Peter Dixon

Susan Calman interview

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Glaswegian comic and Radio 4 mainstay Susan Calman embarks on an extensive tour of her Lady Like show today. Amazingly, this will be Calman’s first ever stand-up tour, a culmination of five hugely successful Edinburgh Fringe shows that she never got to share beyond that pressure-cooker month of August. Radio Teesdale’s Peter Dixon catches up with Calman to talk comedy, cats, touring, her upcoming Radio 4 sitcom and why she hopes to emulate Jo Brand.

PD: Hi Susan. You did a degree and trained and worked in the legal profession. I imagined you were perhaps taking a bigger risk than most comedians who move into comedy after another career as you had more to lose. Or did you think I could go back to it?

SC: I did think that. I can’t, but I did think I could. I suppose I started later in life, so I was maybe 33 when I made the decision and I had a mortgage. It was stupid, some said brave, some said stupid, to do it. But I just thought, I’ll never be happy if I don’t give it a go. So I thought, let’s just try it and see what’ll happen.

PD: And it was relatively quick in the sense that after your first gig, I understand, six months later you were doing it full time…

SC: Yeah, you couldn’t combine the two, because I had clients coming to see me. Now if you’re trying to be a corporate lawyer that someone pays £500 an hour for and then you’re on stage, you couldn’t — and also there’s so much travelling in this job that you can’t just work at weekends, especially when you’re starting out and you’re trying to get open spots which tend to be Tuesday or Wednesday nights.

I think you have to commit, if you really want to do something. I think it was Fred MacAulay said to me, he used to be an accountant, never say you’ve got another job because comedy should be the only job you have. And so I just gave it up and thought, well no, I’m a comedian now. Even if no one else believes me, I’ll say it to myself.

PD: You’re well-known for having cats and even on the poster there’s a cat. It’s not a real cat, is it? I don’t think it is anyway.

SC: No, I couldn’t persuade any of my real cats to stay still for that long. Yes, so it’s a stunt cat we’ve got. I love all animals. Occasionally I look at my bank statement and my wife has sponsored another animal. We sponsor donkeys and pandas and it’s astonishing. We had dogs growing up but we’ve got cats now and because I’m self-employed and I have no company, they’re like my work colleagues. That’s the thing, they keep me company all day. So, I love all animals. I think they don’t judge you — well the cats do, actually, but I just love them. I absolutely love animals, I always have. I’m a sucker for an animal, that’s what it is.

PD: So have you ever found yourself sat in the living room going through your script with a couple of cats at the other side?

SC: Yeah, because they just fall asleep and I’ll speak to them and that’s fine. Occasionally I’ll frighten them. But, yeah, they’re my audience sometimes. They’re certainly better than some audiences you get in comedy clubs, yeah.

PD: Now, one of the things that you are well-known for on your radio shows. You have clear opinions on things and you’ve created programmes around that. Do you use comedy as a vehicle to express those opinions or was is it that you wanted to make people laugh and found this was a good way to do that?

SC: It’s a real combination, I think, because I grew up watching alternative comedy, as they called it, which was quite political. So there was Alexei Sayle and that was all happening. And I’ve always been quite attracted to the medium of comedy as a way of getting a message across without preaching to people. So if you came to see my show on equal marriage, for example, hopefully you would learn about it but it but it would still be funny. So the bottom line is the shows have to be funny, first (because it’s a comedy show), but if I can say what I think about things at the same time then that’s an added bonus as far as I’m concerned.

PD: And your new show, Lady Like – what can people expect from that?

SC: Well it is my first tour and the good thing for people coming is, I’ve got five years of Edinburgh shows that I’ve never toured. So the first half of it will be the best of five years of Edinburgh shows, to be honest, and then the second half will be the show that I’ve done (all 26 shows) in Edinburgh. So, it’s coming together well. What I always say is, if you think you might like me, you’ll probably like the show. If you don’t like me, you probably won’t like the show. You have to come with a certain amount of open-mindedness about this situation. What I would say is it’s a very easy decision.

PD: I see you’re somebody who thinks about these things and how audiences might react?

SC: I plan everything very, very carefully, actually. I pay a lot of attention to structure. I love structure in a show. It may seem like I haven’t thought about it, but I have genuinely thought about these shows quite carefully, in terms of the structure of the shows.

PD: It’s been announced that you’ve got a new radio sitcom which is great news. Tell us about that.

SC: Well I love Radio 4, I think it’s a wonderful station and it gives lots of new opportunities to people. And they’re giving me a shot at having a sitcom, which was a surprise. So I’ll be writing that actually while I’m touring and we’ll record in the spring and it’ll go out in the spring.

It’s based on my relationship with my sister because my sister can say things to me no one else can because we grew up together. There’s no one like my sister, you know. And sisters can be very brutal to each other, but no one else is allowed to be brutal to us. She’s always got my back but – she calls me pig face and porchetta, and so she’ll text me with a picture of a pig. Now that’s fine, but if anyone else criticises me, she’ll have them. So, it’s about that close relationship you have with a sister.

PD: And at what point did you show her the script, if ever?

SC: Well I don’t know if I will. She doesn’t know she’s in my show this year. She lives in London, and it’s unlikely she’ll come to it. We’re okay. No one tell her, no one tell her!

PD: Another thing that’s very nicely happened to you over the years is you’ve won a number of awards and for all sorts of different things. Do you seek out these things or look forward to the ceremonies or not take any notice?

SC: People are often confused about how varied my career has been. I started doing sketch comedy. I did a sketch show and it was on telly and we won a BAFTA for it, and then I did stand-up. And people are sometimes surprised I do stand-up, and then they’re surprised I compare club gigs.

The award I was very proud of was the Writers Guild Award for my own Radio 4 series. It really meant a lot, because that was the writing of it, and I admire great writing. I don’t seek them out though, because it’s whether audiences come and see you, that’s what’s important, and enjoy it. But that was a very special one to me because that was voted for by writers and they’re a harsh lot sometimes. So that was great.

PD: Well, I was going to ask you about the writing. Again it’s obviously an important part of things. Do you see yourself one day writing specifically for other people or is it a kind of a means to an end, in terms of creating performance material for yourself?

SC: I like both, I like writing for myself and stand-up, but ultimately I’d like to write comedy, interesting and different comedy for other people as well. Jo Brand, to me, is probably my idol in that regard in that she does stand-up. Her sitcom, Getting On, is superb. She hosts shows and she manages to do all of that brilliantly. So, she’s got the kind of career I would love to have eventually where she manages to do all of these things and nobody says, you should be concentrating on one or the other. So, if I can get half of that, a quarter of that, I’ll be very happy.

PD: And a judge on [ITV diving show] Splash as well…

SC: Do you know, I would love that. I love that show, I love all these shows. So, yeah, I’m available for Splash anytime.

PD: And finally then, you’ve got a number of dates in the North East. Have you spent much time in England, in the North East?

SC: Yeah, The Stand Newcastle I’ve played quite a lot, so I know that. My dad used to work in Durham, so I’ve spent a lot of time in Durham. He was at Durham University and I spent a long time in Durham, at their house. I’ve not been to Barnard Castle, so that’s the one unknown.

I love gigging around there because there’s an openness, I think, for comedy. I’m not the kind of comedian who wants to make you feel bad about yourself. I don’t tend to speak to the audience a huge amount, and if I do it’s simply to see how you are. I want people to leave feeling better than when they came in, that’s the ultimate goal in this.

And I find people in Newcastle, in the same way as Glasgow. Everybody is chatty, open, ready for a laugh. And that’s really all you need to do. Come and say, I’m coming to this to have a nice night and I will try my best. It’s a bargain. If you come thinking, this’ll probably be good, I’ll do as much as I can to fulfil that, contractually. As an ex-lawyer I will contractually attempt to fulfil that bargain.

Susan Calman begins her Lady Like tour today, with upcoming dates in Durham, Newcastle, Sheffield, Salford, Leeds and Barnard Castle amongst others. Click for full tour dates.