Describing herself as “the supply teacher of comedy”, Helen Lederer has been a consistent presence on screen and on stage since her breakthrough at the Comedy Store in the nineteen eighties, followed by the Young Ones, and subsequently in Bottom, French and Saunders, all five series of Ab Fab and many, many more. Only now has she published her first novel, Losing It, which was shortlisted for the Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman Prize for Comic Fiction in 2015.
Losing It tells the story of Milly who, down on her luck, and pursued by bills and bailiffs, agrees to front a miracle weight-loss programme with her progress followed ounce by ounce by a magazine. The fee for the job is very attractive – the only snag is that it only pays out if she gets the weight off. Helen has nailed the first three chapters of a second novel, which I can’t wait to read. I know it will only confirm how deftly her quick, self-deprecating wit has translated from stage to page.
THE BOOKS THAT BUILT HELEN LEDERER
- First Term at Malory Towers; Enid Blyton
“There was a phase wasn’t there, when people just were very disapproving of Enid Blyton, but there is something magical about Enid Blyton, and apparently she wrote this in three days. She paints the pictures; within seconds you are in that boarding school, you see the cliffs, see the pool …”
2. The Conscience of the Rich; C.P. Snow
“There was a phase when I was in my twenties where I read Evelyn Waugh and C.P. Snow [I had] this fascination with that life, that world. The Conscience of the Rich is about a man who is born into a rich Anglo Jewish family: It’s about the beginning of communism, it’s about socialism, it’s about political descent. and letting your family down and your principles and the morality of trying to be good person and the shame that he feels at being Jewish. It’s fascinating, you’ve got to read it.It’s just so right for now.”
The Conscience of the Rich is also about living up to the expectations of your father – was this the same for Helen when growing up, I asked her?
” I now understand what my parents must have gone through when they saw me do stuff that was disappointing. I did [make a success of things] but I did it all late and I did it all in the wrong order and actually my father had died by the time I did it and I do sometimes think, would I have done it if he he’d been alive, because it’s such a crazy thing [a career in comedy], looking back, to do? It has no label, it has no structure and I did stand-up for five years and each year I’d go, right, one more year, just to see. And I ended up, not living the dream, because I don’t think I’ve had a particularly joyful life, but I’ve ended up doing what I think I’m probably better at doing, which is a sort of privilege really, because I was a very bad social worker and I remember at the time I was so insecure about my degree being low brow and I was doing an MA to sort of try and make out I was better and then I joined this community theatre in Crouch End, or Couch End as they sometimes call it, and I was doing the community theatre Dr Faustus in leotards, I was doing the MA and I was a social worker, I was doing it all at once and I remember my team leader called me in and she said “Helen, you can either leave or you can leave immediately” and I do remember that was very stressful, but people have to work and I remember going to bed worried and waking up worried. And that happens to people in real life, and it happens to me for short periods of time, then the jobs come over. But Central School was a post-graduate year. I lied to get on it, I said I was a teacher and I wasn’t, obviously, and in those days you could lie and just sort of open the envelope and do things and I just remember being happy for a whole year. Just imagine, I mean a student, like I was 28 or something. Fantastic.”
HB So is it hard living up to the expectations of your parents?
HL Yes, I think so and I think my mother, interestingly, both my parents are not alive, but always said I should write, because doing stand-up was so mentally derailing and yet there was no choice and people say why do you do it? And you know what, I think people just do what they just know they have to do to get from A to B, you don’t go oh this is really hard. I mean it’s hard but you don’t not do it. If I’d known, and a I remember that the first radio job I did where I was on at the BBC Theatre, in Lower Regent Street I think it was then, and people clapped, you know and I came on and I went oh must wait, oh sorry it’s for me. And because there would be a script and you’d just be in charge of somebody else’s stuff and then people would laugh accordingly, instead of going on and grabbing people within those first two seconds, like the Comedy Store, and failing, you had mostly bad gigs and then some good ones.”
HB I want to talk a little bit about that experience of acting and stand-up and those boundaries between fantasy and reality in a minute, but I want to quickly if we can go back to The Conscience of the Rich, because I just want to ask you, you describe your father as more English than the English, but he was an émigré that escaped from Czechoslovakia in 1938 didn’t he?
HB He left his family behind?
HL Well, they sent him out first because it wasn’t quite the same as the lovely man who’s just died, Nicholas, who did the Kindertransport, but they knew somebody else like him, so he came with two other boys and then they went to school in Margate and he didn’t speak any English, so quite extraordinary if you can imagine, quite lonely, but with that spirit to prove yourself, you just put it all behind you and you just get out there and you do it, and I think maybe I understand that spirit. And then the rest of the family came out later, they sent him out first, And that was bizarre and then I also found out my, we call him Big Bubba, was a spy. My mother was in Bletchley, so she was a spy I like to call her, but she probably wasn’t, she was just in Bletchley, probably cleaning, polishing the codes. And so Big Bubba was in this place where they put the posh prisoners of war and it was a bit like they would actually have microphones in the plants and it was just amazing. So he’d be down in the cellar, translating all the German and also trying to get people to ask questions so that they could use the intelligence. He got medals for it, we didn’t know. Because they don’t speak about it. Nobody did. And my mother wouldn’t talk about Bletchley. Interesting, isn’t it, so that’s why I love all these books.
HB I found this lovely quotation from you, “Growing up amongst émigrés shaped me, my parents told me nothing bad lasts forever, something good is always around the corner. In the meantime, you just have to survive” and I wondered if that was a kind of a motto I suppose. It’s a motto for everybody’s life isn’t it?
HL You do, and it can get really bad and my mother always used to say something always turns up and she was right, it does. So you just have to believe that and it has to get really horribly disgusting and awfully worrying in order for you to go wow, I’m just loving it, like I’m loving this moment and you can look back and appreciate the good bits.“
3. John Fowles, The Magus
“When I read The Magus the first time, I think I was in my 20s and I was in Paris and I was really self-conscious. I didn’t have a boyfriend and I got picked up outside the Georges Pompidou Centre. Someone asked me for a light and in those days, anyway, I can speak freely, the doors are closed, but in those days this is what you did. That’s never happened before or since, but just the memory of being in a café in Paris reading my John Fowles, which was erotic and adventurous and magic and is just going to have an adventure, you can almost think yourself into having an adventure, especially when you’re young.But this was about longing and wanting something and my imagination, because I don’t have any boundaries with people, it can be a bit scary if you don’t know me, I just kind of go out there and I just wanted something to happen to me and I willed it and I did. I had a bit of a pash thing.
It’s so powerful. It’s a long book, but very well written and magical, if you have like a month’s holiday, I think this could be your book.”
HB The main character in The Magus, Nicholas Urfe, goes to the Greek islands to become a school master, he doesn’t really want to be a school master, he wants to be a poet, and he has this quite tragic thing early on when he is in Greece where he rips up all his poems and he goes off into some kind of suicidal fugue, quite twenty something angst, he’s quite a self-conscious person …
HL I’m at home with that.
HB … and he decides that he is not a good poet after all, he can’t live up to his vision of him being a creative person, he is not able to realise it on paper and I think that is a constant creative struggle isn’t it, how you feel on the inside and then how you are, is that something that, I mean is that a creative personality type?
HL Yes, I think you can loathe yourself completely and also when you’re writing, I don’t know about the other writers in the room, but you’ve got a voice, even when I’m doing stand-up, which I don’t do unless it’s to nice people, but you know you’re working on two levels. You’ve got a voice up there saying that person’s looked at their watch, they don’t like me, shit, and then you’re coming up with a punchline or somebody walks in late or whatever or somebody’s asleep and that’s fine and you just have to pull it all together and dislike yourself at the same time.
HB But is it a helpful driving force, that kind of constant inside criticism?
HL Anger is better for comedy, I think it’s quite helpful to be angry because it gets you out there, and as long as you’re only angry with people who like you quite a lot, it can go wrong if you say what you mean in your head to the wrong people. Anger, I kind of mean in an intellectual way, not very sure what that means.
4. Muriel Spark, The Girls of Slender Means – “Long ago in 1945, all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions”.
“ I was advising anyone about writing humour or wit, Muriel Spark is the object lesson – she’s objective, quite cold and very dry. You find it and she doesn’t show it and to me, I mean, that would be my ambition as a writer. That’s what I reach towards. I think Muriel Spark has to be read and re-read, it just gives you new things every time. You imagine as she writes she’s been rather amused by it herself, so I think you are brought in, but it is still quite a distant narrator’s voice. ”
5. Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint
“There is no other book like this book. Portnoy’s Complaint is a diatribe, it’s a fantastically beautifully written really clever angry comment about society.The rhythm in the writing, you’ve just got to readit for the rhythm, it’s beautiful. You could read it out loud and it just goes, it’s just rhythm. And so it is about that obsessional activity – can we talk about masturbation? His self-loathing, his need to do it, even in, sorry to offend chocolate puddings, at one point.It’s liberating and it’s like you’ve discovered something that somebody else is telling you about a world that you want to know about, you want to be there, you’ve got a grown up that’s written this, come on. You know. And it’s great to seek out anger and rudeness that has some intelligence behind it and some coherence, dare I say, how pretentious is that? Coherence, good word. You’ve got to read it… I’m a Jewish mother. I have to say my mother came from the Isle of Wight and was an extremely shy English woman, but I have the mix …”
6. David Nicholls, Starter for Ten
“Because you know we are talking about comedy and we are talking about that which makes you laugh. Starter for Ten has got laugh out loud scenes. It’s quite a sort of simple, it’s a bit like Enid Blyton but with gags.
7. Emma Henderson, Grace Williams Says it Loud
” Grace Williams says it Loud is the kind of book that everyone should read. It’s really disturbing. I re-read it on Saturday, just sat there in my chair and read it and just felt really uncomfortable and I don’t wish that on anyone, obviously. It’s a very beautiful book through the eyes of a person who, I don’t know how you… she has extreme physical difficulties … It’s a bit like Portnoy, just a unique construct for a book and I just remember being really moved by it and you were saying when you read the book that somebody else had recommended And this is that kind of book but then it makes you angry and it makes you, and it’s very unforgiving about the treatment and it’s clever and you just want to do better so I think sometimes books can inspire you to be angry. I was talking about anger earlier, it’s a really good emotion to be careful and to try and be better and it’s a really inspiring book. And it’s okay at the end, it’s just life goes on. You’ve been taken into this place but there it is.
LOSING IT is published by Pan Macmillan, price £7.99