“The gigs were so rough that I had to come out kicking everyone in the face.”
So says Jenny Eclair of her early gigs. As a student in the 1990s, I worked at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and was able to see many of today’s big comedy names begin to make headway, including Jo Brand, Jack Dee and Eclair. In 1995 she was the first woman to win the festival’s Perrier Award. Her act was full-on and took no prisoners.
Over the years, Eclair’s comedy has documented her journey to middle-age in both her stand-up shows and the highly successful Grumpy Old Women tours. She has also enjoyed success as a novelist with acclaimed works such as Camberwell Beauty and Moving. Her latest book, Listening In, is a collection of short stories based on the BBC Radio 4 series Little Lifetimes. The tales feature funny, heart-breaking insights into the lives of 23 female characters. “It’s a dip-in-and-out of sort of book,” she reveals. “Full of good stories to read in bed.”
“I went to an all-girls grammar school and it hasn’t quite left me. Even when I go swimming, I’m in the slow lane with all the other middle-aged women. I don’t know if it’s my own choice, or a complete accident, but it does seem like most of my work is very female based. I’ve worked with women for a heck of a long time but I don’t feel like I’ve backed myself into a corner because it’s a corner where I’m quite happy to be. I know these women and they interest me. I like men a lot, and love them coming to my shows, but I know women better.
“My hobbies are also very female. Tapestry, pottery, watercolours – and I always end up in predominantly female classes. It’s quite evident that I belong to this tribe. Having said that, I don’t think female comics are so ghettoised anymore, which is good.”
A character in one of the short stories describes her husband as “a good, solid tomato of a man”. A recurring theme through the book is the idea that many people ‘make do’ with their lot in life. Eclair believes that settling creates all sorts of issues and emotions.
“I feel that’s where a lot of anger, bitterness and resentment sets in. There are a lot of women and men silently screaming. The short stories in the collection tend to feature quite a lot of revenge, bitterness and a huge amount of disappointment. You have to create your own safety net half of the time whether that’s having the money to run away, or have a place to go in your house where you can do your own thing and be really happy. By the time you’re middle-aged, you have to be responsible for your own happiness because you’re an adult and there’s nobody else capable of doing it for you.”
Tuning into conversations and observing human behaviour is a big source of inspiration for writers. Does Eclair kept her ear to the ground when out and about?
“It would be great if you heard a brilliant, perfectly formed gag on a bus or a tube but that’s never quite the case,” she says.” You can hear bits and pieces that sow the seeds of an idea. I’m nosey and like watching, so if I see two sisters in their 80s having a bit of a row, I’m immediately interested. I do wish it was easier to overhear comedy gold on public transport though.”
One of the strengths of Eclair’s work is the ability to write in an honest, unflinching way about just how awful people can be to each other. In her novel Life, Death and Vanilla Slices, the lead character is a mother whose sons are appalling. This was inspired by events in Eclair’s social circle, as she explains.
“A lot of my girlfriends have been really badly hurt by their sons, and I was angry on their behalf. Most of them have come through it now but I can think of two in particular that were left reeling. The men are in their 20s now and it’s all healed up or at least got much better, but I think there is a phase that some teenage boys go through where they’re capable of being truly vile and really quite cruel. Perhaps young men have to do that to cut the apron strings but it’s painful all round.”
Eclair’s daughter Phoebe is in her 20s but Eclair says that the ’empty nest’ syndrome hasn’t quite kicked in.
“She’s back in the house right now. She’s got damp in her flat and arrived last night with bin liners of washing to be done. She lives close by with her boyfriend, but there are days when she comes back for baths and hot meals just to recover from the dampness.”
As for her book, Eclair has provided the illustrations for Listening In but it was as much for economic reasons as creative.
“I got really crap money for this book so did it on the proviso that I was allowed to do the illustrations,” she says candidly. “There had to be something in in for me so it was all a compromise. I wanted to put the collection out but there isn’t much money in short stories so we had to be quite grown up about it. Mind you. You wouldn’t see Dawn French agreeing to do this type of book on that fee. People want everything for nothing these days so unless you’re a bestselling writer it’s tricky across the board and can be a long slog for not much money.”
From ladette to menopause, Eclair’s life has been charted in her performances, but it still surprises her that some people assume she’s the same as she was in the 90s.
“Like everyone else, I’ve changed. For a start, I can’t get into the PVC trousers anymore,” she jokes. “Our personalities shift along with our body shape. There’s a sort of softening of the edges that comes from sitting down more and eating cheese. I know that the career that I first came up with in the early days still casts a shadow over the things I’m allowed to do now. I’ve just done a presenting gig and they were terrified of what I might do. It was as if they didn’t think I had the wherewithal to understand that this was a daytime job in front of middle-aged ladies who like sewing. I was well aware that it wouldn’t have worked, or been appropriate, to stomp round the stage yelling ‘cock’ or ‘c**t’ all the time. We’re all multi-faceted and capable of raucousness, madness and being a bit bonkers but it gets a bit tedious if you try to do that all the time.
“The furious, ranting maniac I was in the early days came from the fact that the gigs were so rough I had to come out kicking everyone in the face otherwise I wouldn’t have lasted two minutes. You came on to a barrage of ‘fuck off’ before you even got started. Imagine just shyly going on and doing something whimsical and neurotic the way you can these days. I think it’s still very hard trying to make a proper living as a stand-up, but humour and audiences have grown up and there are more, better, opportunities because people understand modern comedy more so it’s really good.”
“I don’t think I’m capable of doing it any other way. It’s very ingrained in my personality so I don’t even have a choice. I will most definitely go screaming into that good night. I’m writing Grumpy 4 right now and what’s great about it is there’s always something else to say that we haven’t covered before. We’re very strict when it comes to quality control, and it’s something I’m really proud of. We have a different cast this time with Dillie Keane back on board, plus Lizzie Roper who is marvellous. I love growing the Grumpy gang so we have plenty of people to call on each time we take it out on tour.”
Writing novels is something Eclair feels most passionate about, but number five has proven to be tricky.
“I’ve had a couple of false starts on it,” she tells me. “And it’s made me feel a bit desperate and anxious. It’s just not ready so it might be a couple of years down the line. I’m sad about that because I love the novels dearly, and they’re what I’m proudest of, but there’s no point doing one badly. I have to just sit and wait for inspiration to strike and then get slogging away. These short stories are a little stopgap. I’m delighted that the general reaction to them has been positive. I’ve also just written a fresh, new series of stories for Radio 4 that should air later in the year.”
“By the way,” she adds, “vocally, you sound much younger than your age.”
I explain that living most of my life in Scotland has kept me fresh.
“Now you’re in Manchester, it’ll all rot.”
Jenny Eclair is appearing at the Rochdale Literature and Ideas Festival on October 17, 2017. For tickets, click here.