Jo Brand: This charming woman
The comedian, whose latest novel is about mental illness and Morrissey, reveals how her own angst acts as an inspiration
Friday 29 May 2009
"I'm 51 now," says Jo Brand, "but I still think there's a big element of me that's quite adolescent. I like to shock people. I quite like," she adds, "to be controversial." Well, Jo, you don't say. You mean that someone who has made their name in comedy with routines in which vaginas, condoms, tampons, pantyliners, periods and (in recent years) leaking breasts feature almost more than prepositions didn't just pop that stuff out by accident? You mean you weren't, as we all suspected, some kind of shrinking violet, desperate to be ordinary, desperate to conform? "Comedian seeks attention!" shock horror.
Jo Brand certainly isn't dressed like a shrinking violet. She's wearing a bobbly brown jacket over a navy cotton cardie over a giant black T-shirt that screams that she is "FREE". Her red hair is tied up in a pink scarf that's somewhere between Mrs Mop and a small child's bow. From her ears dangle two beaded Red Indian chiefs. I wouldn't care if she was dressed as one, frankly. I wouldn't care if she was wearing a feathered head-dress and a feathered boa. I'm just thrilled to see her. Likes to shock? She sure as hell shocked me. The only person I've ever interviewed who didn't actually turn up.
But that was Thursday and today is Monday and Jo Brand couldn't be more apologetic. "I'm so sorry," she says. "I forgot to look at my diary. I don't usually do that sort of thing." And I'm sure she doesn't. Because Jo Brand, fierce, foul-mouthed feminist hated by the tabloids – and, if you believe them, the entire male species – is, everyone knows, very, very nice. In spite of all her attempts to portray herself as a man-hating monster ("the Sea Monster" she called herself when she started out), her niceness shines out of her. Or perhaps, since that tends to conjure up images of floral dresses and vicar's tea parties, I should say that her decency shines out of her. It shines out of her interviews, it shines out of her TV appearances, it shines out of the events she does for charities and it positively oozes out of her new novel, The More You Ignore Me.
Yes, Jo Brand, lazy lard-arse that she might pretend on stage to be, is one of those irritating people who juggles more balls than fellow loud-mouth Cherie could even dream of. There's the stand-up, of course. There's the telly. There's the family she shocked the world (who thought she was lesbian) by suddenly rustling up. And there are the novels – three of them now. The first, Sorting Out Billy, about sex, violence and friendship on a council estate, was hailed by Stephen Fry as "wonderfully funny and inventive". The second, It's Different for Girls, was a lively addition to a now crowded (growing-up-in-the-Seventies-and-discovering-punk) field. And her new novel, The More You Ignore Me, is about mental illness and Morrissey.
It won't, to be honest, win any literary prizes. There's way too much explication and analysis – too much "telling" rather than "showing". But in spite of its stylistic faults, it's a sweet, touching, tender novel about the effects of mental illness on those who suffer from it, and on their families. It's also about obsession. When Alice, a teenager with a crush on Morrissey, tries to rehumanise her mad, drugged, moping mother, Gina, by reducing her medication, her mother discovers her Smiths records and falls in love with him, too. Heaven knows, they could all be miserable now, but in fact it's the start of a journey that takes them all into what a Californian would call "a better place". Otherwise known as a happy ending. Not an entirely convincing one, perhaps, but it certainly cheered me up. Was this Brand wanting to provide a ray of hope in an area – mental illness – where rays of hope are pretty rare?
"I did it because I assumed people's expectations would be that I'd give it a kind of dark and unresolved ending," says Brand, "so again the adolescent in me wanted to go against people's expectations. I also," she adds, perhaps more convincingly, "wanted to show that a woman like Gina who is disturbed and dirty, because she's neglected herself – that that doesn't mean that there isn't someone that could love her. You don't really see ugly people that are old, or a bit grotty and smelly, in the media. If a Martian came down, they would think we were all tall, thin, attractive and wealthy."
We're in a mecca for the media, actually, a members' club in Soho where tall, thin, attractive people fiddle with their sleek, metal gadgets and feel very, very important. The receptionist and the waitress, both tiny, skinny and perfect, have made me feel gargantuan, so God knows what effect they had on Jo Brand. Who, in case I haven't mentioned it yet, is extremely large. "Yes, I know, I'm a lot thinner and prettier than when I'm on telly," she says in her show Barely Live, unleashing howls of with-her (or is it at-her?) laughter, and the joke, of course, is that thin doesn't really come into it, that that extra half-stone that telly puts on is but a ripple under the giant T-shirt.
Until she was 16, Jo Brand was both thin and pretty. At 16, she fell in love with a "posh heroin addict" and her parents issued an ultimatum. Shape up or ship out was the gist of it and so she shipped out. She left school, went to live in a bedsit, went on the pill and put on two stone. When she lost the lover (but not the weight) she went back to Hastings High School a day a week to finish her A levels. She "did really badly", took them again and did "even worse". After working in a garden centre, a wine bar and for the civil service, she asked her mother for advice.
"I kind of knew that I wanted to do comedy," she says, "but I didn't know how to do it, because there wasn't the circuit there is now. I thought the best way was drama school." Her mother, a psychiatric social worker, was less enthusiastic. Her daughter, she said, needed a "back up" and Brand soon found herself doing a degree in social science and nursing. After failing to get a job as a researcher for a Channel 4 programme about racism, she started work as a psychiatric nurse at the Maudsley hospital in south London, where she'd trained. "Then," she says, "I set about thinking I must be a comedian, but obviously that took years."
She did 10 years of it, absorbing "so much sadness from people's lives" that you can understand the desire to make people laugh. That, however, started earlier – with her two brothers, at home. Her elder bother, Bill, was, she says, funnier, but it was Jo, the sister sandwiched between two boys, and used to fighting them "on every single level", who became determined to succeed in a man's world. "There were hardly any women stand-up comedians then," says Brand. "I remember when Victoria Wood started to come through, and I thought she was great, though she and I are very different in our approach. I used to get the 'Oh my God, you're so rude, and you don't have to swear and talk about vaginas to be funny', but I think there was a subconscious attempt on my part to be kind of outrageous. I noticed that women in comedy had to do 10 times more."
It was then, of course, that Jo Brand developed the character "Jo Brand", the man-hating fat slob who spent much of her stage life in a nether world of the nether regions. It was a character that the tabloids were all too keen to take literally. "Although what I represented was a very crude part of myself," Brand explains, "it was better than doing it another way. I just accepted that I had to take the flak from various arenas because of what I was doing." But if the tabloids hated her, the public loved her. Even, it seems, the half of it that was male. "I've never, ever had people being aggressive to me in public," she says, "or abusing me, and actually quite a lot of men do say to me 'you're quite good' – though they can't bear to go 'you're great'."
Anyway, she shocked them all by finding a husband – also a psychiatric nurse – and producing two daughters, Maisie and Eliza, in quick succession. Those who branded her a man-hater might also be shocked by the new novel. It is, Brand agrees, in many ways about goodness, but it's also a novel about "good blokes". Keith, husband to Gina, and father to Alice is, to use a technical term, a sweetie-pie. "I know that in my act I polarised maleness and femaleness," she says, "and I did that deliberately, but I didn't mean that all men were like that, because that would be ridiculous. The men I was talking about were an identifiable group. They objectify women, they intimidate them, and some of them are bullies."
If you want to know about bullies, you could, I suppose, just try going on stage at a comedy club and being very, very fat. But nobody has to, so why would you? Why would you, in fact, subject yourself to this horrific, gladiatorial arena on a regular basis? "Well," says Brand, "I think to make a point, but for other women as well. My mum always felt that women deserved as much as men, and should have as much power, so I suppose I opted to go into a very male-dominated arena to try and prove that." Well, OK, but to attract all that viciousness, all that cruelty?
Brand, tired of talking about her weight, tired of the story always being her weight, sighs. "I knew as soon as I stepped on stage that my weight would be the issue, so in a way I had to have some armour to protect me. I think my comedy, the put-downs I do to hecklers, are the accumulated bitterness of years of people feeling that it's perfectly acceptable to make a comment on your appearance when they don't even know you." But if Brand's feisty, "fuck you" stance on stage sometimes feels genuine, there are also moments when she seems so vulnerable that you want to hug her. Is that how it is for her in "real life"? Brand nods. "Absolutely. I think self-esteem is fluid. It's not a fixed state, and so some days are better than others."
If she still suffers with her size, however, it's clear that pretty much everything else is just fine and dandy. The queen of the laconic put-down is, she confesses, "very happy". "I get offered more work than I can cope with," she says, "so I have the ability to pick and choose things that are interesting to me. That's an amazing position to be in." And then Jo Brand rootles around in her bag, and hands me a box of chocolates. "This is to say sorry for the other day," she says. They're Celebrations. Which sounds about right.
'The More You Ignore Me' is published by Headline Review
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