Comedian Jo Brand was the guest speaker at MP David Miliband’s annual lecture in South Shields last week – but just how much can comedy alter Britain’s increasingly grim political landscape?
As a former psychiatric nurse and current Labour Party member, Brand seems the perfect figurehead to question the current Tory onslaught against the public sector; but she was quick to assure me that she wouldn’t be toeing the official party line: ’I’m really not sure what people are expecting tonight,’ she tells me before the lecture. ‘But if they don’t like it then tough. I’m not that bothered, really.’
The lecture has attracted big names in recent years, from Bill Bryson and Patrick Stewart to Peter Mandelson and Tony Blair – Brand has quite a lot to live up to. She pulls a disapproving face at the mention of former PM Blair. Not a fan? I ask. She doesn’t respond, but maintains her expression. ‘I heard Patrick Stewart’s lecture a few years back was excellent,’ she says. ‘Personal and professional – he seemed to get the balance just right.’
As we continued to chat, I began to establish a clearer impression of how Brand balances her career and family life. You don’t often hear about her children – it’s generally her husband in the firing line on stage – but they’re undoubtedly at the forefront of her mind. ‘The best thing about my job is the flexible lifestyle,’ Brand admits. ‘Where I am right now [in my career] I can almost work when I want to, do bits of TV and build my career around my family and my home life.’
Brand’s most recent appearance on the box was in Jo Brand’s Big Splash, a stand-up comedy show where she meets people with a love of water. Did Brand enjoy making the show? ‘Absolutely not! I probably enjoyed about 55% of it – it certainly wasn’t easy. I did really enjoy the episodes with the comedians, though. I thought Bill [Bailey] and Ross [Noble] were great.’
Despite her glass-half-empty outlook, the lure of television is clearly strong. Brand plans to spend the early part of 2012 in the writing room with Vicki Pepperdine and Jo Scanlan in preparation for the third series of Getting On, the satirical sitcom set in a psychiatric ward. But her face lights up at the prospect of another stand-up tour.
‘Perhaps I’ll do another tour at the end of the year. I’m hoping so. Being in front of an audience is my favourite thing to do; you get instant feedback, you don’t have that daunting wait for the review.’
This appearance at Harton Technology College in South Shields, then, must surely act as a healthy warm-up for the task ahead. Like Patrick Stewart three years back, Brand adopts a personal touch to her anecdotes, often weaving quick-fire gags about her marriage into the more serious side of her message. Having worked for over ten years in the NHS, the importance of challenging stigmas surrounding mental health is at the heart of her speech. And, as promised, Brand pulls few punches, also questioning the archaic, inherently ‘male’ political system in the UK: ‘I think part of the problem with politics is that young people can’t associate themselves with the type of language used in the House of Commons.’ Take note, Mr Miliband.
Brand speaks first hand of her political disassociation. Her parents, who met at a Young Socialists‘ Club, were both left-wing and ‘when you’re a teenager, everything your parents do is just embarrassing.’
It was only when, as a psychiatric nurse, Brand experienced the effects of police corruption that she decided to re-evaluate her political interest. She tells us a harrowing story about a schizophrenic patient who was delivered back to her ward by six policemen: ‘When he opened his mouth all his teeth fell out. They’d obviously given him a good kicking in the van.’
Brand refused to let it lie; but when she called the police a few weeks later for a separate incident it took them 25 minutes to arrive. ‘The normal response time is around four minutes,’ she says. ‘I thought at the time they were sending me a message to keep my mouth shut.’ For Brand, this kind of culture was symptomatic of Margaret Thatcher’s time in office.
Despite training as a nurse, Brand had always wanted to become a stand-up, and her feeling of disenfranchisement led her to the alternative comedy scene. ‘On the alternative circuit, Ben Elton became famous for his Thatcher jokes, but there were plenty of others who opposed the mainstream. In a way, they were there to challenge racist and bigoted comedy and I suppose I was a part of that.’
During the question and answer session that followed the lecture, Brand is asked for her opinion on Frankie Boyle, given her inherent opposition to thoughtlessly offensive comedy.
‘I’ve worked with Frankie plenty of times on Mock The Week and off-stage he’s a lovely, polite, quiet man. He knows how I feel about some of his jokes. I think Channel 4 thought they were being revolutionary allowing him free reign with Tramadol Nights – but it had the opposite effect.’
Another lady in the audience, who performs as a stand-up herself, observes that modern ‘cardigan-wearing’ comedians play it safe with their material. Where are the Eltons of yesteryear?
Brand doesn’t have an answer to this, but perhaps she is the answer.
It is difficult to think of a more inspirational comedian – a woman who has the capability to convey her political dissatisfaction in a language we can all understand; and someone who’s determined to speak her mind regardless of political or social pressures.
As the evening comes to a close, there’s time for just a few final questions. An elderly lady at the back of the room raises her hand and asks, ‘Why are we still talking about feminism, Jo?’
‘Just to annoy you,’ she replies.