Stand-up comedian, actress, sketch writer and TV panellist, Cariad Lloyd is a vivid physical presence.
In the pilot for BBC3’s The Cariad Show she played a frighteningly imperious Madonnameets-Lady-Gaga music diva, and a vengeful Pam St Clement (Pat Butcher in EastEnders) reimagined as Spider Pam. For The Last Leg on Channel 4, she conducted vox pop interviews about menstruation while wearing a white frock festooned with 800 tampons.
But the performance that’s won her the most plaudits is non-visual and not obviously comic. In her podcast Griefcast, she invites guests to talk about the deaths of loved ones and how they coped with the sorrow of bereavement. At the 2018 British Podcast awards, Griefcast won the Best Entertainment and Best Interview gongs, as well as Podcast of the Year.
“Was I surprised to win?” she says. “I was surprised to win anything. It’s a complicated show, and I’d no idea it would clean up in that way.” She’d been recording conversations with friends about death for years, while working on other projects, and hadn’t planned to make them public. But when, in 2016, she was becalmed by late pregnancy (“My baby was two weeks past her due date, and I was belly full, bored and in a state of waiting,”) she decided to upload them.
“I really thought no one would listen, but the reaction was immediate – emails saying ‘I needed to hear this’ and ‘I didn’t think people felt like this’. I didn’t realise other people weren’t having these conversations, because I’d been having them for so long.”
For 20 years, to be exact; Lloyd’s father died when she was 15. The speed of his passing – two months from diagnosis to death – shocked her then and has done ever since. She talks about him to her Griefcast interviewees, encouraging them to share their own experiences and feelings: the results veer from shocking to poignant to hilarious.
Adam Buxton recalls the moment when, as he and a carer were helping his dying father to the lavatory, the carer said, “Hang on a minute, I know you. Aren’t you on telly?” Sara Pascoe speaks warmly about her grandfather, a former soldier turned writer, who shocked her by consuming a cheesecake meant for 18 guests. Robert Webb received the worst news of his life when he walked in from school to hear his father say, “Your mother’s poorly. It’s terminal,” and his stepfather (in whose house they were standing) reply, “You’ll have to get a cleaner in.”
Fascinating questions are raised: is it wrong to feel you’re the centre of attention, acting the Cool Griever? Is there a non-clichéd language of sympathy? Why is tea so important?
Most of Lloyd’s guests are comedians. Does death bring out a subversive side in the bereaved? “It’s an incredibly awful thing and you have a choice,” she says. “You can feel awful or you can laugh and break the tension. If you have a comic sensibility, you do this at any serious event. You break awkwardness with jokes. It’s a way of coping. You have a breath of laughter when, for a moment, you forget that someone you love is dying. It’s like coming up for air.”
In each hour-long show, Lloyd asks her guest to nominate someone they wish to remember. Most nominees are parents or grandparents, but other family members feature: “Michael Legge talked about his dog. He said, ‘She’s more important than any members of my family.’ Welsh comic Kayleigh Llewellyn lost six members of her family in under a year, so I could hardly ask her to choose one. Actress Beth Rylance talked about her mum, who died when she was one, while comedian Lou Conran talked about losing her baby when she was five months pregnant.”
Some listeners might be surprised to hear Lloyd discuss the difference between “analogue” and “digital” grievers. Bereaved people these days “don’t have physical photos, they have text messages and voicemail and that’s it. I don’t have any digital record of my father because he died in the 20th century, but it’s a different world now. The old address book, with biro lines through the names of the dead, that’s gone. The equivalent is the phone. Many guests have told me: ‘I can’t delete the dead person’s number, even though I can’t call it.’ They sometimes ring it to hear the voice saying, ‘Leave a message…’”
Some excellent practical advice is aired in Griefcast: “It’s important to tell dying people to give you their passwords – to their telephone, their computer, their bank account. The process of grieving means a massive amount of admin, and you’ll grieve a lot more if you can’t tell the phone company to stop calling because the person is dead. Being practical means you’re allowed to be emotional because you’ve dealt with stuff.”
Lloyd is a busy woman. Along with pitching sketches, sitcoms and film scripts, she’s writing a pantomime for the Lyric Hammersmith, and will be seen at the Savoy Theatre, in the improvised Regency show Austentatious, on 17 June and 8 July. But she’s recording more Griefcasts, too. She’s sure that talking about death is vital to the bereaved. “Grief makes you feel isolated. But it’s important to realise you’re not depressed, it’s just something you’re going through and you’re not alone.” Which is why she ends every episode with those very words “You’re not alone”.
“I want those people who are listening, and feeling really crap, to know that somehow it will pass.”