Comedy isn’t easy, especially for women in a male-dominated market – but Sky Arts series Psychobitches has bucked the trend by giving the fairer sex the spotlight.
Now, these funny ladies are undoubtably an inspiration to other comedy performers – but who were the women who inspired them?
There’s still a feeling that women are lesser beings in comedy but you only have to look at someone like Victoria Wood to realise that it’s completely unjustified. She was a huge influence on me because she’s an eminently funny woman with an incredible ability for observation.
And I’ve always admired Judi Dench. These days we think of her as one of our great classical actresses but she did the sitcom A Fine Romance in the 1980s so has straddled the divide between comedy and serious acting. But the best thing about these women is that their gender is irrelevant. They are just brilliantly funny people. The same goes for Psychobitches. It’s not a women’s comedy, it’s a comedy where the majority of the characters just happen to be played by women.
At the beginning of my career I did predominantly work with men but I was lucky in that they were very feminist. On The Thick Of It, Armando Iannucci would say, “Can you stay behind and work on this script with us? We want to hear your input.” That was really encouraging and if I was to give advice to young women in comedy today I’d say, “You will very often be in a room full of men and you have to be prepared to speak as loudly as them and realise that your voice is just as valid as anyone else’s.”
Women sometimes tell me that I made them want to do comedy and that’s fantastic, but it’s probably not healthy to start thinking of yourself as a role model. When my book, Curious, came out earlier this year, people kept saying how brave I’d been to write about mental health. I’ve had everyone from 16-year-old girls to 71-year- old men share their experiences of phobias and panic attacks with me and I feel incredibly honoured and inspired by them. For years I tried not to give anything of myself away because I’m not sure that’s beneficial for an actor. But I know now that, however honest I am in a book or an interview, it’s only a version of me.
My mother was very funny but slightly frightening. I’d describe her as emotionally pyrotechnic. She was beautiful, a Glaswegian Grace Kelly, and she would look at me and say, “What happened?
Obviously, she loved me but I was a bit funky looking with really bad hair. It built my character and made me realise that no matter what’s thrown at you in life, you have to deal with it.
I never made a conscious decision to do comedy but as an impressionable 12-year-old I looked up to Lucille Ball, and Marti Caine. They pulled funny faces for a living and I saw them and thought, “I can do that.” These days I admire Allison Janney and Tina Fey. There’s something about older women that makes them great comedians. They’ve been battered by life and that gives them a wisdom and confidence that means they can be funny and heartbreaking at the same time.
I’ve played many women on Psychobitches but it’s Margaret Thatcher who worried me the most because of the juxtaposition. She’s a force-of-nature former prime minister and I’m a working-class Glaswegian. But there is normally some sort of physical hook to latch onto. With Thatcher I started by deepening the voice and then you add a bit of teeth and she’s arrived!
I was surprised that I lost myself in her more than any other character I’ve played. People might think that it’s disrespectful to send up these women but most of them had such massive egos to get where they did that I think they’d be delighted that we were still talking about them.
Psychobitches is on Sky Arts 1 tonight (25th November) at 9.30pm