Jenny Eclair - the only female Perrier Award Winner to date – seems to be able to turn her hand to most jobs in the entertainment industry. In addition to her comedy, she has acted, written books and articles, and presented on radio and television.
A familiar face on the small screen, Eclair’s television work has included appearances on So Graham Norton, Richard and Judy, Liquid News, Celebdaq and her own series, Private Function. On radio, Eclair regularly sits in for Sandi Toksvig’s two-hour lunch time slot on LBC. She has also co-written a number of comedy dramas for BBC Radio 4 and contributes regularly to shows such as Home Truths and Woman’s Hour.
As a freelance writer, Eclair has contributed to numerous newspapers and magazines and written three books: 1994’s non-fiction title, The Book of Bad Behaviour, was followed by two novels, Camberwell Beauty, and just released in January, Having a Lovely Time.
Eclair has written and stars in the one-woman play, The Andy Warhol Syndrome, which is now running at west London’s Riverside Studios ahead of a national tour.
Date & place of birth
I was born on 16 March 1960 in Kuala Lumpur. My dad was an army major, and he was stationed there. We lived there for two or three years, then went to Singapore, then came back to Blackpool, before going to Berlin, from the time I was four to eight. Then we came back to Lytham St Annes, the posh bit of Blackpool, and that’s where I really grew up. You should always grow up in a Northern seaside resort.
Lives now in...
I live in Camberwell, SE5 (London). I’ve been in the area for nearly 23 years. The house I live in now we moved into about three months ago – my partner built it himself together with an architect. If he does nothing else in his life, he’s done that! We had to knock a house down first.
First big break
I don’t know if I’ve really had it yet. Winning the Perrier Award in Edinburgh in 1995 was useful, but it was such a surprise to everyone that it caught us off guard and nothing had been set up for me to do after it. I went on a tour and the tour did quite well, so it helped for about a year, but then I had to keep proving myself. And that was horrible, too – because I had to go back the next year with a new show, and I was last year’s news and had a huge slag-off! That taught me a good lesson. It was useful to have a fall from grace. It’s really nice to win something, but if you can deal with that and then come back and fail and still keep going, that’s the biggest test.
Career highlights to date
I’m most proud of the books. I like the fact that I’ve got copies of the novels I’ve written in ten different languages. That really makes me laugh. Because I’m so self-competitive, if I’ve not done something this year that I’ve achieved last year, I want to commit suicide. But The Andy Warhol Syndrome and my new book Having a Lovely Time: A Tale of Two Sisters are now my favourite things! The new book is my second novel but my third book. I originally did a comedy title called The Book of Bad Behaviour, which was published by Virgin in 1994. My first novel, Camberwell Beauty, was published by Time Warner in 2000, and was more or less ignored, which made me really, really, really pissed off and angry. But Having a Lovely Time seems to be getting more attention, and it’s doing all right. It’s had grudgingly good reviews.
Favourite production you've ever worked on
All of the productions I’ve ever done have been either solo shows or with all-female casts. It would be nice to play with some boys at some point! The Andy Warhol Syndrome, Mummy’s Little Girl and Mrs Nosey Parker were all one-woman shows, and then in the West End I’ve done The Vagina Monologues, Mum's the Word and Steaming, all of them featuring all-woman casts. But it does mean that I’ve made some really good girlfriends!
Miriam Margolyes. We toured in The Vagina Monologues, and I count myself very lucky to have Miriam in her pants in a dressing room! She’s great to be around: I’d call her the queen of good company! I also count Imogen Stubbs as a good friend. We did Mum's the Word together. You can’t beat Jerry Hall for glamour. And Patsy Palmer is the best for getting you stuff – she’s the best shopper I know!
My current director is a lovely gay man called Chris George. He’s given the show so much attention. After so many years of doing stand-up, it’s really nice to have a director, though I do find that rehearsals can be really, really gruelling. I’m not used to it. It’s both a luxury and a pain. I also really like Ian Brown – he did Steaming.
I love Nell Dunn, because she’s the sweetest human being. But otherwise, I like my own stuff - that’s why I do it. I co-write with Julie Balloo, even though she makes a lousy cup of coffee and an even worse lunch. But we’re really, really good friends. I adore and love her.
How do you define the difference between stand–up & a one-woman play?
The difference with the plays is that there’s not so much language or pooh material. I talk myself out of the lavatory with the drama stuff, which is a relief for everybody. But I also don’t take it so personally when people don’t like it, as the plays aren’t all about me. It looks like me, it sounds like me, but it’s not me entirely. When the stand-up is going really well, it’s the best thing ever – and I don’t have to share any of the money. But there’s a much bigger safety net with theatre stuff. Other people are responsible, too. I’ve got to remember my lines and perform as well as I possibly can, but I don’t have to take all the flak. And theatre audiences tend to be more demure – it’s rare to be heckled in the theatre!
Would you like to do more acting? What roles would you most like to play?
Definitely! If nobody will give me a part, Julie and I will write some more. If I want to do some acting, it’s a long-winded, spiteful way of working, but all I have to do is write a play and cast myself in the lead role. There’s always a room behind a pub somewhere that will put me on. We write plays that fit in the back of a transit van. And, after all the stand-up I’ve done for so many years, there are arts editors all around the country who will give me publicity with the plays! I’m only interested in new and modern writing. There’s nothing that’s been done before that I’m desperate to do, as most roles have been inhabited to the best they can be. I have no yearning to do a Lady Macbeth: parts like that have all been done really well already. I’d much rather star in something that no one has done before. Then they can’t say she’s not as good as so and so…
What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently
I really enjoyed One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. I didn’t expect to like Christian Slater and I thought he was very, very good indeed. It’s almost a one-man show. I have great respect for someone who carries that much material, physically and mentally, night after night after night. I also saw some great European dance stuff in Edinburgh last year that completely ripped me to pieces. Stewart Lee, who co-wrote Jerry Springer - The Opera, made me go and see some Scandinavian company do a show called It’s Only a Rehearsal at the Aurora Nova at the Edinburgh Fringe last year. In future I will just go and buy a book of tickets to whatever is on there. It’s like sitting at the bottom of a well and watching as some magic happens in front of you – it was stuff that I can’t do, and therefore better than anything I can. I’m so cynical and nasty that it takes a lot to have me reeling in a seat, but I came out stunned.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
Subsidise, subsidise, subsidise. The theatre is one of the things we have to be proud of.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I’d like to be Madonna for a day – just to see how ordinary she could be! I’d make her do the dullest things. I’d make her go to Asda.
Two books I’ve recently loved are Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller, and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris. Both have a sneery, dark, cynical underbelly – they’re nasty funny!
Favourite holiday destinations
I’ve not had a holiday in two years. I’m very fond of Majorca, but I’m not good with holidays. I’m too disappointed by what happens most of the time, and I turn into a bitch as soon as I get off the plane. When a cloud passes over, I can’t believe that my partner can’t get rid of it. My expectations for holidays are just too high, as they are for parties, and they turn out to be awful.
Favourite after-show haunts
Home! But when I was working at the Albery on Mum's the Word, I really liked Koha, the little café and bar just outside the stage door. If we’re going posh, I like Sheekey’s; and once I got into the Ivy on someone’s coat-tails.
Amazon is the only one I regularly use.
If you hadn’t become a comedienne, what would you have done professionally?
I would have been a really good waitress in the end!
What made you decide to write & star in The Andy Warhol Syndrome?
It was kind of obvious. There was such a meaty subject matter staring us in the face. The research was being played out in front of our eyes – we didn’t have to move off the sofa. So it wrote itself. It was a bit like knitting a jumper, and at the end having to sew it all up and finding that the necks and sleeves were wrong. But it’s great when you put the last stitch in, hold it up, and it’s right!
Would you like to write more plays?
I haven’t got any ideas for anything else at the moment, but I would be desperately upset if we didn’t pull another one, or ten, of these off. I’ve never been able to rely on anyone giving me work. I have always had to make up my own jobs and do them and hope someone turns up to see the result!
How different are London audiences to those in Edinburgh?
There’s not so much difference between London and Edinburgh. Both are very cosmopolitan, and at least during the Festival, a lot of the Edinburgh audience are from London anyway! But The Andy Warhol Syndrome does go down a storm in the North West. I did a night at the Lowry in Salford where every word seemed to hit home, and I also had a great time at Hull and the Bolton Octagon. But I’m keeping my fingers crossed it’ll go down well at Riverside.
What’s the funniest thing that happened during your initial run in Edinburgh?
I fell off the stage very dramatically in Edinburgh. They’re all temporary venues there, rigged up from bits of scaffolding and pipes, and the stage was much higher than I had presumed. One night in the middle of the run, I walked to the side during a blackout, walked off a flight of about 15 metal steps, and knocked myself out for about 15 seconds. When I came to, I found my head in my handbag, and after wondering what it was doing there, I got back on stage and kept going. But I then realised that the audience weren’t paying any attention: I was wearing these pale pink tracksuit bottoms, and blood could be seen pumping through them. So I had to stop and come out of character to be bandaged up, and then I went back on with the show. I wished I could have had a live breathalyser test, though, so that people didn’t think I was drunk!
What’s your favourite line from The Andy Warhol Syndrome?
“Don’t tell me I’m not fucking famous!”
What are your plans for the future?
I have a deal for a third novel, and I’ve got to start tackling that in March. I have some vague ideas for it, but nothing concrete. There are also some other dates for The Andy Warhol Syndrome throughout the spring, but it’s not in blocks - there’s an odd date here and there, scattered all over the place. I have a 15-year-old daughter Phoebe who is doing her GCSE’s, so I don’t want to be away for huge chunks of time.
- Jenny Eclair was speaking to Mark Shenton
The Andy Warhol Syndrome continues at London’s Riverside Studios until 20 February 2005, before touring to five further venues.