From the early days at the Comedy Store in London, to creating the ‘girl at the bar’ in BBC’s Naked Video as well as Catriona, the ditzy journalist in BBC’s Absolutely Fabulous, Lederer has starred in a plethora of top TV comedy and radio shows.
Her theatre credits include John Mortimer’s Full House and The Vagina Monologues in the West End, while on film she's been seen in Fat Slags, Speak Like a Child, Solitaire for Two and Absolutely Fabulous: Absolutely Not, and Nick Moran’s forthcoming feature The Kid.
Calendar Girls plays for ten more weeks at the Noel Coward (until 9 January 2010). Helen Lederer is joined by Olivier Award-winner Janie Dee, model Kelly Brook, fellow comediennes Arabella Weir and Debbie Chazen, and Coronation Street stars Julie Goodyear and Rob James Collier, both making their London stage debuts.
Was comedy always something that you wanted to do?
I was kind of the fat funny one at school so there was an awareness I could do it from early on. I used to perform sketches inspired by shows I'd seen on TV - I liked The Frost Report so we did mock interviews, which I loved. So I was on that path from a young age but then I did the wrong kind of degree to please my parents. After that I was doing theatre in education when I met and stole another person's comedy partner and formed a double act - that’s how I started performing professionally.
Who was that partner?
Maggie Fox, who's one half of LipService (she’s now happily back with her original partner). For nine months we did a double act together - we had a lot of fun; she had an ironing board, and did some very creative stuff with it. I miss that feeling of collaboration, but it wasn’t to be - you just can’t go round stealing people’s partners! So I decided to go it alone on the comedy circuit and that's what I did for the next five years.
It must have been a great time to be in comedy
It was, with French and Saunders and the Comedy Store gang just starting out. But I was never really a big part of that movement - my whole life I’ve never been in a group. I've always been doing my thing, but a little bit separate. I was lucky to land on the scene when I did though, primarily because there seemed to be a lot of money around in those days, and plenty of producers scouting about.
Do you identify a particular project as being a 'breakthrough'?
I think my first big break was in a live comedy show called In One Ear that was on Radio 4. We did it at 11.30pm on a Saturday night and it was fantastic to go from doing gigs, where you had to work really hard with the varying degrees of failure and success, to going in the studio and have people laughing before you had even said anything. It made me realise why people wanted to do radio and TV – that feeling of having a ready-made platform as opposed to always having to slog. I used to say in the early days “I’m just going to give myself one more year and if nothing comes then I’ll stop”. That’s what kept me going, giving myself these timelines.
So what's been the key to sustaining your career?
If only I knew! I’m not a complacent person, I think looking back if you can just keep working and keep solvent that's a huge achievement. Now I just love every job that comes in, I really relish it. But at the beginning the jobs just kept coming and all you worried about was being good enough. I always worried about that, so I didn’t go “yippee I’ve got a job, I’m part of something”. Now I’m thrilled if a job comes in and I haven’t begged or slept with someone to get it! I’m very respectful of work now.
Why did you want to join Calendar Girls?
Well I was thrilled when they invited me to do it, mainly because I think there's something very touching about the story. But also there are very few parts where you don’t have to play younger than you are. Good parts for middle-aged women, of which I am now one, are quite rare. So in terms of what jobs are available that’s an obvious show I wanted to be involved in - even though it’s the third cast, I’m pleased to play my part in it.
Why are there fewer parts for women your age?
I don't know, it doesn't make any sense. I'm busily writing stuff for an audience that I know are there, our age-group, but somehow it doesn’t mesh with what people put on television. There's an anomaly there. The viewing public want stuff that reflects their generation but what’s put on television doesn't reflect it. I understand you’ve got to have sex and young people, which can be perfectly interesting, but I think most people want to see a bit more variety.
Are you ready to bare all on stage?
Well my character (Marie) luckily doesn’t have to take her clothes off, which I think would be more of an encouragement come and see it than not. I’m playing her slightly Basil Fawlty, very anal. My mum actually belonged to something called the Women’s Guild and I think that was a sister company of the W.I, and so I kind of know these women - it does come frighteningly natural to me! Who knows, in ten years time I might start my own little institute.
How are you getting on with the other cast members?
Well it’s a whole new cast which is fun, we're all finding our way together. We haven’t gone out and got pissed yet because I think we’re all trying to remember our lines but the first day of rehearsal I remember thinking what a great bunch they were. We had the read-through and everyone was so different but strong in their own right. Sometimes there are jobs and you go 'uh-oh they're going to be a problem' but I haven’t seen any yet. I think we’ll just really enjoy it, we’ll have a blast.
Have you worked with any of them before?
No I haven’t – I'm particularly pleased to be working with Arabella Weir because I've been a fan of her comedy for a long time but we've never crossed paths. So that's especially nice to have a fellow comic. And obviously Kelly Brook and I have a huge amount in common physically, on top of which she’s lovely, really nice. It’s such a relief, you think 'phew, one doesn’t have to worry about that'.
What have you got lined up next?
I’m doing a radio programme called Be in the Now which is hosted on www.beinthenow.co.uk, a spoof website. I play a version of myself as a sort of sex guru, trying to help people but obviously not. We've recorded one episode and I hope it’s going to go out before Christmas on Radio 2. And Dawn French very kindly did a celebrity interview in it for me - I bought her some cake, which is a bit unoriginal, but I was so grateful. And Robert Bathurst is also in it. I’ve pulled in my top people, but I think I’ve run out now; I’ve got to start networking again and meet some new stars. Obviously Calendar Girls should help with that!
- Helen Lederer was speaking to Theo Bosanquet
Calendar Girls continues at the Noel Coward until 9 January 2010.