him to go and get another spirit and he was really annoyed with us. I think when you're a teenager you do just have less fear, don't you? It’s only as I get older, I think my God, what were we doing? But we never had anything happen like in horror films where the windows get smashed, for instance. And it wasn’t dramatic - it can be quite slow, because it can take half an hour for someone to move to the glass to ‘Yes’. And then you're asking its name and then sometimes you don't really know what to ask. So you can ask about its life, how many kids it had and how it died but it's actually quite a slow conversation. I never had a message from my grandma or anything like that. I probably should have done that and I could have found out if it was real or not. I probably won't let my kids see this show. Because then they'll know all the stuff that I did!”

Now Isy has to satisfy her thirst for adventure in more sedate ways.

She says: “I'm having to pay more for adventure, whereas it used to come sort of organically when I was younger. Now I do things like escape rooms and going on courses, which feel a little bit convoluted. I actually did an escape room for the first time the other day and I loved it and now I want to do every single escape room in the country. So I think I still have that streak of wanting to try a new set of challenges and adventures and stuff, but I'll have to pay £20 for it rather than I guess when you're younger things just happened, don't they?”

The Cambridge show is a chance for Isy to try out new material before she goes on tour, so not everything audiences hear will make it into her later events. Isy is also working on material about being a parent, the horrors of home-schooling and how her partner’s flaws became magnified during lockdown.

Isy Suttie. Pic by Matt Crockett (55700113)
Isy Suttie. Pic by Matt Crockett (55700113)

“I've actually made a list of my partner's bad habits that I noticed in lockdown. It’s nothing too bad but during lockdown when you were stuck with someone you really did notice like every single thing about them,” she explains.

Their flaws obviously weren’t deal-breakers as Isy and her partner, the actor Elis James, are planning to get married. It was Isy who proposed, but the pandemic and life in general has conspired to get in the way of them tying the knot.

“We're moving house, so I feel like we need to get that out of the way. But then we will do it after that. It just seems like so much to organise. I mean, I've been engaged before and we were planning the wedding when we broke up and I remember even at that early stage what a headache it was, choosing the venue, and I was like, ‘oh gosh, who should we invite?’ So, I'm almost not looking forward to the admin side of it. But we will do it. I think we need to do it, legally.”

The idea of eloping appeals briefly but not when thinking about the fallout from relatives.

“I think our families would be devastated if they weren't there,” says Isy.

“We could just elope and do it, couldn't we, and then pretend we're getting married in front of everyone, but know that we've already done it. So it kind of takes the stress out of it.

Isy and Elis have two children, a girl aged 7 and a boy aged 3. And Isy has written a comic novel about trying to get pregnant, which she penned during lockdown when she and her partner were home-schooling their daughter.

I think some things are only funny in retrospect and at the time they are too bleak

Isy says: “I think the amount she did kind of tailed off as time went on. And then when I went to finish the book I had to rent an Airbnb up the road because I had this deadline to meet and I couldn’t be distracted. I was writing for like 14 hours a day. I’d only been away for a few nights then the teacher rang Ellis and was like, ‘your daughter hasn't been to any online classes’. As I left she just stopped. We had to say sorry and explain that we had a baby as well. It was tricky. There was no joy at all in it. I found it really stressful trying to work at the same time. I think most of the country did, didn't they?”

She says: “The main character is trying for a baby and then she moves back home because her partner has been cheating on her. What I found was that I couldn’t give my main character kids. In my first draft, she had a child already, who was the age of my son, and I thought, great she has a child this will be really easy to write. But, I just found it so weird. I absolutely hated her kid. For whatever reason it didn’t feel right. So instead I gave her friend two really annoying sons and then that was absolutely fine. But I really loved writing the novel. It was really different from writing stand up where I’m normally writing about myself.

“I've never been one of those people who's like, ‘I'm gonna write about parenting in a funny way’. I think some things are only funny in retrospect and at the time they are too bleak. I think I find it easy to write about things like trying for a baby when sex becomes horrible because it's just about trying to get pregnant. No, not horrible, but I suppose a means to an end rather than, you know, what it was previously. But I can't write as myself because I'd be writing about people I know. And you have to be so careful that people don’t go, ‘Oh my God, that's me!’ That's why writing a novel is so good because you can use real people but kind of disguise them.”

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