HOW WE MET

TONY SLATTERY AND HELEN LEDERER
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The Independent Culture
The actor and comedian Tony Slattery, 36, performed in the 1980 Cambridge Footlights Revue with Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson. His television programmes include Whose Line is it Anyway? and Have I Got News for You? Single, he lives in London. The comedienne Helen Lederer, 40, was one of the first stand-up female comics at the Comedy Store. Her television appearances include Naked Video and Absolutely Fabulous. Her book, Single Minding, is about bringing up children alone. Divorced, she lives in London with her daughter

TONY SLATTERY: I left Cambridge in 1982 and had done a few comedy bits and pieces for Chris Tarrant television shows when, in 1983, Sandi Toksvig and Nick Simmonds asked me to come and meet them and Helen in some pub near the BBC. I was the last person recruited to make up the foursome that was to put on a touring comedy show called Happy Hour - what a misnomer.

I'd heard of Helen. She was famous as a stand-up comic - something I could never do - and I was struck by her bravery and honesty from the word go. I'd always rather thought I'd be an academic: my specialist subject at Cambridge was the religious ecstasy of Spanish poetry in the early 16th century, but I got side-tracked by the Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry Cambridge Footlights brigade - and by the agent Richard Armitage, who had a powder blue Rolls-Royce, a camel hair coat and persuasive jargon.

The Happy Hour tour of the country was short, sharp and not long enough for Helen and I to form a deep friendship at that point, but we kept in touch. I remember the Guildford date - I'd say that qualified as hell on earth. There were four of us, plus a pianist, and four in the audience, one of whom left almost at once. "Are you having fun?" we ventured at the remaining three, who agreed pretty vehemently that they weren't, and said that they wanted their money back. The box office had gone home, and none of us had any change, so we all went to the pub, had a drink, gave the audience their money back and shuffled home.

Nevertheless,Helen's talents were apparent, even then. She's intuitively analytical; razor- sharp with highly-tuned social antennae. She stores these impressions about things away, and only proffers them if solicited. She's also very enthusiastic, which I also like. Being cynical is the easy way out; and Helen - despite everything - isn't cynical.

In 1992, we went to Egypt together, supposedly to make a 45-minute travelogue for the Richard and Judy Show. It was a classic example of a good television series idea ruined by incompetence. We'd be told to prepare for a shoot at a camel market; we'd drive for four hours and find they'd got the wrong day - and that there wasn't a camel in sight. In the end, the programme was more or less scrapped; only tiny bits of it were able to be shown.

Helen and I can have long periods when we don't see each other, but that doesn't matter because I know we'll always be friends. We'll talk on the phone, often to check on each other. I gave her away at her wedding at Brixton registry office; she and her husband have since divorced. I was honoured that she'd asked me. I didn't see her so often while she was married; I think there's a sense that when partners get together, if friends are sensitive to what's going on - and I like to think I was - they tend to back off. It's not the same as it was before; you can't keep popping round. I wasn't surprised when they divorced - I did think he was barking mad.

When the marriage broke up, I never saw her lapse into self pity or whinge. When Helen is feeling down about something, she manages to be funny; she starts lapsing into free-association - it's like dropping a match into a box of fireworks. She has great courage and great integrity. When we meet up, usually at the Groucho Club, we end up laughing. She still makes me laugh more than anybody else.

HELEN LEDERER: I met Tony in 1982 outside BBC Broadcasting House. Sandi Toksvig and Nick Simmonds were there with him; they had already been to see and vet me at a gig I had done in the Finborough Arms. They must have liked me, and arranged for me to meet Tony.

I was very nervous and in awe of these three, because they came from Cambridge Footlights. I'd lurched out of Hatfield Poly with a degree in sociology and then become a social worker for Camden council. While doing that, I was also doing a postgraduate course at RADA in speech and drama, and eventually Camden council suggested that I should sort myself out. As a social worker, I must have been a terrible example of how not to be.

I'd been a stand-up comic for about two years when I was sought out by these Oxbridge creatures who wanted to recruit me to join their ranks, and I was very flattered.

My first impression of Tony was how nice he was; so kind and so interested in me. From the beginning, I felt comfortable with him, he made me feel valid. After the introductions, we all went off to a pub and talked, and I've been friends with him ever since.

He's one of the kindest people I know. Whenever I see him he always asks after my daughter, Hannah. He's a very family-orientated person; and the only person I know with triplet brothers. We've met each other's mothers, and to an extent we have the same sort of middle-class background, although my upbringing was slightly unusual for the times, in that I had a Czech father so we had croissants in our house before they became fashionable.

Tony, Nick, Sandi and I went on to put a show together, Happy Hour. They didn't use much of my material in that first show, and they realised from very early on that I couldn't sing harmonies, so that was out. We took the show on tour and we laughed a lot. Tony and I had this ability from the outset to get completely hysterical in each other's company, and we still do.

I learnt an enormous amount from being with the other three. They had a solid background of this quick and witty way with words. There was one sketch about Bagshot, where everything had to begin with B, which they seemed to do so effortlessly that I felt as if I was an imposter. Tony has this extraordinary facility with words.

We did a travel programme in Egypt together, which turned out a disaster because it had been so badly planned. He was supposed to do the rough bits of travelling; I dealt with the easy living based in luxury on a Nile boat. Tony would go out on recces that would go wrong and waste a whole day, yet come back and defuse a potentially horrible situation by being very funny.

I don't have many friends, but I cherish those I do have, and I number Tony as one of them. Tony is a person I can ring up at any time and ask for help or advice. Because our work is so solitary, when we do meet up we don't sit down and do a resume of what we've been doing - that would be desperate, so quite often we don't know what each other is doing. Tony is a very private person, and very sensitive to other people's feelings. He gave me away at my wedding, and was wonderful about it, although I'm sure he knew it was a doomed partnership. There's a great photo of our wedding reception at the Roof Garden with Tony and I snogging and my ex- husband Roger sitting with his head in his hands.

Our friendship is not the sort where we visit each other endlessly. We ring each other a lot, and I know I can ring him if I feel low; he often bails me out. The other night, we were both in the Groucho and I was with some strange people at the end of a bad day and he just knew I needed rescuing. He did it with great tact and kindness, and my spirits were lifted. I feel comfortable with him. I love him dearly. I've never slept with him, although we once had to share a bed on the Happy Hour tour in Guildford. But nothing happened. !

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