FROM agony aunt to comic actress, stand-up and writer, Helen Lederer is a showbusiness grafter who can now add novelist to her job description
Helen Lederer has a nickname: the supply teacher of comedy. “Oh that’s hilarious,” she says. “Well, I’ve got to laugh. But, no, it is hilarious. Jo Brand can’t do it. Elaine C Smith can’t do it. Let’s see if Helen Lederer can do it. And I turn up.” I don’t know who was the wag who came up with the moniker but they deserve congratulations. It’s a good one; funny because it’s accurate. There might just be the faintest pang in Lederer’s voice as she milks it for a laugh, which could be self deprecation or it could be something a little more tender but either way it shouldn’t obscure what has been a long and successful career by anyone’s standards.
In the 1980s, as alternative comedy reared its spit-flecked head, Lederer put in five years at the Comedy Store doing stand-up. Then there was Naked Video (Lederer’s Sloan ranger was a classic comedy creation) and Saturday Night Live, appearances with French and Saunders and in The Young Ones, Bottom and One Foot in the Grave. A decade later, Lederer was Catriona, the gloriously dim magazine editor who worked with Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous. And since that there has been a slew of children’s telly, one woman shows, radio appearances and a painfully brief appearance on the first series of the Tom Daley showcase, Splash!
“I think I’ve just kept going,” she says. “That’s what I’m learning now.”
Lederer is curious mix as she freely admits. “I am very confident and very insecure at the same time,” she says breezily. She is also disarmingly open and curiously guarded, fascinatingly introspective and amazingly straightforward. Now 60, happily married to her second husband, Chris Browne, a GP, and with her daughter Hannah, 24, off “finding herself” in Thailand, there’s a sense that Lederer is, not so much at the start of a new chapter, but maybe finally settled into who she is: a jack of all trades. As we speak she’s preparing for a 10-week stint in Hollyoaks in which she plays a “surprisingly dark” character. While she’s there she will be writing the first of her new Audience with Helen Lederer shows. “I am trying to answer the question of why would a fat, middle-class, asthmatic girl become a comedian?” she says deadpan. “Why? I’m trying to work it out.”
Lederer has another iron in the fire too. Over the years, she has written lots of things – comedy scripts, one woman shows, radio dramas, agony aunt columns but now she has written her first novel, Losing It. “I have embarked in the last 10 years on a couple of novels but I’ve abandoned them because they don’t feel real or I had that voice in my head saying no it’s not good enough,” she says. “Then I just thought, do you know what, I’m just going to do it. I’ve got my story to tell and I want to make people laugh.”
A work of what Lederer describes as “mid-lit – I think it has something for people of a certain age and a certain size” is her sales pitch, the novel is the story of Millie, a woman of that certain age with weight issues, money issues and romance issues. “The heroine is not a million miles from me,” Lederer says with a guffaw, “but I’m not really an autobiographical kind of person. This isn’t an intellectual piece. I just wanted to get back into that voice which is the comedian telling funny stories. My dream is that someone will read it and laugh out loud. That’s really all I want to achieve.”
It’s not really surprising that making people laugh is Lederer’s ambition and there are plenty of opportunities as Millie signs on to be the face of a diet company but having failed to lose the requisite pounds has to resort to drastic measures to tip the scales the right way. The serious issues Lederer does touch on in the book are always sent up with a good helping of absurdity. That’s not just schtick, either. Just like the coffee colonic, the amphetamines, the Tantric workshops – it’s all drawn from Lederer’s own experience. “In my life I’ve ended up in some pretty extreme situations,” she says. “I think because I’m a person with no boundaries I end up in pickles more than most. That is my experience. But I wanted it to be a positive story. You can have sex again before you die. You can find happiness even.”
Lederer is speaking from personal experience, but she’s also speaking as someone used to doling out advice. Just like her fictional creation, Lederer is an agony aunt for a women’s magazine. “I love it,” she says gleefully. “I really love it. My husband likes ironing and I never do it. If you ask him why he likes it he says he has a day full of problems and with the iron he just gets to smooth out all the creases. I was a social worker a very long time ago, a very bad one after I finished college and before I went to drama school. I care. I understand the dilemmas. I find it quite humbling. I like to fix people, it’s probably the Jewish mother in me.”
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I don’t want to put her on the spot but I suspect that as a seasoned comedian and experienced advice giver, Lederer won’t be fazed if I ask her for some best tips. “Go on, darling,” she says gamely, when I suggest it. Right. Let’s go for the themes of the book. First up: best advice when it comes to weight loss. “My take on weight loss is that you need to work out what is important to you and to do that you need to look back on the evidence of your life,” she says hitting her stride without skipping a beat. “In my case I’ve tried various diets all my life. I have been thinner and fatter. But I never achieve the ideal weight and maintain it. So what do I do? Do I spend money on surgery and even then I’d probably still find my way to a KitKat. Or do I accept in middle age that I like wine and as long as I do a bit of yoga and go to the gym, which I do even though it kills me, and I can move my ageing body then I can look like I look and have a smile on my face? Maybe that’s more important. I’ve finally had to accept that because the evidence has shown me that I cannot have a thin body and maintain it because in 30 years I just haven’t managed it.” She laughs wryly.
On then, to advice on money worries. “I wish I was as well equipped on this one,” she says with a slight groan. “I am also in debt. My experience as an actress, a freelancer, is that when you earn you have to remember to put some aside for tax and any emergency spanx you might have to buy. I tend to live in debt but I do work hard and I do earn. Don’t beat yourself up. Try to economise. Even small steps can count. You’ve got to be realistic – what can you save and what can’t you save?” Unsurprisingly, Lederer is also all for thinking creatively. “I had the best fun one afternoon with a clothes sale in my house,” she says. “Invite your friends, get them p***ed on cheap wine and flog all your clothes. I tell you what, I made money. My husband does car boot sales too because he’s good with people and old ladies love talking to him.” She pauses. “I think the main thing is not to be downhearted. There are always ways out so you just have to keep on looking.”
It’s clear when she talks about her husband that Lederer is very happily married, but she experienced plenty of ups and downs relationship-wise. “I have been every variation,” she says. “I’ve been single. Very single, when I absolutely didn’t want to get married. Then I got married [to journalist Roger Alton], divorced and had Hannah in very quick succession. Then I was on my own for nine years and could hardly get a boyfriend for love nor money. Then I met number two, 14 years ago. It’s important to know that you can do it on your own and I proved that. But it’s very nice to be married and I’m enjoying it. I cherish it really because we’re not young.”
There is something gentle and I imagine pretty unshockable about Lederer, which is no bad preparation for being an agony aunt. She strikes me as one of those people who’s just found her own way through highs and lows. It is, as she says, pretty much about just keeping on going. But just to balance things up, I ask her what was the best piece of advice she had ever been given? “Try this one for size,” she says. “My dad always said you can never go back. I think that’s very useful in terms of relationships. Life is about changing. I would never have gone out with the husband I’m with now if I’d met him 10 years earlier. It was just about timing really.”
Lederer has been remarkably open about life – about her desire to be thinner, the depression she experienced after the death of her mother just weeks before she was married to Browne, her money troubles when she and her husband renovated their south London home. I wonder why she tells it like it is? “If you knew me, I’m a person who doesn’t have normal boundaries and I think that’s common with comedians,” she says. “We’re kind of outside the circle because why else would we do this job? I also just think that if someone asks me a question it takes me longer to lie than to be honest.” She laughs. “I don’t have any grave secrets. I look back and think well, yes, I probably made some mistakes but that’s life.”
The time she spent living in Glasgow back in the Naked Video days was amongst the happiest times of her life, she says. “I love Scotland. I bloody love it. I lived just off Byres Road. Ashton Lane, The Ubiquitous Chip – I love all those places. The boys – Andy Gray and Jonathan Watson, such sweeties – took me out to see a loch. I cried that first time. I saw what I thought was a rock moving but it was a seal. I couldn’t believe it.” There were other times that were harder though. Recalling the five years she spent doing stand-up at the Comedy Store doesn’t exactly evoke warm and fuzzy memories. “Angry times,” she says. “Angry audiences, angry me. I was very ambitious when I was young so there was this odd mix of vulnerability and drive but also sexism without knowing it. Interesting times. Thank God I’m not doing that now. Ugh. I had to go out with a coat over my head after one gig because it was so bad.
“No one mentions the women who did it because it’s all about the men. I have to pinch myself to check if I did it because it’s not in the records. We were very invisible people.” That’s an outrage I say, interested to get her take on the perennial women in comedy debate, and for the first time she sounds a bit guarded. “People are always looking for answers and I’m sorry I can’t be more helpful. But I know what I did. And I didn’t do it with any kind of agenda about gender, I did it because for me, I just had to.”
Lederer might feel a little wistful that many of the people she emerged with and with whom she’s worked over the years – Ben Elton, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French – have become household names in the way that she never quite has, but of course, ever the agony aunt, she knows not to dwell. “The role of queen of comedy and celebrity and national treasure, they’re taken,” she says, “and that’s fine. All of those people are out there. I’m not that and it’s fine. I don’t like doing big gigs. I am what I am and I’m still doing it. It’s a small audience, but I’m doing it. There’s a place for us all and I’m aware of where my place is.”
And if all goes well with her novel she’ll write another one. And, ever the polymath, in the meantime she’s had the idea to create a prize for the best comedy women in print. “I want to encourage wit and confidence in female writing because there is no organisation out there – trust me I’ve searched – to promote exclusively that,” she says, then pauses. “That might settle some ghosts from the 80s for me.”
• Losing It (Pan Macmillan), is out now, £7.99 paperback and £5.99 ebook