Jo Brand: A softer brand of humour

When Carol Thatcher made her now infamous comment, the ears of one of our most irreverent comedians were assailed

We are used to men and women who think they are funny landing themselves in the news by being offensive. Russell Brand, Jonathan Ross, Jeremy Clarkson, Chris Moyles... the list is long. But a comedian taking offence at someone else's attempt at banter is an unusual variation on the theme.

Jo Brand is the person who, without necessarily intending it, caused Carol Thatcher to lose her job with the BBC programme The One Show, in a furore that says a great deal about contrasting views of what constitutes offensive language. As participants in that show were relaxing in a hospitality suite known as the green room, Thatcher described a tennis player named Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who has a white French mother and a black Congolese father, as a "golliwog frog".

When Jo Brand took issue with this comment, Thatcher was apparently quite unable to see where the problem lay. "Well, he's half-golliwog," she is reported to have said. At this, a disgusted Jo Brand walked out of the room.

So what is shocking here? According to your point of view, it is either the crass insensitivity and implicit racism displayed by the daughter of the former prime minister, or it is that her remarks, made in a private, were leaked to the press, or it is the BBC's reaction in disciplining Thatcher after she had refused to apologise adequately. One writer in the Daily Mail, for example, was not at all offended by what Thatcher said, and thinks that Jo Brand was behaving like "some cloistered Victorian maiden aunt" in reacting as she did. What really offends this particular contributor is Brand's bawdy stage act, which makes her, in his estimation, "one of the most foul-mouthed, irreverent performers on the comedy circuit".

Actually, there was nothing "Victorian" in the way Jo Brand reacted to that word "golliwog". The generation that grew up in middle-class homes in the 1950s and 1960s, as Carol Thatcher did, was nurtured by great-aunts and grandmothers born in Victoria's reign, who happily sat down with children to read the stories of Enid Blyton, where golliwogs are nasty, threatening intruders in Toytown. But these Victorian ladies would certainly have had reach for the smelling salts if they had ever been subjected to Jo Brand's stage act, which is clean of any hint of racism, but drips with filth upon such subjects as sex and bodily excretions.

The comedian is herself currently being accused of something which, in theory anyway, is more serious than Carol Thatcher's offence. Earlier this month, the police received a formal complaint about remarks she made during a live show in Hammersmith, which was broadcast by the BBC in the slot temporarily vacated by Jonathan Ross. Clearly enjoying the embarrassment that the far-right British National party suffered when the names of 13,000 of its alleged members were posted on the net, Brand told her audience: "Let's start with some important political news. Did you hear this, right, that BNP members and supporters have had their names and addresses published on the internet? Hurrah! Now we know who to send the poo to!"

Without a trace of irony, the deputy leader of the BNP, Simon Darby, complained to Hammersmith police that this was an incitement to racial harassment. A police spokesman has confirmed that the complaint was lodged but indicated that it is highly improbable that the case will ever go to court.

And five years ago, the BBC felt the need to apologise for an unscripted joke from Jo Brand during a Christmas broadcast, in which she offered to "fart the Albanian national anthem". Albanian viewers were offended, apparently.

Josephine Grace Brand was born on 3 May 1957 in Hastings, East Sussex. She grew up in a Kent village, where her mother was a social worker, and emerged from Tunbridge Wells Grammar School for Girls with eight O-levels. She seems to have had a carefree childhood, mucking around competitively with her two brothers, doing whatever they did, including smoking, drinking and staying out all hours. At 15, she fell in love with a wastrel four years older than she was, a heroin addict from a posh family. At 16, she received an ultimatum from her parents: pull yourself together or get out. She got out.

Living in rented accommodation with her upper-class lover, she found a job organising cleaners for the Department of Environment, and went back to school one day a week. But he found himself a job in London, leaving her alone in the bedsit during the week. When she went to meet him one Friday evening, she found him locked in the embrace of another girl. The relationship broke up, and at about the same time, she turned into a fat lady, having somehow gained more than two stone, which she never really summoned the motivation to lose.

Drifting from one job to another, she arrived at Dr Barnado's home for adults, which stimulated an interest in nursing. She took a degree in social science and nursing at Brunel University and, on graduating in 1982, trained as a psychiatric nurse at the South London Bethlem and Maudsley Hospital. Dealing with mentally ill people induced in her a tolerance of strange behaviour. Reading the cases notes that described the childhoods of some of them, she marvelled that they were not even more disturbed.

Her evenings were spent in the large number of clubs and pubs where stand-up comics performed alternative comedy for anyone sober enough to listen. She calculated that there were 50 men for every woman on the circuit. As her 30th birthday drew near, she made one of those desperate decisions that people make when they feel their youth slipping away, and decided to have a go on stage.

At her first gig, she was scheduled to make a short appearance at about midnight, after the audience had been softened up by three experienced male performers. It was an audience from hell. All three of the acts that preceded hers bombed. As she watched, aghast, she sank seven pints of lager. Thus she faced her first audience with bursting bladder, struggling through her carefully prepared one-liners on such subjects as penis envy, explaining that she wished she had a penis because it would ease the problems of pissing at the bus stop on the way home. A man at the back started shouting, "Fuck off, you fat cow" as she ascended the stage, and kept up this war cry until her performance was over. There was no applause.

Her other experiences on the alternative comedy circuit included having a pint of beer thrown at her, having her face slapped, and being pelted with food. But she kept going, and developed that laconic, world-weary style, and material replete with gags at the expense of men, or about urine or worse. In those early days she used the stage name the Sea Monster. She did not want her real name printed in listings magazines in case her work colleagues saw it and turned up at one of her gigs to mock her.

By 1993, she was established enough to merit her own series on Channel 4, Jo Brand through the Cakehole, co-written with comedy writer and partner Jim Miller. More recently she has been a guest on Have I Got News for You and Never Mind the Buzzcocks. She has had several solo television series, and presented shows such as Jo Brand's Commercial Breakdown, and she is the only regular female panellist on QI. In 2003, she was listed in The Observer as one of the 50 funniest acts in British comedy.

Her Doc Marten boots, black T-shirt and leggings, red lipstick and crest of backcombed hair, her refusal to slim, and the jokes she made about sex and obesity led the tabloid press to the inescapable conclusion that she must be a lesbian, in addition to being – in the gallant words of The Sun's Garry Bushell – a "hideous old boiler". She spoilt her reputation somewhat in 1997 with her marriage to Bernie Bourke, and even more so when, at the age of 43, she disappeared from the comedy scene to give up cigarettes, cut the drinking, and have two children in rapid succession. When she returned to the stage, she had a whole new repertoire of jokes about what childbirth and suckling does to a woman's body, how she could light the gas with her nipple and blind a short-legged cat with her bra.

It is said that motherhood has given her humour a softer edge, and has turned her almost into an establishment figure. When David Cameron was elected leader of the Conservative Party, she allowed Labour to use her name for an email campaign pleading for money. She has also been seen on Question Time. Somehow, you feel that a younger Jo Brand would have given Carol Thatcher such a tongue-lashing that the older woman would have been driven out of the room. This week, Jo Brand, 51-year-old mother of two, was not shocking; she was shocked.

A life in brief

Born: Josephine Grace Brand, 3 May 1957, Hastings, East Sussex.

Family: Married Bernie Bourke, a psychiatric nurse, in 1997. They have two daughters and live in south London.

Early life: With an elder and younger brother, she grew up breaking all the rules. A teenage rebel, she left home at 16 after altercations with her parents, lived with a "posh" heroin addict, but eventually made amends and trained as a psychiatric nurse.

Career: Started performing comedy at the age of 29, under the stage name the Sea Monster. Gave up psychiatric nursing to turn professional in 1988 when someone from Friday Night Live saw her act at a comedy club and asked her to audition for the TV show. Her work is renowned for being droll, dark and polemical, applying a razor-sharp wit to feminist issues.

She says: "I tend to think the world is a bit of a miserable place, so anyone who can add to people's optimistic, cheerful side is doing a good job, which is what I hope I'm doing."

They say: "She is one of the loveliest people I've ever known. She's somehow reached the point where no matter how vicious she is in her act she still retains her generosity of spirit." Fellow stand-up Mark Steel

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