AFTER making her name on TV, Ava Vidal is setting off on her first ever solo tour. The prison officer turned comedian talks to Claire Black about family, sexism and a topsy-turvy career
Ava Vidal looks a bit knackered when she arrives at a pub in London’s West End. I can’t blame her. She’s in the middle of a tour, her first, doing two or three gigs a week, and she suspects she’s got a bit of lurgy. “I think I’ve got to accept that I can’t go out with every audience,” she says, sipping a mineral water. “That is probably why my immune system is down.” What does she mean “out”, I ask? Out for a drink with the folk who came to see her show? “Yeah,” she smiles, “I went out with the audience in Cardiff and in Brighton. We had an amazing time.”
Vidal is probably still best known for appearances on BBC2’s Mock the Week and Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow. She’s been a regular on the comedy circuit and at the Fringe for years now, but Ava Vidal Goes Dutch is her first solo tour. Despite the lurgy, she’s enjoying it, she says, because it’s giving her a chance to see who her audience is. As to whether they’re who she expected, she smiles before answering.
“Yeah, they’re pretty argumentative. And they’re funny. I like them. We do a big Q&A at the end and sometimes I’m there for a long time.” In Brighton she says she’s was there for a ridiculous length of time as they rattled off the questions they wanted her to answer – do you have a boyfriend? Do you have a girlfriend? She rolls her eyes.
“There are lots of political questions too and ones about race,” she says. I suppose that’s what you get when you put on a show that questions the ideas of community and responsibility, ponders on the notion of social inclusion and poses the question how much we should share? Actually she’s already discovered that when it comes to sharing, at least some of the people who come to her shows are more willing.
“I don’t know what it is about my audience telling me stuff that they haven’t thought through. On the first night there was this guy who was really drunk who was there with his wife of nine months. I asked if anyone had children and he said, ‘Yeah, I have.’ And his wife was like, ‘We’ve only been married for nine months – we haven’t got any children.’ He was like, ‘Not with you. I’ve got kids with another woman.’” She laughs.
So why does she think that people are willing to reveal things to her (and the rest of the audience)?
“My comedy is inclusive, I don’t pick on anybody. And I suppose because I’ve talked about my life people feel that they can share things with me.”
It’s true, Vidal has talked about being a teenage mum and raising her kids (a daughter, now 18, and a son, 13) as a single parent. She’s talked about being expelled from boarding school and being a prison officer at Pentonville at the age of 21. She’s also talked about racism and domestic violence. It’s not a surprise that she’s got a reputation as a political comedian, but to be honest that’s not all that Vidal is. There’s also plenty of whimsy and silliness. And that’s how she likes it.
“I like having conversations about political issues but I’m a bit reluctant to be dragged into it too far,” she says. “I always end up commenting on something that I’ve seen or read about, but I don’t want to go too far down that road.”
Vidal had stopped working as a prison officer and was studying law when she started to write comedy material. She tried to get commissions from the BBC but every door was closed. Frustrated, she decided to get on and perform what she wrote. When she started on the comedy circuit, her kids were just two and seven.
“They used to come with me a lot when I couldn’t afford babysitters. I didn’t have any choice. Some comedy clubs would let me in with them and some wouldn’t. I remember being at the Tricycle Theatre and putting my daughter in some empty seats and we’d cover her brother with a coat and they’d just sit there watching until they’d fall asleep. It was pretty difficult.
“I remember being at the Glasgow Stand and my son was about four or five. He was in the dressing room and he was supposed to stay there but at one point he came rushing out and was like, ‘Shh! this bit is about me, she’s going to talk about me.’”
Vidal’s career has been a little bit back-to-front. The big TV gigs came first and now the tour. She says she wishes in some ways that she’d gone on the road straight after that appearance on Michael McIntyre – as plenty of other comics do – but she didn’t have management and, for various reasons, it just didn’t happen. Instead, she wrote comedy material and toured abroad, in South Africa and Australia. She wrote columns for The Independent and presented a documentary. The ubiquitous comedy shows on TV did and do come calling, but she’s not sure they’re for her.
“I have a freak-out about it. TV is necessary but I don’t particularly like it. I do think I sabotage myself at some gigs.” She laughs. “I have a real self-destruct button. I will sometimes be told not to say something and I will say it. I can’t help it.
“I have a real desire to stay private. But I also have a desire to sell tickets so it’s tricky because you’ve got to raise your profile. I’m torn about it.”
What she’s much clearer about is that she’s ready to move out of the comedy clubs. She’s been doing them long enough to know that they can be fun, but there are limits.
“I’ve got a bit disillusioned seeing guys going up one after another and some of the stuff they do I find really offensive. It’s really sexist. I remember sitting in a club in Bristol thinking, ‘Why are these women sitting listening to this?’ A guy banging on about ‘a table of slags over there’ and it’s like, ‘Why are you laughing?’ I just don’t want to listen to that stuff.”
So why do audiences put up with it? “There’s a pressure on women that they’re going to look humourless or spoil it for everyone else. I’ve had women come up to me and say that they’ve felt really bullied.”
Vidal isn’t precious about what can be funny, but she’s clear about what she’s willing to sacrifice in order to get a laugh and she’s clear where the responsibility lies. “You’ve got to think about who’s getting hurt. There are no hard and fast rules. I’ve told some jokes and thought, ‘Do you know what? That wasn’t worth it.’ It’s what you can live with really. I was doing a New Year’s Eve gig once and I told a joke about Jade Goody and it got a laugh but actually I didn’t sleep very well. I’d never say that again, it was completely unnecessary. I felt awful.
“I don’t care if people are uncomfortable in their ignorance because, sorry, we’re still going to explore that, but if somebody has come out for a nice night and they might have had to pay for a babysitter – I know what it’s like when you can’t go out for three months because you’ve got small kids – when they come to my show I want them to enjoy themselves. I’m not going to be laughing at them because you can spoil somebody’s night like that. I’ve seen it happen a lot of times.” Don’t mistake Vidal’s concern with playing it safe. Her own comedy pushes at boundaries – racism, domestic violence, she’s not shying away from tricky issues. “It took me ages to talk about domestic violence on stage. Even though I was talking about my own situation there were still certain things that I wasn’t allowed to say. I mean, it was my story so I felt I could say what I wanted but audiences just weren’t having it. Eventually I got it right, but it took a long time.
“Women would come up to me and say, ‘But you’re a tough girl and you’re nearly six feet tall, how could that happen to you?’ I’d hone the material I’d do about domestic violence after getting asked certain questions. When I talk about it now I really make clear that it’s about having your confidence eroded. My ex used to say to me, ‘Who’d sleep with you?’ The joke is it turned out there were quite a few – his dad, his brother, his best mate.” She smiles. It’s funny.
As for what’s next, Vidal reckons after her tour, she’ll focus on writing – the original interest that brought her to comedy. She’s got a literary agent and plenty of ideas. “It’s getting tough in comedy,” she says. “There was a massive boom and now the bottom has fallen out of it. In a way I’m lucky I can do other things. I think having been a prison officer drives that side of you. You see people who have had their freedom taken away and you think well I’ve got mine so I should use it. I might as well have a go at what I want to do.”
• Ava Vidal Goes Dutch is at The Stand, Edinburgh, on 13 November and The Stand, Glasgow, on 14 November. www.thestand.co.uk