Helen Lederer tells Claire Smith why she is returning after 14 years to do stand-up on the Fringe – and to set up a prize for women comedy writers
‘My show is called: I Might As Well Say It,” says Helen Lederer.
“It is very much a now-or-never moment for me,” she says. “I am 63, I haven’t been up for 14 years.
“I just want to be free on stage. This time around it’s about being funny but also saying something – about being somebody being my age, who has lived through the 1980s, and had quite a lot of sex.”
Lederer first came to the Edinburgh Fringe in 1982, at the birth of alternative comedy. She ran around Edinburgh with Ben Elton and Rik Mayall and was buddies with Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders.
She went on to appear in some TV comedy classics, including Absolutely Fabulous, Bottom, The Young Ones and French and Saunders.
Lederer has been a newspaper columnist, an award-winning author, has acted in the West End and on Hollyoaks on TV, had her own radio show, appeared in Celebrity Big Brother, and is a much-loved comic actress.
So why come back to Edinburgh and back to do stand-up after all this time? Lederer says it’s because she has unfinished business.
“I am going back knowing I’m a grown-up. I’m going to be the person I wasn’t at the time.”
As part of her preparation for her solo show, Lederer went to see a bunch of stand-ups and found things had changed – particularly for the women. “I saw a few female comics to get the lie of the land and they do more stories now, it doesn’t have to be gag, gag, gag.”
She feels the current climate is a much better place to be more open – and there are some things she wants to get off her chest.
“I don’t want to say anything bad about people in public – but I do want to be able to say some dark stuff. A grown woman is allowed to say it how they see it. I need to get this out of my system.”
Although the alternative comedy of the 1980s aspired to be non-sexist – in reality it could be a bit of a boys’ club.
“If you weren’t like them they would put you down. Except for Rik Mayall and Ben Elton. They were very lovely and always supported me. They understood that I took it seriously.
“French and Saunders had each other. I was on my own.”
Lederer was always a nervy performer. In her first Fringe she was appearing with Norman Lovett and Arnold Brown at the Masonic Halls and she remembers hiding in her room all day before going on stage.
Rik Mayall and Ben Elton came to see her in the first year and they became good friends, running around town, drinking too much, and cavorting in the old Assembly Rooms Club Bar.
Fear and laughter have always been close with her.
She reckons she became a comic because as a child she had terrible asthma and was forbidden to laugh.
“It made me hysterical – and I have always embraced the hysterical.
“I had it so badly I had to be given steroids and they stopped me growing and made me fat. I was f***ing fat. There’s a bit about it in my show.”
Lederer originally trained as a social worker, but became a comic after going to drama school. She loved it.
“I’ve done everything in life at the wrong time.”
She says she didn’t mean to stop stand-up but kept getting offered acting jobs on stage, radio, film and television. “I had a lot of nerves and I kept getting offered grown-up jobs where I went on stage and said other people’s words. I never got rid of my nerves doing stand-up.”
These days she is happily married to her second husband, a GP, in South London.
“We met through a mutual friend. It wasn’t love at first sight. I didn’t have a boyfriend for a long time. We were both divorced. I absolutely know that thing about being between relationships.
“I don’t think either of us would have gone for each other if we’d met at a different time.
“My test of a relationship is if you can be in a car with each other and not speak.”
It was when her husband had a minor health scare that she decided she had to have another go at stand-up before it was too late.
She’s also doing a chat show called Why All the Fuss – in which she will shoot the breeze with fellow comics and passing celebrities – and which will see her venturing into the heart of the free Fringe for the first time.
Lederer is currently working on an autobiography. Her first book, a comic novel, called Losing It was shortlisted for the PG Wodehouse prize.
In the course of writing her book and her show, she discovered she is still emotional about being sidelined in the early days of her stand-up career.
“I am still angry about it,” she says, her blue eyes flashing with indignant surprise.
It is one of the reasons she is very keen to help create more opportunities for funny women.
On 24 August at the Cabaret Bar of the Pleasance she will launch a project she has been working on for some time, a new literary prize for comic writing, specifically for women. The Comedy Women in Print, or CWIP awards, will offer a cash prize for published work and a Master’s Degree to promising unpublished writers.
With a chat show, an award ceremony and a solo stand-up show she is going to have a busy Edinburgh. She’s nervous she has so much to do, she’s nervous she might hit the bars too hard and she’s nervous about going on stage but she’s looking forward to it.
“I need to have fun in my head and to get on stage with that,” she says, those blue eyes glittering with excitement. “My style is individual, but very playful.
“I think you do have to accept that fear is OK.”
• Helen Lederer: I Might As Well Say It is at Underbelly Bristo Square until 25 August, 5:05pm. Helen Lederer Asks Why The Fuss is at Laughing Horse @ The Pear Tree, 21-25 August, 2:25pm.