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.

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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