If Nicola Sturgeon is the voice of the nation during Covid-19, Janey Godley is the voiceover. The Glasgow comedian’s videos in which she re-voices the First Minister and other politicians to comic effect, shooting from the hip with a barrage of expletives, have gone viral.
This week Sturgeon acknowledged 59-year-old Godley’s videos, saying, “Janey Godley is a brilliant comedian and her voiceovers are very funny. They’re very rude in terms of the language they use so sometimes I don’t feel able to re-tweet them, but the really clever thing she’s doing with them... is making people laugh, but… she’s also getting the key messages across very, very powerfully.
“Occasionally I watch them and think she must really have an insight into what I was really thinking at that point but I wasn’t able to say it.”
In person, on screen on Zoom when we speak, Godley is much gentler than her on stage persona suggests. Her voice is softer and more high pitched, especially when she talks about her dog Honey and her family, and after a while the swearing which she uses for emphasis, has faded to become a verbal tic that’s part of her warm personality.
Handstands in the Dark
You won’t hear any oaths when she’s appearing on the BBC’s Have I Got News For You and BBC Scotland’s Breaking the News, or in her many TV and radio appearances, as she saves it for her sell-out stand up at the Edinburgh Fringe or Glasgow and Edinburgh Comedy Festivals. After 20 years of award-winning comedy shows around the world, her success has soared as the videos have taken off with more than 40 million hits online. She’s on Twitter, Facebook, Linked In, TikTok, Instagram, does a nightly Facebook Live cast, she’s on YouTube and has her own website. Or you might have read her book, Handstands in the Dark, a frank account of her life growing up that includes alcoholism, addiction, poverty, murder and her own sexual abuse, yet also pulls off the miracle of being very funny too.
Laughing in lockdown
In lockdown at home in her Glasgow flat, with her husband, daughter – comedian and broadcaster Ashley Storrie – and Honey the miniature dachshund, she’s speaking to us from her sofa, in between making a dating video for Nigel Farage and doing her own hair and make-up for the photos. She looks well this morning, her hair thick and hanging in long waves, with an impressive self-administered fringe.
“It’s a f***ing mess,” she says pleasantly, and off we go as she answers our questions.
Who are you in lockdown with?
My husband and my daughter Ashley, and ma wee dog Honey. Perfect people. My husband is the designated survivor, so he goes out to the shops and when he comes back we Karen Silkwood him, scrub him and hose him down.
Is doing the Nicola Sturgeon voiceovers your main daily task at the moment?
Yep, I try not to do them every day because they get too oversaturated but sometimes, like yesterday with the masks, or Friday, with Trump and the bleach, you’re like no, f***, I need tae.
Is Sturgeon a fan?
Yeah, apparently so. She re-tweets some of them and I was at an event and she got up and said if you ever want to know what I was thinking when Boris Johnson walked through my door, and I can’t stress this enough, it was exactly what Janey Godley’s voiceover said, so…
How are you so keyed into what she’s thinking?
I think everybody knows what she’s thinking. I’ve no’ got a secret mind into her. We a’ know, she’s going ‘oh for f***’s sake, really, that question again, grrrrrr’.
Don’t get me wrong, I mean I’m an SNP supporter but, like when the chief medical officer f***ed up, I did a video aboot that as well, Nicola going, ‘are you going anywhere this week?’ ha, ha, ha. If they’ve f***ed up I’ll be on it, you know.
Do you think humour is an effective weapon, politically?
Yeah, absolutely, I think that that’s what comedy is. You hold up a mirror to society and say this is who we are and this is what we’re doing, you know. I think it’s important, especially in these times.
Do you think it’s more effective than having a go at them without humour?
Yeah, I mean if somebody has a go at me and they make it funny, I’m the first to go yep, you’re right. But if it’s just hate then… The thing is, there are no Tory comics in Scotland. I know a couple of right wing or Tory-leaning comics in England, and I’ll defend to the death, their right to say what they do.
It’s the same as the trolls online, I will defend their right to say that they hate me, because they’ve got every right to say it. I don’t have to listen to it, and I don’t have to keep watching it. I don’t want to be in a society where people who hate me are shut up; that’s no’ a society that breeds a crowd for me either. I want people to call me a c***, because if you’re told to stop calling me a c***, I cannae call Trump a c***.
Where were your political views formed?
I was never right wing. The thing aboot immigrants coming over here and stealing oor NHS isn’t a reasonable valid argument, so it wouldn’t stick with me. I mean I’ve got members of my family going ‘oh you need to watch these immigrants coming, they steal benefits’, and I’m like ‘you stole benefits for years! You f***ed the system for years!’ A lot of the people in my extended family say, ‘aye they steal the giros’ and I’m like ‘you used to pretend you were separated from your wife so you could both get benefits!’
And after saying ‘immigrants go home’ now we’re like ‘can you stay and look after my granny in a care home?’ F*** you!
Are Big Jeanette and Big Isa real people?
Naw. I just love names that have died oot like Big Isa, Big Jeanette, wee Bridie McBride and like to give them a wee shout. Ceely’s another one, Philomena, and a’ the Sandras. It’s just reminiscent of a time when names were handed down, not created.
The latest addition to the Godley output is ‘child-friendly no swears’ content, how did that come about?
Because people were writing to me saying they loved wee Honey speaking, but they can’t show it to their kids ‘cos there’s swearing in it. I also thought it would be a really good message about keeping busy and washing their hands, and telling their parents off about washing their hands. Kids like the fact Honey’s telling them to tell off their parents.
How did you start with all the voiceovers of politicians?
For years Ashley and I have sat in this living room looking at that big telly with the volume down and just talking over the top to make each other laugh. When it was Big Theresa in charge and we had Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson, it was really boring... blah, blah... so I decided to give them a new narrative, make it mair interesting.
What’s it like to hear people refer to you as ‘an essential worker’ because you’re giving us a laugh in these grim times?
I’m not an essential worker, I’m a f***ing idiot that sits in her house and talks to a camera. There are people out there putting their families at risk, who wake up in the morning and have to put on a uniform and think ‘is this the day I bring coronavirus into my house?’, They’re essential workers, I’m just a f***ing clown with technology.
How do you feel about the trolling and abuse you get?
It’s Glasgow-centric, toxic male, football sectarianism. There’s something incredibly wonderful that I’m a focus of their lives. I mean I am an attention-seeking clown, and I have their attention, so job done.
Yesterday a man said he would pay to see both me and my daughter die. And it’s fine because I had a pub for 15 years in the East End of Glasgow, so that’s a Tuesday to me. I don’t go, ‘oh my God, people don’t like me’, I go ‘oh my God, I really must affect them’. I’m not scared of them either, ‘cos they’re sh***bags, anonymous mostly. The BBC and others love it because the algorithm can’t tell the difference between hate and love, so as far as they’re concerned I’m getting a big audience.
Are you frightened of anything?
Not at all. One of the things I learned when I had the pub is the people who shout, ‘I’m gonnae f***ing kill you’ are not the people who are gonna kill you. It’s the person who is absolutely anonymous with nothing to lose that doesn’t tell you.
You’re making comedy out of a grim situation, but are there some things you just can’t make funny, for example the rise in domestic abuse?
You can make humour out of everything, but it has to be your lived experience and you have to be punching up and not punching down. You can’t be laughing at the victim. You can’t go ha, ha, bobbin got punched in the face, that’s no’ comedy. You have to make sure what the object of the joke is.
Domestic violence isn’t something we should be laughing at, but then again we should laugh at everything, because every joke can be offensive. If I say to you a man walked into a bar, you could say my Uncle Steven was killed in a bar. Why did the chicken cross the road? My niece died carrying a chicken across the road.
How are you spending your time in lockdown?
Sleeping, eating, making videos and writing a new book. Just walking aboot in ma jimjams. We watch TV. We’re working a lot. I’m writing a lot – a piece that hasnae been announced yet, and we did a TV show for the BBC, Ashley’s got her radio show [BBC Radio Scotland Friday nights from 10pm to 1am, with her hand-picked playlist and comedy] that she does from her bedroom, so the house is basically a studio now.
What do you give Honey to make her look like she’s talking in the voiceovers?
A carrot. Then she does that crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch and sometimes munch, munch, munch, munch to get it down her chops.
Do you think she knows what you’re saying?
I don’t f***in’ know, she’s a dug!
Right now where would you most like to be?
Down at Loch Lomond on the wee beach. Just there. I sit away fae everybody where it’s quiet ‘cos my husband’s got autism, so we already socially distance anyhow.
What have you been reading/viewing/listening to in lockdown?
I’ve been reading Gilly Macmillan’s The Nanny, it’s really good, and I’m reading Jane Fallon just now. We’re all ferocious readers. My husband does audio books which are free in the libraries and you can get them online.
I’m not a big TV fan. I didn’t even watch the Tiger King, couldn’t do it. It took me ages to watch Ashley’s programme. [Up for It on BBC Scotland with fellow comedians Christopher Macarthur-Boyd and Rosco McClelland.] She was getting annoyed at me. She’s like ‘Mum!, I’ve got a TV show’.
I don’t even like comedy. I like documentaries. Ashley and I were watching a BBC4 documentary last night about the history of art, and I’ve never seen the two of us shut up and be so entranced. I love all BBC4 archive, the British Film Industry Archive, old black and white films and homemade films and how people saw the world. And I follow a guy on Twitter who does Glasgow architecture. I am ob-sessed by it.
I paint buildings as well, a bit of watercolour – I’ve sold a few – and I do wee cards and sell them on the website. People have been buying the merch to support me, but we’re incredibly lucky because we’re not poor, or wake up every morning and go ‘oh my god, the money’s going to run out’ which a lot of people do. I’ve got my family who are healthy, so we’re incredibly f***ing blessed and lucky. But that didnae happen just by chance, I worked 25 years to make that happen.
Do you really have a big soup pan and go to Pippa Dee parties?
I have never been to a Pippa Dee… actually that’s not true, I’ve got a picture of me somewhere wi’ a Pippa Dee top on. I’ve been to one Pippa Dee party at least, in the 80s. And I do have a big soup pot, but I can’t make soup. Ashley made a beautiful pea soup yesterday, but no me, my soup tastes like corporation hair oil.
What is your new book about?
It’s fiction. I can’t really say much about it yet except it’s set in two time zones in Glasgow. Big Isa’s in it, the Sandras are in it. Fiction is hard. My autobiography was easy because I knew the f***ing story!
How did you manage to enjoy sex after you’d been abused by your uncle?
It’s very simple. Because I never let him take away the one thing that belonged to me. Even when I was young, I knew that the one thing that I own as a woman is my right to enjoy my own sexual agency.
When I met my husband and told him he said he never took anything away from you, naebody owns your body. Even though he was only 16, 17, he said ‘Everything you’re feeling, he’s sitting in a pub somewhere having a pint and he’s not feeling it. He disnae gie a f*** about what you feel. So why should you give a f*** about what he feels. Get on with your life’.
I’m not saying put it aside, but while I’m going ‘this is bad, this is bad’, he’s walking roon a pub with a pint singing ‘bluebird on my shoulder’. I’m holding this pain, no’ him. So I suppose my husband’s autism really helped because he put it into black and white.
Have you forgiven your mother for not protecting you from your uncle?
Yeah I do forgive her because I think that she did the best with the tools she had. But it wisnae good enough. She should have taken my word. But she knew he was doing it and she knew because her dad did it to her. There’s a level of ‘can’t face that’ because if she opens up about my abuse, she’s going to have to open up about her own.
She had a terrible life. She never had anything. I mean she was really funny – made me laugh mair than life itself – and she never just sat and went ‘poor f***ing me, this is awful’. I’ve inherited that fae her, ‘f*** it, let’s move on’. She suffered fae depression, was addicted to tablets because they just gave her valium, and told her to shut up and go hame.
I think life beat her doon very early and I decided it would not do that to me. She was like, ‘f*** it, this is our lot, we just have to make the best of it’ and wake up every day without food and with rent arrears and being poor and dirty. I decided nah, f*** it, I’m gonnae go to Hollywood, I’m gonna go to Australia and New Zealand, I’m gonna travel the world.
But then again why are we not blaming the men here? My uncle and her da? My dad didn’t know, and when I told him he was horrified and broke down. But yeah, he was drunk, why was he not looking after me? Why do we always have to look to the woman to blame?
You started doing stand-up to get an equity card, would you like to do more straight acting?
Well recently I’ve done a country and western film, Wild Rose and then I played a lawyer for Martin Compston, for the TV show Traces. And I wrote and starred in a film called The Last Mermaid that won a few awards.
What’s the worst thing about lockdown?
The fear. I have like five mini panic attacks a day, going ‘am I gonnae die? Is Ashley gonnae die? What if my man gets it, he’s got sarcoidosis, so he’s as risk. Did I wash my hands? Are we all gonnae die? Is the world gonnae end?’ My five-a-day is now five small panic attacks, then it’s back to blah, blah, blah. Then ‘oh my god!’ again.
What’s the best thing about lockdown?
Right up until the lockdown I was on tour all over, then I came home, put ma bag doon, lockdown. It’s made us all take a step back and go f***, what was all that? That was my life. I think it’s made us step out of the madness and look inward and at our families and our relationships and talk a wee bit more. I was always busy, Ashley was always busy, my man was always busy, so now we’re all like, ‘And how are you?’
What’s next after lockdown?
I’ve got a UK tour in the autumn, if we get out. It’s called Janey Godley’s Big Soup Pot Tour, because any event, celebration or funeral, called for a big pot of soup to feed everyone. It’s we’re all here in this. Now it’s also symbolic of the current virus crisis, and the realisation we’re all in this together and that’s how we’ll get through it.
For Janey Godley’s Big Soup Pot tour dates see her website, janeygodley.com