Si Hawkins Circuit Training

Circuit Training 112: Grumpy Old Women's Day, with Jenny Eclair

Jenny Eclair

From punk poet to the voice of a (middle-aged, largely female) generation, Jenny Eclair remains an entertainingly busy body. Her seemingly unstoppable How to be a Middle Aged Woman tour has finally finished, but now she's about to head straight back out on tour with the latest Grumpy Old Women show, To the Rescue, with original trouper Dillie Keane and new recruit Lizzie Roper. A snazzy production it sounds, too.

Eclair is anything but big-time about her showbiz life, though, and one major creative downer still casts a painful shadow, as she reveals below - aspiring writers will sympathise. Plus we get onto a fellow comic's advert, some diversity-encouraging heroes of early alternative comedy, and her potential part-time job, if this one takes a longer-term turn for the worst.

First though: the current climate. This chat is going live on International Women's Day, but the phone call occurred while the 'Beast from the East' drama was in full swing, and British standards dictate that every conversation must start with weather chat. Who are we to flout them?

How are you getting on, with 'the conditions?'

I haven't ventured out - I'll have to because I've got a stinking rubbish bin, a bin-liner full of stinking shit. Well not shit. And I'm also doing a gig tonight - I keep expecting a phone call or email saying 'due to conditions...' but it's only four stops on the overland. I'm doing a library.

Is it one of your regular solo shows?

No, I did that for two and a half years, and wrung every single last drop out of it: I went round the country 18 times and ended up doing Colchester Arts Centre four times.


I know! So I've put a lid on that for now, the How to be a Middle-Aged Woman show, but I do these little talky things, which are gentle: no shouting, swearing or scary stuff. Book talks.

You do some of the solo show in your underwear, which might not be much fun in this weather...

In the conditions! Can you imagine? Well, I've always had a big coat in the wings. In the library, it's six 'til 7.30, you're home by 8.30 - bob's your uncle.

I do like an early finish these days.

You know what, the joy of Grumpy, all the gigs are a 7.30 start, we should be home around ten.

Grumpy Old Women. Image shows from L to R: Lizzie Roper, Jenny Eclair, Dillie Keane

Are they quite debauched though? I can imagine that audience getting absolutely hammered.

Ha! It depends where you are in the country. I'm not naming names, because I genuinely can't remember, but I have seen the ushers cleaning up the empty bottles - they're quite naughty as well our audience, they've obviously brought bottles from home, an industrial amount. And miniatures.

That clean-up must sound like someone crashing a milk float...
We've only had to stop the show once - and I won't name names, but somewhere in Wales - because there were some women in who were so drunk, they didn't actually know they were in the theatre. And that's a shame. I think sometimes it's somebody's birthday, everyone gets overexcited, they go to Sheila's house for drinks first and its all a blur.

But that's not regular. These shows are often on a school night. And we do posh places like Cheltenham where they wouldn't dream of drinking out of a miniature.

How did Grumpy start? Was it a TV producer's idea?

It came from a producer - Grumpy Old Men was first, but Grumpy Old Women was more successful, it hit a stronger nerve I think. The producer was Judith Holder who I write the live shows with, she's very galvanised and gung-ho, doesn't muck about. She and I had the idea to do the live show, and it was mooted that there might be an accompanying boys one, but the boys never got round to it.

Girls, in our bossy, controlling way just got on with it. And literally, from the first night, it was a chemical reaction, we looked at each other on stage like 'blimey, this is more than we were expecting.'

I suppose a women-only TV show was quite rare back then - and still is really. I've just seen someone complaining about a particular show having all male panellists.

I think that's starting to look increasingly peculiar. I don't think it's happening very often, but if I do see an all-male panel game I just go 'oh fuck this, I'm not watching it.' It's boring.

I suppose it starts with the clubs, letting different people get stage time and get good. What was the balance like when you started?

It's really interesting, because there were people trying even back then. I started in '82, when I was 22, and in the early '80s there were two people that I don't think ever get enough credit for the part they played in alternative comedy, Claire and Roland Muldoon: they ended up running Hackney Empire, but they also had these nights called CAST New Variety; they had venues in Brixton, Wood Green.

They were very keen that it was as ethnically and sexually mixed as it could possibly be, they were championing that, but then in the '90s you were almost fighting a losing battle because it was suddenly very TV and corporate and lots of men in suits, which I always thought was very odd, with my old punk sensibility. I thought 'you look like my dad going to work.'

Jenny Eclair

What do you make of today's circuit?

It's better now, because of social media, little outlets of comedy clubs survive much more easily than they used to. They don't get 500 people, but a lot of people don't want to perform for lads' nights out.

I used to be ill the weekends I did the Comedy Store, I hated the Friday night midnight show. There'd be people who'd been drinking since they left work.

Were you good at handling them - I'd imagine you would be?

No, I was good at pretending I could, but I hated it, I've never been very good at adlibbing - I'm a writer. I'm much better now, and in the last solo show I made myself do 10 minutes of completely new material every night, a bit with the audience that necessitated adlibbing. I'm really old to start doing something like that, and I found that I started to really love it, but I would never rely on it, ever. I'm not an improviser.

You've got a rather nice book of short stories out, Listening In, which is a spin-off from a radio series?

The book is the first couple of series, plus a healthy percentage that haven't been broadcast.

Were they specially written for the radio show?

I was offered one [story], which I performed myself in Edinburgh. Then Caroline Raphael, who was head of light-entertainment at the time, accidentally saw it - thank goodness - and said 'have you got any more of those?' and I lied and said 'yeah I've got loads.' So that was the first series. At some point they're going to pull the plug on them, because Radio 4, they've got to share it out.

But they do have their favourites.

They do, but I'm not sure I'm quite on that list. I'm just off it.

So you did that book, and four novels so far?

I didn't manage to write a fifth novel, my fifth novel has stalled very badly; it's still the thing that upsets me most when I come into my study, I see this pile of redundant book. It's the first time it ever happened to me, a book didn't come out. I got a quarter of the way through.

At least you got the others done - most people stall on their first.

Yeah, but you'd think by book five you'd know what you're doing!

Can't you start again with a whole different book?

Its all a bit too much for me, I'm leaving it for the time being, until I feel I've got the strength and a really good idea.

I remember Mark Watson talking about how he'd had a book rejected, which is why he did those cider ads, which some other comics criticised.

Oh for god's sake...

A lot of people cling to that thing Bill Hicks said about doing ads...

Bill Hicks said lots of things - some of us have got children to bring up, put shoes on them, mortgages to pay. It drives me insane actually, that there's this template about how you're supposed to behave because you're a comedian. Actually I went into 'showbusiness' - I wanted to be an actress, I was a shit actress, and I realised I could do comedy and I could write. I still cling to that.

I think he only did the ad because he'd spent ages on that book really...

I must admit yesterday I was flicking through The Sun in a waiting room, at Talk Radio, and was quite surprised to see Jayde Adams advertising Sun Bingo. But she's a really interesting performer, and quite performance-arty in some respects, and sometimes you need a bit of money to put aside for writing time, developing time for bigger projects. Doing something like that is going to buy you the time.

Grumpy Old Women. Image shows from L to R: Jenny Eclair, Dillie Keane, Lizzie Roper

Grumpy must be handy like that - you're doing 60 dates or something?

It's kind of nerve-wracking and I daren't look at how ticket sales are going, but it's a big one. They're quite theatrical, they do give quite a lot, because they're not stand-up: they've got sets, costumes, moving things, lighting design, sound design, quite a lot of stuff goes with it. It has a big truck.

What would you be doing otherwise then?

Ooh god - sulking. I'd probably have to get a part time job. I always think that next year I'll have to have a part time job. Whenever I go into Sainsburys I think 'could I?'

It keeps your feet on the ground...

Yeah, I'd very much like a nice cosy afternoon chat show or something, or a quiz show on the telly where I can sit behind a table and get some answers through my earpiece, but it's not happened so far. It does worry me, hugely.

You've given Lizzie Roper a nice job with this tour - she's a new addition.

She stormed the audition - we had a really strong series of auditions, and there were about three or four people on the shortlist, and sadly for them she pipped them. It's a really odd one this show, actresses sometimes just can't quite get it. You can't have an actress who's fourth-walling it, or performing a character similar to them. You've got to be yourself, but it's really good If you do have some acting chops.

This show is about middle-aged superheroes coming out of retirement - do you tackle current events?

There are germs of that, how the world does need saving, but we can't just do a big political sort-out.

Are your audiences quite mixed?

Yeah, more than you would imagine - I really thought they'd all be anti-Brexit. And then as you travel round the country you realise, oh, shit, no. You can't just dictate to people as well, say 'you're wrong,' because that just creates an ugly atmosphere. So there's things that we'll skirt around.

It's more about people who survived the '70s: holiday camps, visiting toilet blocks with your spongebag, the pre en-suite generation. So there's a bit of nostalgia. It's like stand-up with knobs on.

You've invented a whole different genre.

I'd like to think so. Most people probably assume that three women will come out in smart-casual attire, sit on some chairs and do some chatting: that was something I very much didn't want to do. It's a three-week rehearsal period and we start on Monday. So I need to go and start learning some lines...

Published: Thursday 8th March 2018

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