Takeoff queen Katy Brand is chilled after starring in a romcom musical and publishing her debut novel, she tells Janet Christie
WHEN comedian and actress Katy Brand was asked if she’d like to fly to Italy for a singing and dancing role in this year’s wannabe summer hit musical romcom movie, Walking On Sunshine, she was on the plane faster than you can say Wake Me Up Before You Go Go.
“It’s a bit of a no-brainer for an actor, to be asked, ‘Do you want to come to Italy and film for a couple of months by the Ionian sea?’ Hmm, let me think for a moment…”
It was also a welcome change of pace after writing her crowd-funded debut novel Brenda Monk Is Funny, due to be published next month. However, what Brand had forgotten was that among her repertoire of impressions on Katy Brand’s Big Ass Show was future cast member Leona Lewis, making her film debut. Brand had taken off the X Factor singer to great effect with effusive use of a wind machine.
“I had forgotten that I’d done it until I got on the plane with other cast members and they said, ‘What do you think, is it going to be bad with Leona?’ And I said, ‘What?’ One day I said to her, ‘Can I have a little word? There’s this thing I did about six or seven years ago…’ She was aware of it and said she thought she remembered it, but she literally could not have been less bothered, so it’s cool,” she says.
“There were other spoofs we did of other people that were more robust and edgy. I have met a few of the people I’ve done and they generally react quite well. I got a message that Adele liked hers and Kate Moss and Sadie Frost were happy.
And Lily Allen? Brand made much of the fact that Allen’s background is a lot more comfortable than her accent and persona might suggest.
“Lily Allen looked me up and down a bit at an event, which is fair enough, but she ended up having a nice chat, then I met her mum at an awards ceremony and we had a nice chat too. We had a rule that it had to be people at the top who could take it – Gwyneth, Angelina, people like that. Although I bet Angelina has access to specific martial arts. I have been lucky so far though.”
As it turned out, the cast of Walking On Sunshine, which includes Greg Wise, Hannah Arterton (Gemma Arterton’s younger sister) as well as Lewis, all got on famously.
“I know it’s boring but everyone got on really well. We were all friends and up for a party because we were all a long way from home in Puglia, even the Italians, and homesick.
Brand is married but extremely guarded about her personal life.
“I’m married, and have a labrador Billie, but I’m private about it. I think it’s cleaner and better for everyone if things just don’t get muddled and boundaries don’t get muddy. I’m probably a bit uptight about it. If they’re not in the business it’s weird for them. Other performers bring their family or children along to things and people get brutal about them online, so I decided I’d have a pretty clear rule.”
With its 1980s playlist, from Don’t You Want Me Baby and Madonna’s Holiday to Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, Italian stallions, food fights, romance and comedy, it’s hard not to warm to Walking On Sunshine. And unlike its predecessor, Mamma Mia!, the cast in this one can actually sing, which might be thanks to producer Anne Dudley, who was responsible for Academy Award winner Les Misérables. No wonder it’s billed as the ultimate girls’ night out.
“The best part was between takes when you had to wait for the lighting to be done and we had to sit in the sunshine on the beach. We could have a paddle and it was so beautiful. It was like, don’t tell anyone, but we’re at work. Some jobs are hard and muddy, and I have spent days waist deep in a ditch; so when a job like this comes along, you make up for it.
“For Wake Me Up Before You Go Go they built a platform overhanging the beach and they wanted to film it as the sun went down. There was a cameraman hanging out of a helicopter at a very dangerous angle. It was what you would like to think filming would be like – on a platform with 100 people, all dancing, as the sun set.”
As well as her singing – she’s impersonated some belters, from Lady Gaga, to Rihanna – Brand can dance. In 2010 she did a spoof of Beyoncé’s Single Ladies for Sports Relief.
“The Beyoncé thing nearly broke me. That routine was extraordinary, but I managed to get slightly lower heels than her to do it in.”
Slightly more sedate was the Strictly Come Dancing Christmas special in 2012, when she partnered Anton du Beke in a waltz and was praised by Bruno Tonioli and gang for her “beautiful fluid movement and turns”.
“In Walking On Sunshine I really enjoyed the dancing. It’s infectious and we really got stuck in, ten to 12 hours in 40C heat. It would have been so easy to get furious. You think you can’t possibly do it one more time, then the music kicks in and you can. You get really fit. The costume designers had to keep adjusting the costumes. It just goes to show, if you have time to dance along to songs from the 1980s for ten hours a day, you get really fit and lose weight.”
Watch out for the Walking On Sunshine Boot Camp.
“My character Lil is the oldest friend of two sisters, who are centre of the main story. She’s an author of erotic fiction. I was very drawn to her because she’s lively and feisty, mouthy, glam, likes having a good time, likes a man and isn’t afraid to tell people about it. At times in my life, that has been me. I spent a long time on the live comedy circuit, so I’ve had a good few nights out and seen the dawn arrive.”
Other TV outings include Peep Show with David Mitchell and Robert Webb and appearances on Have I Got News For You. Film-wise she was in Nanny McPhee And The Big Bang, where she met Emma Thompson, who commissioned her to write a film script, which is now being developed by Ridley Scott’s film company Scott Free. “Emma Thompson was around a lot and we got on really well and are still in touch. She commissioned me to write a film that she’s executive producing. It’s taking shape and might come together next year. It’s about a woman who gets married by mistake, and then as she tries to figure it out, meets lots of other women who have also been working out life choices and consequences. It’s about how not to have a nosebleed crashing around Topshop when you’re already late for something and panicking because you don’t have the right nail varnish, or the wicker basket for that corner of the bedroom, or aren’t relocating to Ibiza with just a laptop. I’ve experienced that feeling, the need to escape and drown it all in lady petrol.”
Lady petrol? “White wine.”
Previous outings saw Brand in Irvine Welsh’s Good Arrows in 2009. “That was my first film and I was really proud to be working on something he’d written. He looks like he’s going to kind of nut you, but he’s soft spoken and intelligent. I played Big Sheila, a seriously ruthless ball breaker. It was a great experience and led on to Svengali with Martin Freeman last year.”
Svengali was another feelgood comedy with a soundtrack to match, which made it a neat segue into Walking On Sunshine, and a party atmosphere was just what Brand felt like after several months sitting on her own writing Brenda Monk Is Funny.
Mind you, publishing her debut novel was to prove more arduous than writing it. Determined that her book should be crowd-funded, 35-year-old Brand decided not to go with various publishers who were keen to back it. Through specialist publishers Unbound, the book offered the donor of £2,500 the chance to have a character named after them, and also a choice of which jokes should be included. Backers who donated £10 receive an eBook edition and their name in the back of it, while those who pledged £300 get tickets to one of her comedy gigs and the chance to go for a curry afterwards.
“I was having publisher meetings and had offers but I really wanted to do it like this because it offers so much control from cover design to marketing strategy, and that’s so attractive. So many people get their book taken off them and they make the cover candy floss. My book wasn’t a romantic book. It was my horror scenario that it would be seen as a chicklit book. It was nerve-wracking to go down the crowd-funding route, but I never doubted that it was the right thing to do and I’m so pleased how it worked out.”
A novel set against the backdrop of the Edinburgh Fringe, where Brand took her stand up act and got her break in 2005, it follows a woman trying to become a comedian.
“I know people will think Brenda Monk is me, but it’s not at all. It is a world I know inside out so I didn’t have to reach far to write about it – it wasn’t as if I was writing about furniture restoration. It’s a world I’ve been around for a long time, but it’s all fictionalised.
“Writing has been by far the most enjoyable experience I have had. It came so naturally it was weird – I know people will hate me for saying that and that might never happen again if I write another book, but it did. I have never written a book before and I don’t know what my style is. It just tumbled out. It was a bit eerie. I would write for seven hours and think I had been only sitting for 40 minutes. People might think, ‘Yes, that’s why it’s not very good,’ but I hope they like it.”
Born in 1979, in Buckinghamshire, Brand knew she could make people laugh with her impressions at an early age. At six, her take on Margaret Thatcher earned her £1 from her dad’s work colleagues, and after that this lady wasn’t for turning.
“I barely knew what I was saying. I could do the voice of this lady that was always on the news and nobody seemed to like. And if I did a bit of Denis too, they loved that. The reaction was brilliant. I thought, ‘You do a silly voice and you get money.’”
It wasn’t all comedy however, as in her teens Brand discovered religion and went to Oxford to study theology.
“When I was 13, I took myself off to church and became a fundamental Christian, much to the amusement of my parents. That lasted throughout my teens because it became my social life. Then I studied theology. It was really interesting and I met such interesting people, but by the end of the first year I wasn’t going to church any more. I wasn’t too perturbed by that. Religion is the history of humanity, how we created society and made rules and why we’ve done that. It’s not about how long is God’s beard and how far does Jesus sit from him. It seems bizarre that people dismiss it, because what you are studying is humanity.”
Which, of course, is a great place for a comedian to start. Brand’s comedy is all about rules and rule-breaking, social unease and the comedy that ensues.
“Maybe it’s the same root in my personality that makes me interested in what’s funny. I did a lot of sketches on religion and people objected. They also object when I do the Queen [in which she channels Alan Sugar and the Mitchell Brothers from EastEnders], but if comedy can’t take the piss out of the church and the royal family, then it’s not worth it.”
Oxford may have seen her losing her religion but it saw her finding the Oxford Revue and dramatic society, and she began writing and performing comedy, musicals and straight plays.
“I loved the musicals and have no snootiness about them at all. The Sound Of Music and Mary Poppins are my favourites.”
After graduating she worked in TV production for five years, running, researching and assistant producing, but decided in 2004 to get back into performing and wrote herself a comedy monologue. After a few open spots in London pubs she joined the weekly live sketch show, Ealing Live.
“Just over a year after my first gig, I thought, ‘I have got to get up to Edinburgh.’ I sold my car and got a new credit card and off I went. I don’t regret it at all. I’m probably still paying off the credit card. But I came away with lots of contacts and people started to offer me more work and I got a TV show out of it.
“I’ve been to the Edinburgh festival four times. There are so many ups and downs over a month, it’s amazing. I remember every single moment of all of the four years. Well I think I do. Maybe there’s some confusion of reality and perception – you become nocturnal. It’s an intense month of experiences and learning.
“You learn resilience, how to play a different crowd every night, how to manage self and work, and you learn professional and life lessons. You might put thousands of pounds of your own money in and make nothing, but at least you’ve learnt. I’ve done that.”
Recently Brand admits to feeling a yearning to return, despite having vowed, ‘Never again’. “You think it’s too hard but then you have a bit of distance, and it’s the freedom of it. It’s incredible artistically because you can do whatever you want. On TV and radio you’re always working to a brief. So it always makes me dizzy, the idea that I could just write a show and no-one would tell me not to do something. So I might come back. Anyway, I’ll be at the book festival this year with my book.”
But before Brand returns to Edinburgh, there’s the movie to promote.
“Walking On Sunshine is just full of sunshine from start to finish, fresh and light. It’s a very joyful film, a summer film and that’s what everyone set out to make. I hope people go along, have a drink, sing and enjoy it.”
Whatever the reaction, with a book, a film out this summer, and a screenplay and a sitcom in development, Katy Brand is walking on sunshine. n
Walking On Sunshine is on general release from 27 June; Brenda Monk is Funny, Unbound, £8.99. www.unbound.co.uk/books/brenda-monk-is-funny is out next month