Archive for the ‘Comedian’ Category

arabella-weir_1940329bThough looking completely unfazed by the youths knocking back cans of lager on the corner outside her house, even nodding an ‘Alright?’ to them as she passed, Arabella Weir looked a little uncertain about the tall, sweaty bloke on her pathway on the hottest day of the year so far.  Then a lightbulb went off.  ‘Oh fuck!  I forgot, I forgot…come in.’ she said to me, opening her front door.  Weir swears freely and often in a rather glorious way.   Apologies and explanations followed.  The kids had to be picked up, could I amuse myself for an hour?  It was the end of a long week and I was gagging for a pint.  She dropped me off at a pub where I listened to labourers arranging their weekend drugs and then paid an old Irish alky 50p to stop telling me jokes.  Example: ‘Why is sex so good when you’re camping?’  Because it’s fucking in tents’.

Arabella Weir started her comedy career securing the gladioli for Dame Edna Everage before working with Alexei Sayle on his ‘Stuff’ show in 1988 (‘I wrote a load of sketches about two lesbians who ran a bike shop called ‘The Menstrual Cycle’’).  ‘The Fast Show’ is what made her though.  Her and her bum.   ‘Does My Bum Look Big in This?’ was not only one of the most famous catchphrases to come out of the show, but also the title of a chick lit book that she wrote that sold shedloads back when enough book sales could make you some serious dosh.  It’s the reason that she lives in a lovely big house in a nice part of town, with sofas as colourful as her character (hot pink, in case you’re wondering).  Houses were cheaper then too, she reminds me.

the_fast_showThough she doesn’t remember exactly when she met Charlie Higson, he was at University with people Weir knew and she’d been at school with his wife, so she thinks that she’d always sort of known who he was.  She’d got to know Charlie better when Harry Enfield asked her to work on one of his shows.  Charlie and Paul Whitehouse were writing for Harry at the time.  One night they were all in the BBC bar together, which Weir remembers as distinctly unglamorous, despite being full of the celebrities of the day.  ‘Jimmy Savile was over there, Alan Titchmarsh, Percy Thrower.  Those were still the days when Jim Davidson was top of the tree and everybody was murmuring ‘bit of a wanker…’ behind his back.  Paul and Charlie were a bit uncomfortable around women, a bit autistic.  They walked over and said ‘We’re doing a sketch show now, without Harry.  You’re funny, do you want to do a bit?’ I was like ‘Yeah, alright’.

Weir reckons she was born a performer after entering the world as the youngest child with two older brothers, meaning that she was always having to compete for attention.  Her mother later told her that her brothers had never played with her.  By the time she was at school ‘I was so locked into being the centre of attention I couldn’t ever give ground.  I remember going into battle with a teacher when I was 12 years old and actually thinking ‘I don’t even hate you, get me off this.  I wouldn’t mind learning about geography’.  But at the same time there was this sea of laughter and all the girls were thinking of me as a ringleader.  I thought ‘I’m bullying her, I wish I wasn’t but everyone likes me.’  It bought me two weeks worth of respect.’  When asked what kind of job she wanted to do, she figured being an actor was the perfect fit for a show off.

Eight years of auditions followed while she was in her twenties.  She tells me the worst part was never getting feedback.  Did she ever think about giving up and getting a regular job?  ‘You’re always battling against the little voice saying ‘Come on, look at the graph, you’re not going to crack it’.  I was a PA to a local Labour councillor and it was a job I really enjoyed but the only reason I didn’t give up is because I knew I’d never love something as much as this.  You have to remember you are at a roulette table and when Robson Greene wins something you’re thinking, ‘What the fuck?  Where’s the meritocracy? Caroline Quentin?  Hello?  I didn’t hang around for 30 years to see her doing well!‘   The Fast Show gig turned up when she was 30 years old and the only secret to success, she says, is determination.

The book that she wrote with her catchphrase as the title sees our heroine, Jackie, worrying through life about any number of subjects but you can probably guess the big one: her size.  At one point in the book she decides she can write a self help book and describes the most flattering positions in which to have sex.  How much was Jackie actually Arabella, I wondered?  ‘All of it, every single word’.  So how often were you worrying when you were, er…? ‘Every minute of every sexual encounter and I’ve had loads of fantastic sex with tons of men and I’ve really gone for it, but there was always a bit of me that was thinking ‘Oh shit, the tits! Oh no, the stomach, oh god my bum’ and then I’ve just thought ‘Fuck it, we’re here now.’  If you’re skiing down a hill and you’re wearing a helmet, it doesn’t stop you enjoying it, you’re just taking precautions.  That concern about how I look, has been…present.’  It is a testament to what great company she is that I could have this kind of conversation with Arabella having met her only half an hour earlier.

The PA job that she had as a struggling actress triggered a lifetime of political engagement .  She describes herself as a socialist and is an ardent supporter of the Labour party.  We discuss politics in passing and she is hilarious about ‘oily estate agent man’ Cameron, remaining aghast that he was elected.  ‘He’s got gazillions in the bank and if things get a bit rough, he can go private.‘ which I take to mean that she thinks he will never really know how tough life can be for the majority of people.  When I ask her if she thinks Ed Miliband can win she fudges the answer, choosing her words carefully to describe him as ‘extremely impressive and engaging’.  Politicians are judged by their appearances as much as anything else these days and we both know, I think, that there is an elephant in the room when it comes to Ed.  She hopes that because Cameron is so overly polished, Ed will gain an advantage when the electorate eventually wants someone more genuine.

And then it’s time to go to Waitrose.  Weir’s daughter needs dropping off at a party and her son needs feeding.  ‘You’re coming with us.’ she says.  So I do.  The kids are a delight, her daughter doing that teenage thing of rolling her eyes in a ‘Duh!’ kind of way at her Mum’s conversation and her son telling me that he’d like to be a surgeon one day because he’s done a few dissections at school that he was really interested by.  Weir credits her kids as one of the reasons why she’s so fulfilled.  ‘My parents were fantastically interesting, amazingly intelligent, vibrant people but really awful parents.  So I feel incredibly fulfilled because I’ve had children, very late, and I’m everything my parents weren’t while also being a great role model as a woman.’  Constant jibes from her parents, particularly her Dad, were to blame for her insecurity about her size, the worrying about and constant analysis of which has made her career in a way.  She’s 55 now and we’re nearly 20 years on from ‘Insecure Woman’ (the character who gave birth to the catchphrase in ‘The Fast Show’) yet during the course of our conversation it’s apparent that her size is still somewhat of an issue for her.  When’s that going to go away, I ask her? ‘Never. Maybe when I’ve got cancer I wont be worrying about that too much. That’s my go to place.’

She’s tried therapy and found it useful for ‘the opportunity to acknowledge that I was not well brought up and I was very heavily judged for the way I looked but then that is who they were and that is what it was.  I’m not going to let all that get in the way of doing things that I want to do.’  So she’s learned acceptance? ‘Growing up is about managing expectations, realising that life isn’t perfect but life can be fucking good if you do fulfill your potential.  Someone asked me what I want for my kids.  If they end up working in Tesco in Nuneaton I won’t care as long as they feel they are maximising their potential.  I cannot bear people going, I’d really like to write a novel but I cant because blah blah.  Don’t do that!   I’m very lucky in that I have an enormous amount of energy but life is so short, so do the best you can possibly do with everything that you’ve got.’

David Arnold passed me on to Charlie Higson.   I met him one morning at a cafe in North London,  me drinking a latte and him drinking dandelion and burdock.charliehigson

Charlie Higson has the same problem that everyone else is having these days, namely distraction.  After a successful career in television in the 1990s, he’s now an author, writing  at home during office hours.  But when I ask him how much time he actually spends working, he reckons it’s about two hours a day. ‘But as long as I get that two hours done, then there’s Twitter and emails and Call of Duty online which I spend a huge amount of my time on…years of my life.  It does get frustrating.  I do sometimes think if I hadn’t played so much Call of Duty I could have written a film script or another TV series.’    Still, his output is pretty respectable.  He’s written hundreds of sketches of the Fast Show, produced comedies like Vic and Bob’s ‘Randall and Hopkirk Deceased’ and is the author of 15 books.  ‘Yeah.  And I’m pretty good at Call of Duty’ he says, deadpan.

‘The Fast Show’, which Higson produced and wrote with Paul Whitehouse, was inescapable in the 90s.  Even if you weren’t watching it, you probably had someone telling you that all sorts of things were ‘BRILLIANT’ in an ironically positive way, that they had been ‘Very…very drunk’ when telling you about their weekend or responding with a chin stroke and the word ‘Nice.’  when you were boring the arse off them.  Once you’d discovered the source of the catchphrases, it’s likely you were beguiled by the ‘will they, wont they’ awkwardness of Ted and Ralph.  Higson had known he wanted to continue to perform after the demise of his band The Higsons.  They’d given it a go for six years, getting signed to 2 Tone records (Madness were label mates) and having their first record for the label produced by Jerry Dammers of The Specials.  ‘If you wanted to go on stage and arse about and entertain your mates, you formed a band and that’s what I wanted to do…be on stage.  Entertaining people, I loved that.’

Of the traditional rewards that are supposed to come from being in a band, it seems that rock n roll was the only one that came his way.  He’s loathe to discuss drugs now that he writes for kids and says there was a distinct lack of groupies as ‘if you went off with anyone, you had to be prepared to have the piss ripped out of you for the rest of the tour by the rest of the band, non stop. So it wasn’t worth it.‘  When temptation did come his way one night, it was resisted due to practical reasons.    There was, he says ‘a very, very beautiful girl in Hull who came up to me in a club after the gig and she said to me that she’d found the concert…’very exciting’, shall we say. I thought if I go off with her, how am I ever going to find the band and find my way back to the hotel in the morning?’

Having worked as a decorator in between gigs to make some cash, when the band broke up he figured if he did that full time he could actually make quite a lot of money ‘because London is full of houses.’  Paul Whitehouse, whom Charlie had met at University was also doing up homes, working as a plasterer.  They started writing comedy together and the spark that lit the fire was the creation of ‘Loadsamoney’ for Harry Enfield, after which they were taken seriously as comedy writers. rowley birkin

Higson talks very fondly of Whitehouse, whom he has known since 1977 and who he describes as ‘a brilliant performer’.  After Ralph, he tells me that the ‘very, very drunk’ Rowley Birkin, the bumbling, retired Q.C. who delights in disconnected remembrances, was his favourite Fast Show character.  Higson would sit opposite Whitehouse with an idiot board containing key words and phrases as he performed Rowley.  ‘Those stories could occasionally be very moving – thats quite an acting job, to speak gibberish and have people in tears.   As a range of characters, impersonating those people and making them come alive and keeping them different, he’s on a par with anyone like Alec Guinness or Peter Sellers or any of those people that have been praised for doing different characters.’  Whitehouse is apparently taking a break currently but Higson says they’ll definitely work together again.

‘The Fast Show’ made an internet only comeback in 2011.  Beer brand Fosters offered a budget, the opportunity to get the gang back together and the chance to see if entertainment could work successfully in a new medium.  With hindsight, you can’t help thinking that if transmission had been delayed by even 18 months, they might have attracted a bigger audience now used to watching television via different on demand services with tablet computers via turbo broadband.   Perhaps surprisingly for an avid online gamer with 80,000 followers on Twitter, Higson came away from the experience convinced that TV still rules.  ‘Somebody put it into perspective for me when they told me they’d posted a video on Youtube and said ‘Look it’s only been up there for two weeks and it’s had a million hits.  It’s extraordinary that you can get this access to people‘.  But ‘Cash in the Attic’ gets four million viewers every day in the afternoon.  Four million a day!  If you counted them as hits…‘   And as he points out, though his kids watch ‘a huge amount of stuff’ online, it is still television programmes that they’re watching.  51P9XA+L+8L

I’d read a lot of interviews with Higson before I got to meet him and in most of them he comes across as very content in a breezy kind of way.  You can hardly blame him.  He clearly loves writing, both the act of it and the freedom it allows him.  Not only has he already accumulated a very respectable CV writing, producing and directing  for television, he has, as he puts it, ‘had a second flush of success with the kids books where I was offered a new career completely out of the blue’.  Having published four adult novels, his Editor Kate Jones was charged with revitalising the James Bond brand several years later.  Knowing that Charlie was a big fan and would meet his deadlines, he got the gig.  Five ‘Young Bonds’ followed and since 2009 he’s been writing a zombie horror series, the fifth instalment of which will be published this year.  A lot to be happy about then.  Does he ever worry about anything?

‘I think everybody worries about something.  Certainly as you get older you are reminded more and more of mortality.  Your parents generation are all getting ill in different ways and dying.  As you get older your body deteriorates in different ways.  You get ailments and things fall off and things go wrong.  You can’t really worry about that because its inevitable. So on a work front, do I worry about stuff?  I’d like to do more TV comedy.  People send me sketches, they come to events or they email me asking ‘I’ve got a great comedy idea, how do I get it on TV?’ and I say ‘I’ve got tons of comedy ideas and I cant get my ideas on TV!  How can I tell you how to get your ideas on TV?’

When I express surprise at this, he answers that although his name will open a few doors and he’s acquainted with comedy controllers at both the BBC and Sky, ‘I’m 54, I’m not Jack Whitehall.  I’m not the person on TV that everybody wants.‘   The last television show he was involved in, ‘Bellamy’s People’,  was not commissioned for a second run by the BBC.  How did that feel?  ‘The only major rejection we’ve had was that one and I suppose like everyone else you just think ‘Well, they’re a bunch of idiots.’ rather than ‘I’ve made something that was shit.’ he says, laughing.  He definitely thinks the glass is half full then? ‘I think I maintain an even keel, I’m kind of in the middle. More and more as I get older it’s the small things in life that give you the most pleasure and are the most precious. Having a nice meal with my kids is brilliant. That’s a lot more fun and rewarding than going to the comedy awards.’