Jo Brand once described her stage act as ‘the side of my personality that doesn’t mind people hating me’.
‘I think a lot of comedians feel they can say things when they’re doing comedy that they wouldn’t dream of saying in their own lives,’ Brand tells Weekend. ‘It sort of gives you permission, if you like, to express the bad side of yourself.’
All of which sounds like the perfect qualification for her latest role as a boo-hiss panto villain, playing the Wicked Queen in Richmond Theatre’s Christmas production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
By her own admission, the role is not much of a stretch. ‘I think there’s a spectrum with actors,’ she says. ‘At one end, there’s your Simon Callows and Ian McKellens, who can transform into anything. And then down the other end there’s people like me, who basically play themselves.’ Even her Bafta-winning role as Kim Wilde in hospital sitcom Getting On was, she insists, essentially Jo Brand in a nurse’s uniform.
This Wicked Queen, then, will be very recognisably Jo Brand (‘People would feel short-changed if I came on as Liz Taylor, or Kylie,’ she notes.) Presumably that extends to believing sappy Snow White deserves everything she’s got coming to her?
‘I don’t know if I’d have much in common with Snow White,’ she admits. ‘I was never pretty, so I don’t really know what that feels like. Although I had friends at school who were absolutely gorgeous, and they used to say, “Oh, it’s a nightmare”. She rolls her eyes. ‘You think, well I’d still like to see for myself…’
Born in Wandsworth and raised in Hastings, Brand always felt like a bit of a misfit at school. ‘I wasn’t really able to be girly,’ she says. ‘A lot of that, I think, was to do with my mum, who never sanctioned girliness of any sort – the discussions in our house weren’t about clothes or make-up, they were about politics. So immediately I felt I was separate from other people. It’s not that I didn’t have friends – I had fantastic friends. But I always felt a bit of an outsider.’
Her dad, meanwhile, was an occasionally violent manic-depressive who once poured petrol over all her clothes and set fire to them in the garden.
All this would one day help shape her combative, take-no-prisoners comic persona. Emerging onto the stand-up circuit in the mid-80s, after a decade spent working as a psychiatric nurse, Brand admits she set out to shock: ‘I went really over the top. I was extremely explicit and rude, just to get the point across.’
One of the things that helped her stand out on the comedy scene – apart from being one of the very few women on the circuit at the time – was her trademark gruff, deadpan delivery. ‘It’s interesting,’ she says, ‘but a lot of female comedians I’ve come across have much lower voices. Maybe it’s because if you were a female comic who spoke with a high-pitched voice it would be quite annoying. But certainly I meet a lot of women performers who could be mistaken for a bloke on the phone, as I often am.’
Initially, she gave herself six months to make a go of this new career. ‘The reason I handed my notice in as a nurse is because I was booked to do [Channel 4’s] Friday Night Live, and I thought, I can’t bear to go on and do stand-up on telly, and then be at the desk when someone in real crisis comes in who might have seen it. It would be just too weird. So I thought, if I’m still earning enough to live on in six months, I’ll carry on. If not, I’ll go back to work.’
That was 35 years ago, since when she’s been a permanent fixture on stage, screen and radio, whether performing stand-up, writing and starring in sitcoms, appearing on panel shows or fronting the likes of Have I Got New For You and Bake Off: An Extra Slice. She’s also written four novels and four non-fiction books, danced as Britney Spears for Comic Relief and appeared in Countdown’s Dictionary Corner no fewer than 88 times.
Now 62, Brand recently claimed she’d still ‘rather be a national disgrace than a national treasure’. Surely there’s a tiny bit of her that would like to be thought of as a national treasure?
‘There isn’t, no,’ she insists. ‘I think what that means is there’s been some sort of softening of principles. For example, I’m not a royalist, and national treasures have to go to royal garden parties, and things like that. I’ve never done the Royal Variety Performance, because I feel uncomfortable about it. National treasures aren’t expected to behave badly, are they?
‘My job,’ she adds, ‘is to encourage other older women to be as annoying as possible.’
So that early desire to shock hasn’t faded? ‘No, not really,’ she says. ‘I kind of wish it had.’
Certainly she proved she can still provoke a kerfuffle earlier this year, when a near-the-knuckle joke she made about Nigel Farage on Radio 4’s Heresy drew condemnation from then-Prime Minister Theresa May, and briefly resulted in a police investigation (quickly dropped).
‘I was kind of shocked, really, by how strong the response was,’ says Brand. ‘I don’t really want to talk about it because it’s something that I don’t want to pursue me. Though I know it always will.’
For panto season, though, she’s promising any wickedness will be strictly child-friendly. ‘Obviously it’s really different for me to have an audience with loads of kids in it,’ she says. ‘So tell the parents not to be perturbed. I’ll behave myself. You don’t want to make the kids cry too much. You want them to know I’m just being funny.
‘Because I’m not really a wicked person,’ she adds, lest we mistake her crabby comic alter-ego for the real thing. ‘I’m actually quite nice.’
Brand married her husband Bernie, a psychiatric nurse, in 1997. They have two grown-up daughters, Maisie and Eliza.
Her own years in psychiatric nursing have left her with little patience for showbiz tantrums. ‘I recognise two types of people in entertainment – the people who have never done a day’s work in their life, and the people who have,’ she says. ‘I always gravitate to the people I know have done a job. It makes you appreciate things. I can’t stand it when I hear comics and actors who earn masses of money, and have a brilliant life, moaning about their work conditions. I want to take them back to where I worked, and give them a week of that.’
Brand once claimed: ‘It’s easy to become a cartoon character when you do this job; you get allocated your three adjectives.’ So which three adjectives would she allocate to herself? ‘These days? I’d like to think friendly, funny… and old.’
This article was published in Waitrose Weekend, 7 November, 2019
(c) Waitrose Weekend