Helen Lederer: 'I've been called the supply teacher of comedy. It could be worse'
Edinburgh-bound for the first time in eight years, comedy's nearly woman says she's just glad she still has a role to play. Andrew McCorkell meets Helen Lederer
Sunday 21 August 2011
Tonight Helen Lederer will stand naked on stage talking to her parents. Not literally, you understand, although the experience of her first appearance on an Edinburgh Festival stage for eight years will, she insists, amount to the same terrifying ordeal.
She has been nervously preparing for "An Evening with Helen Lederer", her first stand-up gig this year, when we meet at her south London home. One engagement a year might suggest she has been coasting a little of late, but that is far from the case.
When we meet she is drinking tea from a mug on which are emblazoned the words "Jesus is coming. Look busy". But Lederer, 56, doesn't have to fake it. She must be one of the UK's busiest comedy actors since bursting on to the cut-throat comedy circuit in the 1980s.
She has built a solid reputation with an enviable body of work since 1986's Naked Video, the radio-spawned TV series which nurtured the cream of a generation of comedy writers including Harry Enfield, Gregor Fisher, Paul Whitehouse, Elaine Smith, Steve Coogan, Jennifer Saunders and Rik Mayall.
Naked Video showcased Lederer's writing and acting abilities, and her Sloaney-girl-in-a-bar scenes were a highlight of the series. Catriona, the menopausal magazine editor she went on to play in the Nineties TV comedy Absolutely Fabulous, was in many respects an extension of this character.
"Jennifer Saunders told me the character is one of 'those people that just does things, and no one knows how'. They are well intentioned and rich, not horrible, but completely oblivious and in their own capsule."
Nearly two decades after the first series, Lederer is due to start shooting the new Absolutely Fabulous next month. "It will be very interesting to see how old we all are. Can you imagine? Joanna [Lumley] is one of these women who never ages," she says.
It will be her second screen venture this year, as she also appears as rich aunt Ruby in the Horrid Henry film which opened earlier this month. Add this to her books, sitcom and radio writing, her voice-over work, wine commentating and presenting and it is frankly surprising she has time to contemplate a return to the Edinburgh stage. One might imagine that being in such demand would be something to celebrate, yet there is the sense that Lederer, despite her protestations to the contrary, barely finds solace in it.
She admits she may deserve the internet moniker she has acquired – "the supply teacher of comedy". "When somebody told me I'd been called that on Google, I was surprised, but I found it horrifyingly funny. Everyone else I've told has roared with laughter.
"When I started out doing gigs, there wasn't a Google. There were just really shit reviews. I remember on my first Edinburgh, reading a review, feeling quite sick and thinking, well, I'll just read another, it can't be as bad as that one. And do you know what? It was worse.
"With me being a polymath and a supply teacher I just go, 'oh, they've asked me to do that, great'. I don't have any plan other than writing my sitcom, my book and website. The work that comes in you have to be thrilled about. I just think, brilliant, a job, and jump up and down with excitement."
She is initially reluctant to reflect on what might have been, but then acknowledges that she has "memories that come back and haunt me". "I've had a few near misses. But if you talk to any comedian or actor they all say 'oh, I nearly got that part'.
"We did this thing with Rab C Nesbitt messing about with these two Jewish characters, Miriam and Bernard. But the part never materialised because Nesbitt was understandably so hot and had other offers.
"I understand all that, but I look back and I just go 'bum', because that could've been great. There are a few moments it could have happened, like when I was in Ben Elton's Happy Families. There was Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French – everyone went on to their own series except me!
"You think that these things are going change your life forever, but they are not. 'Supply teacher' might not be too bad, is what I am saying," she laughs, rolling her eyes. Meanwhile she will readily mine her "bitterness" for her new show.
She has not felt the full fury of Edinburgh for eight years. Instead she has dazzled corporate diners bringing a little stardust to proceedings – what she calls being a "K-list" celebrity.
"I do speeches sometimes. But you are allowed to look at your notes and have a meal beforehand. You have to chat and be very jolly indeed.
"Some people stay for the disco, which is amusing," she deadpans. "I have been known to do a bit of a shimmy, because it would be churlish not to. Then I try to shimmy my way out and hunt down my car."
Other material in the show comes from examining tense social situations such as the claustrophobia of polite conversation. "It's a sort of death wish. If your brain is working that hard you are obviously not engaged and then you go, 'oh I'm just going to fuck this up'. It's that thing where you say, 'I mustn't say that', and you do."
Comedy is all about risk, she acknowledges. "Total risk. The gag needs to take people somewhere. You can't just do an anecdote because you are short-changing people.
"If people like it – great. If they don't, I'm sure they will let me know about it. Comedy upsets people. The show is like that."
And how does she feel about being a K-list celebrity? "I can't take myself seriously enough not to be all right about it. I'm still here, so I might as well just get out there and do it.
"People can have their time of being inventive, being completely focused with burning ambition. But you can't maintain that over a lifetime.
"And if you don't have anything new to say, that's a problem. But I think I'm saying something different in a new way, but not as a beginner."
The reward for putting herself through such an ordeal again is a simple one. "Humour is a moment, literally a tiny second of something flying between one person and another. That's just gorgeous when it happens."
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