Male comics often progress from the tough world of stand-up to the cosy sit-down of presenting TV chat-shows. Paul O’Grady, Frank Skinner, Alan Carr and Graham Norton have all parlayed their warmth, ad-lib wit and easy manner into hit shows. Yet not since Mrs Merton (aka Caroline Aherne) in the mid-90s has a funny woman commanded her own sofa.
The Sarah Millican Television Programme
So why are female comics so rarely allowed to host our national conversation? Well, there are fewer to choose from, producers say, and it is hard to find one with broad enough appeal. But now the BBC thinks it has.
Indeed, it is so excited about The Sarah Millican Television Programme that it has awarded it a prime slot on BBC2 and BBC director general Mark Thompson even attended the Manchester recording himself, lavishing praise on his new star.
If you’re struggling to place her name and face, you may have seen her or heard her droll South Shields accent on many a TV and radio panel show. And, over the past few years, touring indefatigably, she has built up a mighty fanbase.
She was the sole woman on a recent list of super-rich stand-ups, alongside the likes of Peter Kay and John Bishop. Her gigs in 1,000-plus seater venues quickly sell out, and her DVD, Chatterbox Live, has shifted over 240,000 copies.
Millican’s comic persona is being far less sweet and harmless than she looks. (Her first, award-winning Edinburgh Fringe show was entitled Sarah Millican’s Not Nice.) Dressed in a flowery frock, with her comfortable figure and open face, she resembles the woman in every office who always has sweets in her drawer. Then out of her mouth come darkness and filth.
“They say divorce is like a bereavement,” she jokes in Chatterbox. “But if it was, at least I’d have got my mortgage paid and danced on his f***ing grave.”
Appearing on The Graham Norton Show a year ago with actor Vince Vaughn and rapper P Diddy, she gave a graphic account of sex with her boyfriend after a curry. Diddy’s face, which had registered only kingly disdain at being seated next to an apparent frump, flicked to pop-eyed astonishment. It was a moment, she says, that super-charged her career.
Off-stage in jeans, boots and beany hat, Millican looks younger and trendier. She is also tougher and more hard-edged than her affable screen persona. But then you don’t get to the apex of showbiz in seven years from a standing start without formidable drive.
Watching Millican charm her adoring audience and quip confidently with guests - including Robert Peston and fashion designer Julien Macdonald – you’d never know that prior to 2004, aged 29, she’d not set foot in a comedy club. But a stand-up career can happen in a bolt of emotional lightning. And for Millican it was her husband of seven years suddenly declaring he no longer loved her and demanding a divorce.
“I’m kind of weirdly grateful to him,” she says, “because he released me from the life that I had. If he hadn’t broken my heart I’d still be in a job I hated, feeling massively untapped.”
Millican was a nine-to-five civil servant, working in job centres in Newcastle, writing the odd short play or local newspaper article. She felt bored and dissatisfied but too cosy in coupledom to break out.
Path to success
Still living with her estranged husband while they tried to sell their flat, she couldn’t bear to go home and so enrolled in a new writer programme at her local theatre. “I would go straight there after work. It got so the staff knew my name. They kind of saved me, in a way.”
Some days her life seemed utterly broken, “but then I had what I call my She-Ra moments. If somebody said, ‘Climb that mountain’, I would go, ‘Well, you’ll have to get us the right shoes but I could probably do that.’ I’d never felt like that before. I had only ever had the middle ground – and to go from so low to so high was exhilarating.”
On a She-Ra day she applied to a course for writers who had never performed. It ended with Millican delivering a comic monologue: “I went into the ladies’ loos afterwards and jumped up and down, then rang my dad.” She regarded it as a one-off, but the desire to perform kept bubbling up.
“Four months later I rang the course organiser and said, ‘I want to do stand-up.’ And she said, ‘I know’, like she’d waited for me to call. Then she got me my first five-minute spot.”
Sitting backstage with other comics, “I just felt very comfortable. I was never very popular at school but here I was funny and interesting. I could be myself. Comics are a bit messed up, but when you put us all together, we’re OK.” She had found her career and her people.
Ever sensible, she kept her day job, gigging by night. “This older woman in my office said, ‘Where are you off to now, then?’ I said I was going to Sheffield, and she said, “On your own?” And I remember thinking, ‘Yeah! I do a lot of this. I’m actually quite independent. I do a lot of stuff on my own!’”
It was an odd realisation for Millican, the ultimate home-girl, who still takes a photo of the view from her sofa to fend off homesickness on tour. She lived with her parents until she was 22 and returned to them for two years post- divorce.
The family is very close. She speaks about her parents as a benchmark for what is right and good. Her plain-speaking father Philip – who always told her nothing was impossible – will appear in her TV show via Skype, giving dad-ish advice.
Millican’s father was an electrical engineer at the local pit, her mother a housewife. Her elder sister now manages a job centre. Both girls were bright and bookish, but Millican was somewhat an outsider, a slight geek, who started wearing glasses aged six and was mildly bullied. She would perform poems from behind a curtain for her parents: “I guess I wanted to be heard but not seen.”
She hoped to go to university but her parents told her they couldn’t afford it unless she went to a local college and lived at home. I ask why she didn’t seek a grant or loan. “Are you criticising my parents?” she says fiercely.
She tried to get into TV production – tricky in Newcastle, where there were few such jobs – then fell into customer services. It was dull, she points out, but taught her to deal with all manner of people: “I think it’s what’s made me so relaxed with an audience.”
A big chunk of Millican’s act involves soliciting contributions from her audience. She has the confidence to turn the most bizarre or awkward remark into laughs. Her fanbase is mainly female, but plenty of women bring their husbands and boyfriends. Her jokes might embarrass them, but she is no crude man-basher.
Besides, she turns most of her humour on herself, particularly when it comes to her weight and appetite. She tells true stories about how the supermarket self-check out tried to weigh her stomach which was resting on the scales, or when she was cut out of a too-tight dress in Monsoon.
And her website has a “puddings” gallery of dessert images. But I wonder if this “I love cake” humour hasn’t become a female cliché?
“I’ve written four jokes ever about cakes,” she says, somewhat prickly. “But because they were show jokes, they were on the telly a lot. And everywhere I go people give me cupcakes. I don’t eat them, I give them away. I’d be the size of a f***ing house if I ate the things people gave me.”
She sees herself as the champion of women overlooked because they are not superskinny, glamorous or young. “There is something liberating and defiant about going on stage and saying you are 36 and 13 stone,” she says.
“I feel like it’s my responsibility not to lose weight, to be honest. I’m a bright, successful woman who isn’t stick-thin. It’s like the old films that say marriage and babies are the happy ending. A lot of people think that being skinny is the happy ending, and it’s not. Being happy is the happy ending.”
Millican decided long ago that she didn’t want children. “I don’t like them,” she says. “Saying that is the final taboo. My mam was a stay-at-home mam. It was amazing to come home at lunchtime on a cold day and she’d have my slippers on the pipes around the coke boiler, warming, and the soup on. I’d want to be that kind of mam. But I don’t feel remotely maternal, and I don’t want to put my life on hold.”
Nor does she want to ever want to share her home with a man again. Her boyfriend of six years, Gary Delaney, is a comedy writer and stand-up who lives in Birmingham, while Millican has a flat in Manchester. “I dote on him while he is there and I relish those times, but I love to be alone in my flat.”
Taking a break
Stand-up, with its long drives to faraway gigs, encourages a love of solitude. “And it’s sort of part of my lifestyle now.” But after years of solid touring, relentless hard work and, lately, making her new TV show, she is taking five months off from May.
She plans to buy a house, learn to cook and just enjoy that view from her own sofa. “If your comedy is about the joy of ordinary life,” says Sarah Millican, “sometimes you have to live a bit of ordinary life.”
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 28 February 2012.