Taskmaster's Sophie Duker flies her 'Hag' flag high at the Fringe
Comedian Sophie Duker, is poised for the start of her Edinburgh show Hag, and if anyone is ready for the challenge of three weeks of Fringe performances, it’s the winner of the latest series of Channel 4’s Taskmaster.
“It’s the bit of the rollercoaster where I can’t get off. You’re in the car at the top and the forward motion you’ve built up is going to take you over the edge. You can’t stop it. You’ve just got to go over and see what happens!” she says. Then whispers quietly, “it’ll be fine, it’ll be fine.”
If you didn’t see Taskmaster or any of the other TV shows she’s appeared on over the last few years - Frankie Boyle’s New World Order, Live At The Apollo, 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, Mock the Week, Jonathan Ross’ Comedy Club and Don’t Hate the Playaz - she may be familiar from her pre-pandemic award-nominated Edinburgh Fringe debut Venus in which she took a rise out of stereotypes, white saviours and sexuality, as well as demonstrating the art of upside down twerking.
Now she’s back, older, wiser, a ‘magical bitch’, with Hag, reclaiming the slur and sharing her experiences on speaking to the dead, why threesomes are a cheap alternative to couples’ therapy and what happened when she went on a cruise ship with seven hundred older lesbians.
“Hag’s about, in terms of life events, getting sent to live with my grandmother when I was very small, when my parents Hansel and Gretel’d me and sent me there. It’s also about a lesbian cruise I did before the pandemic, and in terms of me, it’s events happening around turning 30. Not really about getting older but more deciding to take up space as the kind of person I am. That sounds very wanky and meta but it’s about deciding how to be a powerful, magical woman. Not in ‘beautiful princess way’, but ‘What does it mean to take up space?’ I think my first show was ‘here I am’, and this is what my life’s been like and breathing into that reality.’
Without revealing too much of the show, what does she mean her parents - mother from Cameroon and father from Ghana, who met in London where Duker was born and raised - Hansel and Gretel’d her?
She laughs. “So Hansel and Gretel are told they’re going for a walk in the forest and their parents abandon them there, and when I was small I was told I was going on holiday to Ghana then left with my grandmother. It was ‘oh we’re going on holiday’ and then it was ‘oh no I’m here with a witch, who is my gran’,” she laughs.
“It was for a couple of years and my parents did visit during that time. I wasn’t just like ‘bye!’ But I was living with my grandmother in her little compound, with my cousin. I think a lot of diaspora kids have similar stories, whether it’s if they’re misbehaving and it’s ‘we’ll send you back to - whether or not you were originally born there - India or Pakistan or Ghana to get home training. Instead of summer camp it’s sort of existential stay away to be imbued with that sense of place and identity. It’s a weird experience.”
It was also where Duker, who loved books, became more familiar with the oral tradition of storytelling and the Anansi stories, featuring the trickster spider god.
“The Anansi stories are what my grandmother told me, my dad too, and they are something that is passed down through generations. Anansi is a comedian and he’s bad but you love him. I think as a little kid in Accra, which is quite religiously conservative, and then coming back and being put into the British education system, you don’t really get rewarded for being bad, but Anansi is a very clear example of a spider living his best life and being devious and tricksy and difficult, and he’s famous. Those are big stories.”
Hag is also tied in with Duker’s experience of starting to perform comedy without having seen anyone like her.
“Not necessarily in that reductive way of there not being many black people on television or doing comedy, but so often what we are presented in comedy, and to a certain people in the public eye, is this whole, unfractured thing that doesn’t have any contradictions. They’re just like a cheeky chappie from this place, or prim and proper and repressed, and you don’t get a sense that you can be lots of different things. I think everyone feels a bit of a misfit or a hodgepodge of things. Maybe this is actually complete bullshit and some people are like ‘no, I feel completely authentically, I am from Sedgefield and that’s my complet identity and I’m exactly like a Sedgefield person…’
“But I think Venus was all about one label that I was given and interrogating that from lots of different angles and Hag is about how to make your stamp and what you actively choose rather than what is put upon you.”
What would she say is the label she had put upon her, much of which made up the comedy in her first show, Venus?
“The first people saw and noticed, before they listened to my voice or heard my stories, was you’re black and a woman and just that. Being seen as a black woman there are all these associations. There’s the ‘Hottentott Venus’ who I based the show around [the South African Sarah Baartman, a knoekhoe woman was trafficked and exhibited in Europe in the 1800s], there’s Beyonce, there’s being sexual, there’s hair… It was a show about how black women are idolised and fetishised and feared and how absurd it is to flit in and out of those classifications and fantasies.”
Did having Venus nominated for a comedy award have a big impact on her career?
“It definitely had an impact, especially when you’re a newcomer. It just helps you believe in yourself more. It’s an affirmation that you’re seen and stuff has worked. Just having a little badge, having someone acknowledge you is a sign that maybe you’re not in your own insane wonderland after all. It made me realise you don’t have to be hung up on will people get this. If it’s funny and it’s true people get it. It just feels like an amazing compliment and gift that enables you to feel so much confident in your own skin and in your own story.”
Duker has never wanted to be self-deprecating about where she’s from and her experience because, as she puts it, “‘that’s important and weighty and serious and my family and culture is a badge of pride so I don’t want to do that” but she doesn’t hold back on laughing at herself.
“Something I found freeing in Hag is that I, Sophie, get to be wrong, because comedians are fools and pompous or silly or vain. And I think I’m like a vain… I don’t want to say brat, because ‘this is the show where I’m grown up’ even though I’m still only 32, so I feel like it’s joyful and knowing, but it is ultimately ridiculous hopefully.”
“And I really love words - I was a little bookworm of a kid - so I love playing with language and storytelling, which is something I’m excited to be doing more in Hag. Venus was presenting weird situations. Now I feel like I can ‘speak my truth’, to use a hideous phrase, more.
What comes first for Duker when she’s writing a show, the comedy or the issues she feels strongly about?
“Sometimes there are things that… like race is something I will always speak about at the top of the show. I’m like ‘I’m not going to speak about race any more’, but it’s something that will obviously imbue loads of my experiences. There are things that I want to be vocal on and support and I embody some of those in my comedy but the things that are funny don’t necessarily translate into manifestos or solutions. The things that I find funny are a by-product of who I am and what I get wrong and my hopes and dreams and fears. So I think the comedy comes first but the comedy is often borne out of my situation and where I’m positioned in the world.”
As if to make the point, she catches sight of her hair on our Zoom screen, newly-braided for Edinburgh, with the ends dyed blond and piled on top of her head, and scream laughs.
“She always puts it up so I look like an ice-cream! Supposedly you cannot look different from the the poster, but I do look slightly different - the blonde has grown out - but in this iteration I’ve got to have blonde - so people don’t mistake me for one of the other five black girls at Edinburgh, ha, ha, ha.”
The issue of appearance arose on Taskmaster too, since contestants wear identical outfits for the sake of continuity, with Duker opting for pink and yellow top and trackie bottoms ensemble she likened to “a Refresher”.
“All my clothes are stolen from other people or from weird shops so I don’t have duplicate outfits and was very sartorially concerned. But it turns out they could tell who I was.” She laughs.
Who she was is the winner, of series 13, in which she took part with with Ardal O’Hanlon, Bridget Christie, Judi Love and Chris Ramsey.
“It’s probably the most fun I’ve had on television,” she says. “Taskmaster is a rare thing where every part is good: the tasks are fun, the team is really kind, there’s a spirit of we want this to be the best it can be and people love it in a really pure way. There doesn’t seem to be any darkness in Task Master. I hope that’s not used as a weird pull quote for an expose in 50 years time, but there’s no darkness and it’s so nourishing. And being on it is obviously amazing.”
“Everyone gets to have their own glory in different ways. So Judi didn’t win a single task but was just so beloved, so wonderful. I think Task Master allows funny people to shine in either the way you know and love them, or in new and surprising ways.”
Most fun for Duker was anything that meant getting one over on Alex Horne.
“Anything where you get to be mean to Alex is fun,” she says. “I really enjoyed getting him on all fours and painting his face like a dog and making him do a Miley Cyrus tongue. I did not score highly in that task but it was a moment of joy for me. I also got to ride him around the room on his shoulders. He’s such a good sport and all the while he’s making real notes, and is responsible for the show - his brain!”
Now 32, Duker was part of a comedy troupe at Oxford, where she studied English and modern languages, and on a year abroad in Paris took part in an English language comedy night called Funny Lady Vicious, but it wasn’t until 2015 that she first did stand up, at a comedy night in a London pub.
“I just thought it was a quicker way of writing because you get immediate feedback. I loved it and then just didn’t stop doing it.”
Being shortlisted for the 2015 Funny Women Award was an added impetus and she kept going but it still took Duker ten years to call herself a comedian.
“It’s sort of an embarrassing thing to be,” she says. “It’s not glamorous. Some international comedians make it look very glamorous - my best friend lives in New York, because all my friends end up being immigrants and have visa issues and have to leave the country - and I went to visit and there comedians like Mary Beth Barone or Sydnee Washington are cool and glamorous and sexy. But in the UK I don’t think that’s a thing.”
“It also feels selfish. My parents gave me a lot of freedom but I felt I had a responsibility not to squander the sacrifices they made by doing something that felt so insecure. Evelyn Mok has a good thing about this: ‘My parents did so much for me and wanted me to have a good life and all I want to do is improv’. You feel pathetic having a dream or doing something so solipsistic and focused on one person, and also that won’t make you money. Being a comedian and being able to call yourself a comedian seemed like a luxury.”
So Duker worked a lot behind the scenes in TV and comedy, as a researcher and associate producer, doing standup in her spare time until it became untenable.
“I’d be stuck in a writing room and then running upstairs to have an interview with The Stylist or something, but I didn’t want them to think I wasn’t committed.”
Finally something had to give and nowadays Duker is fully out as a comedian.
“I think being on Live at the Apollo, you have to be ‘this happened’ and it’s maybe not a casual party quirk you mention in conversation and skate past.”
Although recent attention on the back of Taskmaster has seen her sometimes retreat from the limelight and pretend not to be a comedian.
“I went to get my Doc Martens fixed and the guy said you remind me of someone off the telly and I was like ‘I don’t know who that could be!’
A self-confessed “humourless Lisa Simpson - ‘if anyone needs me I’ll be in my room’ - as a child, it took Duker a while to realise she was funny.
“I knew I could write funny and then other people would be funny, but then when you get rid of all the safety trappings of school and university in your mid twenties and you’re out in the world, humour becomes such a tool to cope with the shithousery of life. Because the world is in a sort of permanently apocalyptic state and I became more engaged with politics and having relationships and I think humour is really powerful. It’s valuable and a defence mechanism and improves things. It was a sort of magical power that I could wield: ‘I have this in my back pocket’. She laughs. “You know when in a story someone’s told ‘you’ll know what to do with it when the time comes’ and it does and it’s ‘woah!’”
After Edinburgh Duker will take Hag on tour next year, and is also writing a sitcom, a comedy drama, and would like to act more.
“I’d like to do everything, but first it will be really fun to take Hag around the country. I’m going to do the classic me thing which is feast and famine. I’m going to comedy it up for a few months solid. And then probably do a Britney and shave my head.”
Sophie Duker: Hag, 3-28 August (not 17th), 7:30pm, Pleasance Courtyard - Beside, 60 Pleasance, Edinburgh EH8 9TJ, previews: £7 weekday: £12 weekends: £14, Box Office: https://www.pleasance.co.uk / https://www.edfringe.com