I jump as the phone rings. I’ve been looking forward to interviewing Victoria Wood, the comedy writer and performer regularly voted Britain’s funniest woman. But on the other hand, I’ve been waiting all week for the repair man to fix my boiler. Just for a moment. I can’t decide which of the two I’d rather speak to.
It’s Victoria on the line. I decide not to mention the trouble I’ve had with my PulsaCoil. Not that she wouldn’t understand. Victoria’s writing is firmly rooted in the ordinary world of high street brands, bus queues and supermarket trolleys. Even while grumbling at my lack of hot water, I’ve found myself chortling at a line from one of her sketches: “I thought I was having an early menopause - the dog had been beggaring about with the thermostat.”
But I digress. She’s phoned to talk about her stage show, Acorn Antiques: The Musical, currently touring Britain, and coming to the Richmond Theatre from April 23rd-28th. The hilarious tale of a small antiques shop in the fictional town of Manchesterford, Acorn Antiques began life as a parodic soap opera on Victoria’s 1980s TV show, As Seen On TV. An immediate hit with viewers, Acorn Antiques’ appeal proved durable when it was voted seventh in Channel 4’s Greatest Comedy Sketches poll in 2005. Now, on stage, shop owner Miss Babs, the stolid Clifford and elderly tea lady Mrs Overalls are just as entertaining while singing and dancing as they were when gazing at the wrong camera and bumping into props on TV.
Unlike most stage plays, which end their tour with a West End run, Acorn Antiques: The Musical has already been a West End hit, with a 16-week run at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in the spring of 2005. “We’re working our way down!” jokes Victoria. “No, don’t put that in!”
Fans who enjoyed the West End show will get a surprise when they return to Manchesterford.“I’ve chopped the show about,” explains Victoria. “When it ran in the West End, the first half was about people discussing staging a musical, and the second half was the musical itself. Now it’s just the musical. It’s simpler, it speeds along. And there are three new musical numbers.”
Earlier this year, surprisingly, she told The South Bank Show that, in hindsight, Acorn Antiques: The Musical had been a “bad idea”.
“I probably could have written a proper musical,” she mused to Melvyn Bragg. “Now I’ll never know if I could have or not.’
When I remind Victoria of her remarks, she explains that that wasn’t entirely what she meant.
“Writing Acorn Antiques: The Musical wasn’t really a mistake,” she insists. “I was concerned that people who hadn’t seen the television sketches would think they wouldn’t ‘get’ the musical. But you don’t have to have seen the sketches to get it. It’s a self-contained musical.”
And she hasn’t ruled out writing a “proper” musical one day. “I really loved doing this one. It would take time to get the music ready though.”
Victoria’s comic songs are legendary. Even casual fans remember The Ballad Of Barry and Freda, in which an amorous wife tries to persuade her husband to spice up their love life. Her suggestions progress from “Dangle from the wardrobe in your balaclava” to the climactic “Beat me on the bottom with a Woman’s Weekly!” She has written the music as well as the book for Acorn Antiques: The Musical, but instead of performing, she is directing the show.
“I’ve always half-directed my shows,” she says. “Once you’ve got the cast, the choreographer, and the musical director, it’s just about taking an overview. It’s part of the same process of bringing things to fruition. I’m not at all frustrated about directing the show, rather than appearing in it.”
Does she get as much satisfaction from writing a great line as delivering it?
“That is a difficult question to answer,” says Victoria thoughtfully. “I get a lot of satisfaction from sitting in the audience and watching other people get laughs from my words. I wouldn’t want to just write. I like writing, but I like performing too. It’s part of the same job – like making a sandwich, then eating it!”
In the past, she has stated that the new wave of “realistic” sitcoms like The Office has killed the traditional sitcom. “But I think now that things will turn around,” she says. “We’ll get new things coming in. As long as people are doing something funny, that’s what matters.”
Of today’s performers, she admires Steve Coogan’s work, and finds Ricky Gervais “clever”.
“I don’t follow the comedy scene,” she says. “I’m not obsessed with it. But I’m glad when people do something funny.”
Today’s sketch series, like Little Britain differ from Victoria’s work in that they rely heavily on catchphrases.
“I’m not really a fan of Little Britain-type comedies as a genre,” says Victoria. “People love them, but for me, it’s diminishing returns, because you know what’s coming next. It doesn’t tickle me as much as when you don’t know what’s about to happen.”
She made an unexpected move herself this year when she wrote and played the lead in the drama Housewife, 49, the true story of wartime housewife Nella Last. Victoria delighted both critics and fans with her portrayal of downtrodden middle-aged Nella, who finds a new lease of life when she joins the Women’s Voluntary Service. Depressed, and in an unfulfilling marriage, Nella finds companionship and a sense of purpose running canteens and making bandages with other local women.
“I really enjoyed making Housewife, 49,” says Victoria. “It was an interesting story. I was able to research it, to meet her neighbours.”
The project was born when Victoria decided to adapt the diaries Nella had kept as part of a government project, Mass Observation, initiated with the aim of recording everyday life in Britain. Adapting Nella’s prose was a challenge for Victoria, so used to writing her own material.
“It was a different technique,” she says. “It’s hard to pick out the underlying thread of a collection of incidents. Nella only ever mentioned ‘my husband’, without going into details of their relationship. I had to imagine what her marriage and her relationship with her sons was like.”
A straight role was “a good thing to do at the time”, she says. “But I’m just as happy to do comedy. Nella wasn’t a humorous person, but there were people who gave the story a lighter touch. Nothing in life is completely gloomy.”
Victoria’s latest television project has been inspired by another lady from Britain’s past. She will be presenting Victoria’s Empire, a travelogue about all the places in the world named after Queen Victoria. Victoria reveals that, although she was named after the monarch, she has never been particularly interested in her.
“My mother was obsessed with Queen Victoria. That may have been what put me off!” she jokes. “But I was interested in visiting all these places. The fact that so many places were named after her was indicative of the power Britain had at the time. That was a very British attitude, outdated now.”
Queen Victoria herself was not a seasoned traveller, reveals her namesake. “She never went further than the Isle of Wight!”
Victoria’s own travels with Acorn Antiques: The Musical will end in July at the Millennium Centre in Cardiff. But you can be sure she will be back, surprising us again. “Next time, I’d like to do something completely different,” she says.
Even after succeeding in so many different genres - stand-up comedy, sketch shows, straight drama and a musical - she has lost none of her motivation to write and perform. “I’m not exactly driven, but I am enthusiastic. Work is very energising. I feel more alive when I’m working.”
There is no other job she ever wanted to do, she says. “At school, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, but I knew it had to be something to do with acting and writing.
“I’m fulfilled in my work, but there is lots more I’d like to do. I feel really lucky that I can do this.”
For my final question, I ask her what her greatest accolade has been, expecting to hear her mention the many times she has been voted the funniest woman in Britain.
Her answer reveals her innate modesty: “People have called me professional. And punctual!”
If only certain repair men could say as much.
This interview originally appeared in the Richmond Magazine, April 2007.
Helene's interview with comedian Milton Jones.
To quote Milton
Richmond is not known for surreal comedy. The borough’s period houses and manicured parks are more used to guided walks than silly walks. But one resident could be about to change that. Comedian Milton Jones, a former Perrier Best Newcomer at the Edinburgh Fringe, now based in St Margarets, has just filmed the pilot for his first television series.
Milton, 37, is best known for his award-winning Radio 4 series, The Very World Of Milton Jones. With his supporting cast, including impressionist Alistair McGowan, Milton whisked listeners through a different, equally hilarious life story every week. In one episode, he described his early career as a portrait painter - using tracing paper - and in another, he told how he became a sporting hero in not-quite-Olympic events like the International Suntanning Championships (“I got bronze”) and the International Burglary Championships (“I got silver”).
Milton’s real life story began in Kew. Clowning around at school, he discovered his talent for comedy and began doing stand-up in clubs like the Bearcat, in Twickenham, in the 1980s. “People like Eddie Izzard, Jack Dee and Frank Skinner were performing,” says Milton. “It was inspiring.” It was also a struggle: “There were only around 20 comedy clubs in London then – there are 55 now – so if they liked your act, they’d book you for another spot… in six months’ time!
“When I was starting out, I’d do a couple of dreadful shows, then some good ones. You only feel as good as the last show you did. To succeed in comedy, it takes 50% talent and 50% tenacity. You mustn’t give up.”
Milton took his own advice and was rewarded with the Perrier Best Newcomer award in 1996. The next year, he was nominated for the Perrier Award alongside Graham Norton, Al Murray and the eventual winners, The League Of Gentlemen. That summer, Milton was spotted by producer David Tyler, a meeting that led to his radio series, the following year.
“Radio’s quite different to the stand-up circuit,” says Milton. “In one show, I needed to reproduce the sound of 180 monkeys falling out of trees after being shot by a single dart. The production team managed it!”
Milton also treated listeners to his unique view of life in South Wales, the land of his father’s family. Memories included scenes from his schooldays: “Miss! Miss! Miss!”“What is it, Milton?”“Nothing, Miss, I’m playing battleships” – and his lyrical evocation of a Welsh summer’s day – “What’s that yellow thing up there?”
Have the Welsh denounced him from the chapel pulpit, the way they breathed fire at English dragon Anne Robinson over her Leekest Wink?
“Most people’s reaction to the Welsh jokes has been really good,” says Milton. He’s received the odd letter from Disgusted Llandrindod Wells, but the Taffia can’t be planning to rub him out just yet – he starred at the Abergavenny Food Festival last September, and he wasn’t the barbecue.
At gigs, Milton can always spot the fans who know him from the radio – they’re the ones whose jaws drop at the sight of his wild hair, manic stare and equally bizarre jumpers. All for a purpose, he explains: “Comedy club audiences can be hostile. But if you look a bit weird, they think ‘He’s a nutter!’ and they relax.” The success of the radio show has drawn older people and children to his gigs: “I like the fact that children get it too,” says the father-of-three. Both generations roar at stories like: “When my grandfather fell ill, my grandmother covered his back with lard. After that, he went downhill very quickly.”
Now his TV series, to be screened on BBC2 next year, will bring him an even wider audience. “I play the idiot savant who ends up winning, either by fluke or by design.” The show will resemble a journey, on a different theme each week: “One episode could be set in a supermarket, the next in a school.” Another sphere he’d like to move in to is stage work: “I’d like to write and perform a play at the Edinburgh Festival.”
But one area he’s happy to stay in is the borough of Richmond. “It’s handy for London, and we’ve got green spaces and good cycle paths.” Milton helps out at his local church, and occasionally performs sketches during services, bringing a new meaning to the concept of stand up for Jesus. For relaxation, he risks life and limb playing football for the church team. And eating out in St Margarets is a pleasure, although this is a dubious recommendation from the man who claims: “I have a nut allergy. At school, the other kids used to push me up against the wall and make me play Russian roulette with a bag of Revels.”
Is he crossing his fingers for TV success? Typically, Milton has his own individual view of superstition. As he puts it: “I haven’t had any splinters lately, touch wood.”
This interview originally appeared in The Richmond Magazine, December 2001
Helene's interview with musical comedian Mitch Benn.
Taking The Mitch
Radio aerials all over Britain shot upright a few months ago. On Radio 4's The Now ShowBlack Sabbath frontman Ozzy Osbourne was heard singing, in his unmistakeable Brummie roar, about his upcoming performance at the Queen's Golden Jubilee extravaganza: "I'm gonna try not to swear on stage, or do anything obscene/Just keep Harry away from me, 'cos I'm trying to stay clean."
On the show some weeks later, Mick Jagger, no less, sang a startlingly candid song about his knighthood: "People ask me how the hell'd you get this?/Just exactly what good deeds did you ever do?/Well, I've done a lot of work with single mothers/Least, they were single mothers by the time that I was through."
But discerning listeners will have recognised the man behind both performances. Musical comedian Mitch Benn writes and sings satirical songs on The Now Show and on Radio 2's It's Been A Bad Week, on topics ranging from the World Cup to reality TV. Mitch, who lives in Richmond, is also a stand-up comedian and has just released his second CD of comedy songs, Radio Face.
Born in Edinburgh, Mitch grew up in Liverpool: "I'm half-Scots, half-Scouse, which means I'm very tight with money, but I haven't got any." At Edinburgh University he performed in student theatre productions, intending to become a serious actor. But that changed when he spent the summer of 1991 in Montreal, "lurking around"a comedy club. "I put together a stand-up routine with funny songs,"says Mitch."It went down really well, so I ended up doing support slots."
Back in Edinburgh, Mitch did comedy at late-night cabarets at the 1994 Fringe. Realising he needed to move to London to further his career, he did, and was promptly voted Best New Comic at Glastonbury in 1995.
"Comedy awards these days mean less than they used to, because there are so many," says Mitch. "What works in a five-minute competition set may not work in a 20-minute act. People win competitions, then find they can't handle a club environment."
Or hecklers: "The reason comedians don't like hecklers is not because it throws us," says Mitch. "It's because it throws the audience. If one heckler won't leave the comedian alone, the audience can't relax and enjoy the show. They're on edge, waiting for this idiot to start again. That's why we don't like hecklers - it's unfair to everyone else who has paid to get in."
Mitch grew up "worshipping at the shrine" of Billy Connolly: "There was a sub-generation of ex-folksinger comedians in the ''70s - Billy Connolly, Jasper Carrott, Mike Harding. I'm more like them than any comedy movement that's come since.
"Billy Connolly is still extraordinary when on form. He's so in tune with his audience, it's as if he's the manifestation of everything they find funny. Only when he finally goes will people realise how important he was."
Developments in music and comedy go hand in hand, notes Mitch: "In America in the '50s, with Elvis came The Sid Caesar Show, a turning point in comedy. They battery-farmed gags from writers like Mel Brooks and Woody Allen. With rock 'n' roll came comics like Jimmy Tarbuck - he got a lot of mileage out of looking and sounding like a Beatle. And alternative comedians derived a lot of energy from punks."
Mitch's principal inspiration is 1950s American satirist Tom Lehrer: "He had incredible skill with rhymes. With a lot of comedy songs, the musical aspect is perfunctory - a few chords and some rude words. Lehrer's songs are very musical and would be listenable if they were not hysterically funny too. That's the standard I aspire to."
Many people are resistant to the idea of musical comedy, admits Mitch. He pokes fun at this prejudice in his stand-up act, walking onstage with his guitar and launching into his opening number: "Oh, God, no! He's got a guitar! He's a singing comedian, and everybody knows how s**t they all are…" He doesn't crave TV success. "It used to be that once you'd got your TV show, you were in the public eye forever. Now TV is so fragmented that for the first time, this isn't the case."
It's Been A Bad Week gets 3 million listeners. "More than some Channel 4 sitcoms," points out Mitch. The show's live audiences roar at songs like Cumbernauld, which celebrated the winner of the Worst Town in Scotland: "Cumbernauld, Cumbernauld/Where the people say the streets are paved with mould/And Kazakhstani refugees would all be quite appalled/If anybody made them go and live in Cumbernauld."
This summer Mitch recorded the pilot for his own Radio 4 series, Mitch Benn's Crimes Against Music. The Air Mitch Project might take a while to become reality, but for now, fans can enjoy his new CD, Radio Face. "I wanted to do a comedy album that actually sounds like an album," explains Mitch. "My dream is that it'll sell by word of mouth. It'll slowly dawn on everyone that they've all bought it!"
Radio Face tracks include (My Name Is) Macbeth, an Eminem-style rap recounting Shakespeare's tragedy: "Tho' your doings be dark and your deeds are despicable/By man born of woman, yo' ass is unkickable". This interpretation of the Bard's work should provide GCSE English examiners throughout Britain with entertaining reading.
Tracks like Dr Who Girl reveal Mitch's liking for sci-fi fantasy - he was guest comedian at the Cult TV festival in 1999, where he treated fans of Sapphire And Steelto his satire and spiel. He's also charted new ground on the rock map, with a Bruce Springsteen-style tribute to the North Wales seaside resort of Llandudno. A strange choice for a rock anthem - the Beatles never sang that Penywaun was in their ears and in their eyes, nor has Newport ever been deemed so good they named it twice. "I like American-style songs about places,"explains Mitch.
Will his next CD feature a song about Richmond? "I like the gardens on the hill, and the riverfront's beautiful in summer." Mitch is a regular visitor to Richmond's sci-fi comic bookshop, They Walk Among Us. And he enjoys playing with his pet parrot, although she hasn't a great future in squawk radio: "She sings along to the TV, very badly," says Mitch. But the bird has influenced his listening habits: "Her favourite programme's Songs Of Praise," he reveals. "So we have to watch it too!"
This interview originally appeared in The Richmond Magazine, November 2002