Funny girl: Sarah Millican on comedy, money and marriage

Sarah Millican's bawdy jokes have brought her brickbats and a new BBC series. She tells Gerard Gilbert where it began.

Heard the one about the grumpy comedian with a big bank account? That's not the set-up for a one-line gag, but the exact wording of a recent newspaper headline concerning Sarah Millican. The report told of the Geordie comic's contretemps with a fan who had filmed part of Millican's gig in Wolverhampton, and then visited Millican's Facebook page to inform her of this fact. Millican apparently accused the fan of theft and "disrespect", whereupon the fan's husband waded in to reprimand the comic for making a big deal out of nothing.

But her comic routine is a very big deal indeed, says the 36-year-old Millican when we meet in a hotel in Manchester. "If I write a joke and it works, and it works consistently, that is gold to me," she says, highlighting the difficulties of maintaining novelty and surprise in the age of YouTube and Facebook. "One hundred thousand people have bought tickets to see me on tour and if any of them see that and go, 'Oh, I've heard this...' it's spoilt a night out. It's not just me saying, 'it's my material, leave it alone'."

A subtext to this media storm in a teacup is, of course, an unspoken envy of Millican's supposed 'big bank account'. Comedy these days is hugely profitable, with market-leader Michael McIntyre expected to earn up to £20m from a 57-date tour this year, and millions more from his Hello Wembley! DVD. Millican herself is halfway through a mostly sold-out national tour, while her first DVD, Chatterbox Live, is the bestselling DVD by a female comic.

"I'm aware that it does reap very good rewards, but I'm not embarrassed by that," she says, before adding reproachfully: "The British newspaper fascination with money is slightly vulgar – that rather than going, 'well done, you picked yourself up from nothing and you've really made something of yourself and you worked really hard almost constantly for four or five years and driven 50,000 miles a year,' which would be the American way – the British way is, 'how the hell have you got that much money?' It's quite jealous and dismissive of the work."

And that work is about to get an even wider audience with her own BBC2 series, The Sarah Millican Television Programme, which is a mix of stand-up routines and Mrs Merton-style quizzing of guests, including, in the first episodes, TV naturalist Chris Packham and actor Simon Callow.

"It was the interviews that were more surprising to me," she says. "When you've tried the jokes out you know that they work; the interviews can go either way. I really like the excitement of that."

Millican trades on the dichotomy between her harmless appearance and her filthy jokes, wickedly funny patter that can incorporate cunnilingus, sex-toys and blow-jobs. Did she have to tone it down for the BBC? "Not as much as you'd think," she says. "Because I'm always quite positive and smiley and warm we can get away with a little bit more than somebody's who's cold or quite harsh.

"It was never intentional, this look," she adds. "I never got up on stage and thought, 'I'll wear a flowery top so I can talk about dark evil things,' but it just so happens that that's the way I dress. One of my early reviews said, 'looks like a primary-school teacher with the mouth of a biker', which I always quite liked. It's better than being the other way round."

Until the age of 29, Millican was a bored, lowly, civil servant at a Job Centre in South Shields. Her father was an electrician down the Tyneside coal mines, and Millican's early memories include hand-outs from local supermarkets during the 1984 miners' strike. But even then she was seeing the funny side. "We'd get end-of-day stuff, pies and cream cakes and bashed tins, that sort of thing, and then I remember one of the higher-end supermarkets decided they wanted to help out and they gave us 13 trays of avocados, and all of the miners went, 'I don't know what to do with an avocado'. We'd literally never seen them before."

Her father, Philip, has a regular slot on her new BBC series, linked from his living room to the studio via Skype. "We tried it in the pilot and the audience really warmed to him and it gave the show a little bit of heart as well," she says. "Because I talk about my dad quite a lot in my stand-up, for the audience to see him as well is quite nice."

In fact, it was a story about Philip that earnt Millican her first laughs, during her stand-up debut in front of a stony home-town audience, after she had answered an advert for a course for people who had written but never performed. "It was when I was getting divorced, and was crying, and my dad said, 'you're bound to be upset, you've lost everything,' and then he left a little pause and said, 'you've got nothing left'. He had no idea he was being hilarious of course, but just to go from complete silence to this great woof of laughter in the room... the feeling it gives you. Imagine making 50 strangers laugh. Some people would have left the stage and gone, 'I'm not doing that again.' I just went, 'so that bit about my dad needs to be at the front'."

It was her husband of seven years suddenly leaving that provided the spur for Millican to trade the Job Centre for the comedy club. "Seven happy years? Yes, absolutely... well, it was for me," she laughs. "I got married at 22, which, at the time, didn't seem young. I don't regret it because you can only make the decisions that feel right at the time, otherwise you'll just be cautious about everything and that's no way to live." She has never publicly named her ex-husband ("There's no need. He didn't do anything wrong, it's just really sad.") and doesn't know whether or not he's viewed her comedy ("I imagine he's seen me on TV, I've been on it an awful lot lately. I can't even avoid myself."), but the shock and heartbreak of divorce provided Millican with her early material, as well as self-therapy. "I think some people sleep around when they get divorced, and others drink themselves into oblivion... and I just told strangers about my feelings.

"To get these gigs and start writing material and talking these horrible things that were happening to me and finding something funny in it... it was absolute therapy," she says. "I did have a counsellor at the time because I didn't want to have baggage if I went into another relationship. My counsellor was hilarious though, she'd say, 'you know that thing that you said... that's probably a joke.'"

Millican doesn't drink – she reacts badly to alcohol ("my life is so busy that if I do have a day off I don't want to spend it vomiting") and is long settled in a new relationship, with comedy writer Gary Delaney, although they choose to live apart – Millican in Manchester, Delaney in Birmingham. "It feels important now to retain my sense of self because I've always in previous relationships had a habit of melting into a couple," she says. "I'm perfectly normal well-rounded person and so is he, and we happen to go out and we're in love. But we're not the same thing."

If she does have a vice, then it's more likely to be her powerful work-ethic. "I always try my hardest with whatever job I do," she says, "even when I was at WH Smith as a Saturday job." Her mother got her the Saturday job in an attempt to bring the teenage Millican out of her shell.

"I was quiet as a mouse," she says of her schooldays, "very quiet, very studious. I had a few friends but not many and was sort of occasionally bullied, but verbally... boys would give me a dead leg where girls would mess with your mind.

"I don't think a lot of the girls I was at school with would have thought for a second that I would be doing this for a living. I see it as a regeneration – you know, like in Doctor Who – I am a version of that person, but it's a totally different version."

Compared to, say, Miranda Hart, success came relatively quickly to Millican. She won the Edinburgh Comedy Best Newcomer Award with her debut show at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2008, and was crowned Queen of Comedy at this year's British Comedy Awards. Along with Watson & Oliver, she is part of a new wave of female comedy talent that, at last, is finding exposure on television – although what separates Millican from her peers, with their preference for sketch shows and sitcom, is that she has succeeded in the traditionally macho arena of stand-up, and thinks nothing of taking on the boys in television's seemingly endless array of panel shows – another genre largely shunned by female comedians.

"Because I started doing stand-up relatively late – 29 – someone can shout something at me but it's not going to be as bad as some of the things I've experienced. I've lived a bit. When you're 29 it's, 'come on... I've had scarier farts than you'. And when you hear about these scary gigs on the grapevine I'm, 'yeah, yeah, well I want to have a go'... I wanted to see if I could do them because I wanted to see if I was as good as the men.

"I think maybe there aren't many women doing it because of the lifestyle," she says when asked about the relative paucity of female stand-ups. "There's a lot of travelling around on your own and sleeping on sofas and things. It's certainly nothing to do with the [being] funny because all of my female friends are hilarious.

"I think it's because times are hard for a lot of people," says Millican of the current live-comedy boom, prompting memories of the day that she and her ex-husband finally went their separate ways. "I had been on a reserve list to see the late Linda Smith and couldn't get a ticket, and I got a phone-call – as I was walking through the park with my final box of tat and was bawling my eyes out – to say someone [had] returned a ticket. And I thought, 'I'm really not in the mood for this but perhaps that's exactly why I should go'. And I sat on my own and she was wonderful. I came out and my life was just as a shit as when I went in, but for an hour and a half I'd forgotten about it."

'The Sarah Millican Television Programme' starts on 8 March at 10pm on BBC2

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker