|Jo Brand as the Sergeant of Police|
20 Questions With ... Jo Brand
Date: 25 February 2008
Hugely successful stand-up comedian Jo Brand is making her musical debut as the Sergeant of Police in The Pirates of Penzance and talks to us about G&S, stand-up disasters and why she finds it hard to write novels.
Larger-than-life comedian Jo Brand made her musical theatre debut as the Sergeant of Police in The Pirates of Penzance on 18 February. Better know for her stand-up comedy and TV appearances on QI and Countdown, she started her working life as a psychiatric nurse after getting a degree in Social Sciences.
She's no stranger to the stage though, having years of stand-up comedy experience under her belt, both on tour and in London. She's also penned two novels, Sorting Out Billy and It's Different for Girls, and even a play which she co-wrote with Helen Griffin. Entitled Mental and drawing on her experiences as a psychiatric nurse, Brand performed in the play at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2003.
Brand's extensive television credits include; Question Time, Never Mind the Buzzcocks, Friday Night with Jonathan Ross, The Graham Norton Show, Comic Relief Does Fame Academy, Mock The Week, The Bigger Picture, Loose Women, Have I Got News For You, The Paul O'Grady Show, Countdown and QI with friend Stephen Fry.
According to the press release for The Pirates of Penzance, Brand agreed to do the show "in a moment of weakness after a couple of sherries and would like to apologise in advance for her mediocre to dreadful performance." But it's a cracker, and you have until 1 March to see her in action at the Gielgud!
Date & place of birth
Born 3 May 1957 in Hastings, East Sussex.
Lives now in
South East London.
What made you want to become a comedian?
I thought it was an easy job, in terms of short hours! And I also just like making people laugh really. Itís as simple as that. I tend to think the world is a bit of a miserable place so anyone who can add to peopleís optimistic, cheerful side is doing a good job, which is what I hope Iím doing.
If you hadnít become a comedian, what might you have done professionally?
I did psychiatric nursing for 10 years. I donít like to think I would have become a senior nurse because I always use to feel that, ironically, the more qualified you became as a nurse the further you got away from actually looking after everybody. Because youíre in an office ordering toilet roll or sacking someone, you know. I got to the point when I left where I was in the perfect position for me. I was a senior charge nurse working on a 24 hour emergency clinic. I wouldnít have wanted to go any further than that so I donít know what I would have done if I hadnít done comedy. I always quite fancied being in an orchestra. Iím reasonably musical but Iím not a genius so I think I wouldnít have been good enough probably.
First big break
I suppose what it was, was getting on telly for the first time. I did Friday Night Live in 1988 and the way I got onto it was I think someone from Friday Night Live had just seen me at a comedy club and asked me to audition.
You've written two novels and currently writing your third. Do you prefer writing novels to stand-up?
Oh, performing stand-up without a doubt. Writing a novel is an incredibly solitary thing and Iím not like that really. And with stand-up, even though thatís solitary as well and you are there on your own, you have some sort of connection with the audience and itís great. Do you think this is funny? Do you agree with this idea? Itís a kind of two-way conversation in a way. Sitting in a room on my own surrounded by a blanket of gloom is not my thing really.
I would say that Iím a bit of a jack of all trades. Iím not one of those people that loves one writer. I can do anything really, from Shakespeare to Pinter, as long as I have one of those cold notes which tells me what itís about! I think the awful thing with me, and a lot of other women my age with kids, is that your memory goes out your ear hole! Irish playwrightÖsurreal playsÖWaiting for GodotÖwhatís his name? Anyway, Iíve seen everything heís doneÖSamuel Beckett! There we are. I like him but I just like a theatrical experience. I will go and enjoy it, but Iím not one of those people whoís got to read everything heís done and know his biography backwards because I donít have time, again.
I just have to put a plug in for my mate Patrick Marber who I did an Edinburgh show with in 1990 when he was a stand-up. It was called The Holey Cardigans Ė get it? HolyÖHoleyÖ? We were dreadful. We all did stand-up and were in a band at the end. It was appallingÖ
What was the last thing you saw on stage that you really enjoyed?
It was Much Ado About Nothing at the National. Actually the night before I saw Glengarry Glenn Ross so I had a bit of a theatrical week, that was a couple of weeks ago. It was great because I so rarely get to the theatre Ė to do two in a week was like heaven, you know. I havenít actually seen the film of Glengarry Glenn Ross but itís very much part of the 80s era. I think itís a fantastic play and brilliantly written. I really like Jonathan Pryce and Aiden Gillen. It keeps your attention which is obviously the first thing a play has to do. It wasnít too long either, mercifully. Sometimes you sit there and think ďGod, theyíve added 40 minutes on this you donít needĒ you know. I think thereís nothing more excruciating than bad theatre. Actually I think that sometimes pretty good actors get themselves in terrible productions and itís like watching a comic die on their arse. Thereís nothing worse for an audience Ė you start to feel the goose bumps start to go and itís so embarrassing and humiliating.
And the first?
Ever? Oh my LordÖIím just trying to think. It was a Shakespeare. It was Midsummer Nights Dream, someone took me to see it when I was at school.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Well I think it would probably George Bush. I would just like to get the low down on global politics, what Americaís plans are. Because theyíre such a hugely powerful force. And I think then, that would actually enable you to see where weíre going here, where Iraq and Afghanistan are going, where the Middle East is going. So Iíd go straight to the top with my little notebook and then report back as much as I could to everybody!
Well one of my favourites is A Christmas Carol by Dickens. Just because Iím aware of myself being a terrible pessimist and I like to think that people can change even though I secretly believe they canít. And thereís a book I absolutely love called In The Springtime of the Year by a writer called Susan Hill which, for me Ė somebody who was brought up in the country, itís so poetic about how fantastic the countryside is. Itís a very miserable book, but having said that itís brilliantly written.
Favourite holiday destinations
England, really. My children are five and six so the hassle of getting on a plane and going somewhere is too much of a nightmare really. The English countryside and coast is fantastic. From the 50s atmosphere of the Isle of Wight to the wildness of the Lake District, Scotland is fantastic, Devon and Cornwall are brilliant. I think you could just holiday in England for the rest of your life. I love Wales too. I know a lot of people slag the Welsh off are the people I like to slag off myself, like Anne Robinson and A.A. Gill Ė those hideous monsters.
Favourite after-show haunts
Well I normally relax by just coming home, I have to say. If I was going anywhere after the show I would probably go to somewhere in a clichť actorly way. Iíve just got honorary membership of the Groucho for a year, because I did a quiz night for them there so probably somewhere like that.
You're playing the Segeant of Police in The Pirates of Penzance, which is usually sung by a male bass. Did you need singing lessons?
Well I probably do need singing lessons! But I havenít had many. Any in fact! Iíve had a couple of hours of rehearsal with a very nice pianist called Duncan. I think if youíre a professional singer in light opera, you look at a note on a page and you know what it is and you can just go ďAhhhhĒ like that and sing it. Whereas of course, Iím not. So I think he expected Ė because everyone in this production apart from me knows what theyíre doing Ė that I would just pick it up as we went along. And of course I didnít, and of course I canít look at a note on a page and go ďAhhhĒ E Flat! So I feel hugely under rehearsed at the moment, which is scary because Ė not to put too fine a point on it Ė I donít want to look like a twat and they donít want me to look like a twat either because thatís not going to do their production any good. Mercifully it is quite short, my bit. I think there are two songs and then a bit of mouthing a few things in the chorus at the end.
Did you see it when it was touring?
No, I didnít. Thatís because a) I have such a busy domestic life and b) I work most nights, so the luxury of getting out of London to see something like that, Iím afraid Ė no disrespect to them, because Iíd love to see it Ė itís kind of 140 on my list of things to do, so unfortunately I havenít been able to.
You're Dad's a G&S fan isn't he? Do you share his enthusiasm?
Yes he is. I do share his enthusiasm for some of the good songs, but to be honest Iíve never found it easy to sit through a whole one. The Mikado was always my Dadís favourite so I could probably do ďThree little girls from schoolĒ down the phone to you, not that youíd want me to! Pirates of Penzance he didnít play quite so much. I would say I like some of the songs Ė thereís a lot of humour in it, which you have to be quite quick about as it goes past very quickly unless you know it well. Itís also incredibly wordy. I rather like that actually. I think the Major Generalís song is an absolute triumph of ridiculous wordiness, so I quite like that. Itís a bit like a piece of history isnít it? Everyone accepts that in those days there were no women in the police and all women amounted to was pretty much objects to be married off. I accept that and thatís fair enough, and I think thereís an awful lot to be said for it.
What's your favourite line from the show?
Thatís a good question! Just for pure illustration of how much times have changed in terms of what we consider to be funny, I suppose, thereís a line in the policemanís song which says ďWhen the costa finished jumping on his motherĒ It just conjures up a bizarre image to me of some man bouncing up and down on top of an elderly woman! For weirdness, thatís my favourite line at the moment.
Whatís the oddest/funniest/most notable thing thatís happened in rehearsals/performances to date?
Nothing really. I think what Iím really impressed by is how professional everybody is. It obviously reflects my lack of professionalism Iím sure, but what amazed me is that actually the chorus of police, who I mainly work with, picked up what the choreographer was saying almost spontaneously. It was just an absolute joy to watch. Just watching the choreographer try to transform the chorus from theatrical actors, if you like, whose tendency is to play big and a bit camp Ė to transform them into what he wants them to be, which is a bit of a shambolic police force, is amazing for me. Just incredible. And the sound of people singing in a small room is fantastic. Itís really good fun!
Has the role given you a taste for more stage work?
Itís very hard to say yet. Itís not given me a taste for more acting, because actually I think my acting abilities are virtually nil. In fact, nil. I think thatís fair enough, you know. A lot of stand-ups want to be actors and some of us canít, because weíre not very good. In fact, dreadful. I auditioned for a TV series a few years ago Ė a Linda Laplant series called Comics. They said ďOh, could you come in and audition for this part. It should be a formality, itís a character based on you.Ē I didnít get it. I couldnít get a part based on myself, which is obviously the easiest Iím ever going to get offered. So I think I just have to accept that my acting abilities are not great and just kind of try to do a combination of comedy and bad acting, which is my plan for The Pirates of Penzance.
Do you have any other plans for the future?
I see what comes along really. The immediate future is all about writing Ė finishing this novel, writing a new hour long set and then touring with it in the Autumn. Then obviously a few other offers coming in but I donít have time to do it all so have to pick and choose really.
- Jo Brand was speaking to Tom Atkins
The Pirates of Penzance opened on 18 February 2008 at the Gielgud, where it's playing until 1 March.