Jo Brand: 'I'd like to be a national disgrace'

The comedian, whose routines used to have men in the audience crossing their legs in fear, has mellowed somewhat. Perhaps it's all the knitting. Emily Dugan meets Jo Brand

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The Independent Online

There are two Jo Brands: there's the strident, acid artist formerly known as the Sea Monster, whose withering wit caused many men to cross their legs and squirm. Then there's Jo: comedian, writer, wife and mother, who – when she's feeling a bit down – pulls out a big ball of wool and some needles and comforts herself with a soothing session of knitting.

Luckily for me, the Sea Monster is off somewhere else, and Jo is confiding that knitting has pretty much always been a big part of her life. "My mum taught me to knit when I was a child and I turn to it, for some weird reason, when I'm feeling depressed," she explains. "When I was at university, I must have been really depressed because I knitted about three jumpers. Since then, I take it up occasionally because it's a comforting thing to do that harks back to those warm days of your childhood, when you felt a bit more secure and you didn't realise what a shit place the world was. I cling to it, sometimes literally, as a comfort blanket."

Superficially, the 55-year-old in front me of appears pretty similar to the Sea Monster who burst on to the alternative comedy circuit some three decades ago. She is still dressed in swathes of stretchy black cotton, with scuffed steel-toe-capped boots on her feet, her insurrectionist hair only partly pacified by a cotton headscarf. But there have been some subtle changes. The most immediately obvious is her waistline. She is relatively trim these days and has the clear eyes of someone who no longer downs seven pints before getting up on stage.

In conversation she comes across – as she does increasingly in her television shows – as gentle, thoughtful and non-confrontational. This Jo is a world away from the stage persona who engendered in male audience members the fear that she intended to "saw their bollocks off with a Stanley knife". I suggest that she might be treading dangerously close to becoming a national treasure. She looks aghast: "Oh God! I would much rather be a national disgrace."

Born in Hastings, East Sussex, Brand grew up in a village in Kent. Her mother was a social worker, her father, a structural engineer. Growing up with her two brothers, she had a pretty uneventful and happy childhood. At 16, that all changed. She was moved from a grammar school in genteel Tunbridge Wells to a sixth-form college in Hastings that she hated. Naturally enough for a teenager, she decided to punish her parents for it. She made friends with all the "bad" people at school, fell in love with a posh heroin addict four years older than herself and got kicked out of home. That period of her life was transformative: from a well-behaved, happy, averagely sized schoolgirl, she turned into the large, angry Sea Monster who went on to appear on Saturday Night Live. One of her favourite stand-up lines harks back to this time. "I went on the Pill when I was 16; put on four stone... so that proved to be a very effective contraceptive."

Only in recent years does she seem to have reconnected with the happier, gentler – and, yes, lighter – self of her childhood. We meet at a restaurant in Dulwich Village, in south London. She has dropped her 10- and 11-year-old daughters off at school and wears the contended, flapless air of a person happy with their lot.

Which isn't to say that she has subsided into Suburban Smug Complacency. Hell no! Light the touchpaper of gender politics and stand well back: "With this whole Jimmy Savile thing, it's quite fascinating that a lot of people are saying, 'Oh well, that was then, this is now.' To me, there are far more connections to the past in terms of the way that women are treated than people care to admit." Getting into her stride, she continues: "TV is not populated by hundreds of them, but there are certain people who just are unpleasant and exploitative of young women, and they could potentially still get away with a lot."

She has had her share of unpleasant encounters with men and is concerned that female comedians are seen as "fair game" by strangers. "I've had friends – women who do stand-up – who've had some really unpleasant incidents. Someone I know got surrounded by a group of very drunk guys one Friday night at about 11 o'clock in the West End. Basically, they just groped her and it was really awful."

Brand has had similar things happen to her. In one incident three weeks ago, an unnervingly ardent fan pulled down his trousers and asked her to sign his bum. "It made me anxious and I was hugely embarrassed," she recalls with a grimace. Another time, at a charity fundraiser, a man said he'd pay £200 if she would give him a kiss. "I said 'OK', thinking he'd just kiss me on the cheek and then he kissed me full on the mouth. It was really horrid. And the problem is, everyone's there laughing, going 'Wheaay', and you just have to laugh it off. I didn't feel like laughing it off."

Before turning to stand-up full-time, Brand worked for more than a decade as a psychiatric nurse. It was through this that she met her husband, Bernie Bourke, who still works in nursing, though no longer in mental health. She believes working in a psychiatric emergency clinic has helped her to cope with the weirder fans. "I had much worse then, in terms of threats of violence, and I kind of know how to handle myself just through experience," she says.

This week, she will combine two of her passions and lead a stand-up comedy benefit for the Maudsley Hospital, where she trained and worked. She wants to help, but has mixed feelings about fundraising for something that ought to be covered by the state.

"I have an ambivalent opinion towards benefits for things that, in some ways, I feel the NHS should be [funding]," she says. "But in terms of raising awareness of mental health issues, anything is good … it's a huge problem, and I don't think we really know just how huge it is. Something like six million people in this country have mental health problems of one sort or another. I think the NHS is struggling to cope with the onslaught of need."

Her monotone delivery – which translates disarmingly well into the voice of a bored nurse in the BBC sitcom Getting On – is no different in conversation. Even when animated – about the state of the NHS, or the mortification of appearing on telly in a swimsuit – her intonation barely changes.

Her material may be less overtly political these days, even though she's a long-standing Labour supporter, but her allegiances haven't changed. "I am a big fan of Labour. I think Ed [Miliband] is a very likeable person and I think he's clever. And I think the issues with Ed are all created by a voracious media that want politicians to be comedy performers and great orators and wear the right sort of clothes, have the right sort of voice, have the right sort of haircut."

She has long since given up on any political ambitions of her own, however, and is also feeling pretty fed up with television. She still enjoys panel shows – and appeared on Have I Got News for You last week – but says she would prefer to focus on stand-up than work on any new TV material. "I really feel at the moment that I quite fancy a break from TV. Stand-up is so beautifully self-contained. You write it, you go there, you do it, they laugh or they don't, and you go home. Whereas I find, with TV, there are so many annoying elements to it. I hate sitting in meetings talking about what colour the set's going to be and all that. I couldn't give a toss. I want to say, you just pick it and tell me what to wear and I'll do the saying bit, because that's what I do best."

For now, things are relatively simple. She is working on material for a new show, writing a book and spending time with her family. In short, she is content. "I'm not knitting anything at the minute," she says, pausing and absorbing the fact. "So I must be happy."

Jo Brand appears in 'Comedy Slam!' at the Southbank Centre, London, on Tuesday

Curriculum vitae

1957 Born Hastings, East Sussex. Josephine Grace Brand is raised in Kent by her social worker mother and father, a structural engineer.

1968 Attends Tunbridge Wells Grammar. Gets eight O-Levels.

1973 Parents move her to Bexhill College, Hastings, which she hates. She's eventually kicked out of her home over her relationship with a heroin addict.

1982 Graduates from Brunel University with degree in social science and nursing. She discovers an interest in nursing while working at a Barnardo's home for adults. Begins work as a psychiatric nurse.

1986 Starts doing stand-up comedy gigs in the evenings.

1992 Begins work full-time as a comedian. Makes her first appearance on Have I Got News for You.

1993 Gets own show on Channel 4, Jo Brand Through the Cakehole.

1994 Becomes a regular on the comedy show Saturday Night Live.

1997 Marries fellow psychiatric nurse Bernie Bourke. They have two girls.

2009 Getting On, the BBC sitcom Jo co-writes and appears in, goes on air.

2012 Appears in Comedy Slam! benefit for the Maudsley Hospital.