Now or never

HELEN LEDERER is like a bubble bath.

It would be fair to say that Lederer is tightly coiled the day we meet. Even if it’s unfair, she won’t argue because she’s not going to read this article anyway, which is about the most liberating news an interviewee can give you. "I almost don’t want to know what you think," she says, and it becomes a recurring theme that she protects herself from people who might think badly of her. She has to keep going, you see, no matter what anyone else says.

The inspiration for the show Finger Food, in which she cooks in front of her audience, struck her in the Tate only three months ago. Since then she’s had to write the script; hire two actresses; find a free hob and a half-price stage set; and arrange free supplies of melon from Somerfield and Courvoisier for audience drinks. She plays a neurotic (there’s a surprise) television presenter, but says the show isn’t "about" anything. "I didn’t want it to be meaningful or deep. I want people to go in, have a laugh and come out not disappointed."

When we meet, it’s a few weeks before opening night. No doubt by now everything is perfected, but today Lederer has just come from rehearsals. It’s hilarious to think of performing it, she says, because it’s not ready, just so not ready. Hilarious? I think she might be about to cry.

"Right, concentrate," she mutters. "Focus." Pardon? But she’s talking to herself, not me. "Look, let’s do it."

My usual plan of campaign in the face of such edginess is to be as calm, as physically still, as possible, and watch the interviewee behave like a moth battering off the inside of a lampshade. Absorbing all their energy either makes them calmer, or they simply run out of steam and fall to the floor, giving you the chance to pick up the pieces and examine them.

This isn’t going to work with Lederer. For a start, she used to do these comic monologues in Naked Video, the Scottish comedy sketch show with Gregor Fisher, Jonathan Watson and Andy Gray, in which she played this ditzy blonde in a wine bar who always had a glass in her hand and several bottles’ worth in her veins, and I think Lederer could play her ad nauseum. On top of that, the atmosphere is tense anyway because the PR hasn’t booked a room and we are about to get thrown out of the rather nice London suite where my first interview of the day has just finished, unless the photographer uses his extensive charms on the waitress.

Anyway, everyone - apart from me - agrees that the photographer should snap away around us before we get thrown out, although Lederer says she feels very tense and isn’t sure she has enough make-up on, and let’s hurry.

"Next question!" says Lederer.

"Back straight!" says the photographer.

When we reach the point where she dismisses her first marriage in approximately 1.9 seconds, between two photo-booth poses, I realise that I’m going to knock myself out on that lampshade before she does.

Right, end of conversation. Ooh, did I say that? The camera stops clicking. There is one of those awkward little pauses. Ehm... photos first and then proper conversation, even if it’s outside on the pavement. I quite understand, says Lederer soothingly, because she’s very civil underneath all that frothy stuff. But I think she’s screaming inwardly. What is wrong with one-liners between poses? When she inadvertently hits on something serious, she quickly claws it back, saying I won’t want serious talk, and I have to whimper that, yes please, I really, really do. (The wine-bar blonde can appear, but I don’t think she should get the entire gig.) "Oh," says Lederer, looking fazed, and I think her anxiety levels just ratcheted up another 20 points on the scale. Frankly, I am not sure which of us is going to get our nervous breakdown in first.

SELF-DEPRECATION can be very funny but it’s also useful as a defensive wall. Don’t criticise me because I can do it better myself, thank you very much. Lederer is master of it; the throwaway quip, the droll observation. Her route into showbusiness was unusual, coming via social work. "You had, like, families. Can you imagine I was in charge of people? Not good. But one family gave me a lovely cup and saucer with holly on it, so I was very honoured."

The way she tells it, she was never a Shirley Temple child. "I had asthma at four. At ten I was quite large because I had to take the injection they gave in those days for asthma, which made me a bit moon-faced. So I was fat. Hair-band, grips, anxious... not a lot going for me."

She still specialises in angst-ridden characters. "I think that’s based on a few reviews from past festivals that are hilariously tragic," she says, and I think she might have mistaken my observation for an insult. "There was one year in Edinburgh when I was at the Gilded Balloon with Kathy Burke, before she became massive. I read one review and thought, ‘Bloody hell, that’s quite harsh.’ I’d done Naked Video and I think they said I looked like Miss Piggy or something, and I thought, ‘Oh right, okay… mm-mhhhh!’ So then I read the next one, thinking it couldn’t be as bad as that, and it was worse. That happens. It’s life. You can’t be in this world and not have criticism. It’s part of the terrain." It’s a sensible approach to criticism but I think she actually gets very hurt. Certainly, she stopped reading about herself in newspapers.

Underneath the froth, Lederer has guts. If you are a naturally confident person, risk-taking is part of your nature. When you are not, and you do it anyway, it’s a bit of a badge of honour. Lederer could have dismissed her idea in the Tate caf. It is, after all, her own money at stake, and she isn’t rich. She hopes her gamble will pay off, that Edinburgh will be the start of a tour that may ultimately reach London’s West End. "But if it doesn’t, I’ll just have lost a lot of money and that will be that. I’ll have honoured my idea and had a go." How much has she spent? "So far, 4,500.99," she says, looking scared.

Despite being a well-known face as a comedy actress in television series such as Absolutely Fabulous, Lederer has never quite hit the jackpot in her career. Again, she’s very sensible about it - determinedly so. "I don’t want to waste my life being disappointed that I didn’t get the jobs I would like to have got. Because I didn’t. I didn’t get a lot of things I’d like to have had. So turn that around and it takes a lot of energy to get from one idea in a caf to making it happen - but it’s exciting as well."

She’s seizing the moment professionally, which she did earlier this year in her private life too, flying to New York to meet her father’s family for the first time. Her mother was English but her father’s family were Czechoslovakian Jews, and she was keen to learn more about her history. "I wanted to meet my relatives who’d been in concentration camps and had that whole experience. We went to a restaurant and sat at a big round table. Everyone was related by blood, so it was a great excitement for me."

She took her teenage daughter, Hannah, with her. "I thought, ‘She’s not ever going to hear this again. It’s now or never.’" Her cousin Marianne told them of her arrival in Britain. Lederer’s father had already been sent from Czechoslovakia to study in England, but Marianne lived in a part of Germany that no longer exists because of border changes. "She had a camera with her and was arrested because they thought she was a spy. She was not even 17 but she was put in Holloway Prison. And apparently my father, who was younger, went to visit her and she was very touched by that. Because in those days, to be associated with anyone German... because of the fear, understandably, in that climate of war..."

Her father died when she was in her 20s, but he had told her little of his background. "I just knew it wasn’t encouraged to have a German car," laughs Lederer. "That was the manifestation of it." Her grandmother and aunt had travelled out from Czechoslovakia by train, but her grandmother never liked to talk about it. "That is the point about their story; you can’t actually take it. It’s their story, not mine. I was brought up in south-east London, and I’m English. I don’t want to claim it falsely. This isn’t my life, but people who are related to me have lived this life."

Having lost her father, did she feel closer to him after hearing his family’s story? "Yeah, it’s quite a big story, to be uprooted from one place and then settle in another place, and to know a lot of your family didn’t survive. That’s a major thing to get your head around. Of course, it’s happening all the time now with asylum-seekers, and it’s really important to be sensitive to that. It’s very important to welcome people. I have a great interest in people because I am a mix myself. I am so not into what is English. What is nice? What is interesting? Not sounds, or accent or class… Do you connect now? That is more relevant."

Her American trip was fuelled by a sense of now or never. "I just thought that if we don’t do it we’ll have missed something. I think I’m feeling that more and more now. You don’t know how long you’ve got, so just do it. Even if this show doesn’t work - I hope it does, but if it doesn’t - I think I’ll be able to bear it a lot better now."

Family is important to her. Perhaps that’s why her successful career dipped a little in the 1990s: she put her daughter first. Lederer turned to writing and journalism as well as performing. "I managed never to be away from her for very long, which was a bit of an achievement. It’s not wrong for people who do, and who have to, but I never went off. Some people are made in a certain way, perhaps, that they feel physically ill if they are not with their child. To think that you can have a child and carry on living the way you did… I have learned that you can’t."

Now 49, she first married at 34. "Late marriage, everything late, on the cusp of maybe never doing it. Roger Alton, journalist, editor of The Observer, blah, blah. That was fine. We do very nice parenting for our daughter, la, la… very nice."

It crosses my mind that "blah, blah" and "la, la" are code for "We hate each other’s guts, really, but are being determinedly civilised for the sake of our daughter." Then again it could just be the return of the wine-bar blonde.

She and Alton separated after a year. "It wasn’t an easy time for any of us - how could it be? But nobody was destroyed. It’s not the worst thing that can happen, having a divorce. Not to be recommended, but not the worst."

Five years ago she got a second chance at love when she met her husband Chris, a GP. "I honestly didn’t expect it to happen because I’d been single for eight years, and you kind of grow into who you are. I was more at peace when I met him, which sounds corny, but you know that adage that if you don’t look you will find? And I was not looking. I had sort of come to terms with a few things. I was going off to Portugal, things were falling into place, and then a school friend of mine introduced us. I wasn’t expecting anything. I was thinking, ‘Oh God, it’s going to be one of those awful evenings, really dull.’ And he had the same feeling. And honestly, within a minute, I thought, ‘He’s interesting,’ and that was it."

Her mother died suddenly just weeks before the wedding. "She was 76 or 77, so it was a bit early. I feel a bit cheated. On the other hand, she was a very independent person, so for her this would have been ideal. It was completely peaceful, no pain. That’s a good way to go. I don’t know why people die. I say to Chris, ‘Why do people die?’ It’s a shame, really, isn’t it? A real bugger."

Her wedding was a day of mixed emotions. "It was a heightened affair. But we just had to carry on, knowing that my mother’s death was part of it. There was no way we wouldn’t have gone ahead. Obviously, you do more crying than you might, but life doesn’t stop. You just carry on. You can’t have life without death. Death is going to happen, so we should not be frightened. You do wonder what it is all for, and I think one way I can understand it is that life does go on. I carry a bit of my mum; my daughter carries a bit of me. Where we shared our lives together, I have taken a bit of that with me. And the same with Hannah - where we have impacted, that is what she will take with her. That is how we live on."

But the prospect of "dying" on stage is frightening right now. "I don’t want this tightness in my chest for much longer," she confesses. Lederer seems to be testing herself, finding out her own capabilities. "I don’t really know what kind of a person I am, even now," she says.

The waters run deeper than they first look. Lederer may not be sure what’s in there beneath the froth, but she has at least learned to navigate the white-water patches. "You have to think this is great now. In life things never last. They go up and they go down and they go up again. And then they go down. I don’t know where I am at the moment, but that’s how it will always be." u

Finger Food is at the Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh, August 6 to 30.