Interview: Karen Dunbar

Karen Dunbar in Calendar Girls Picture: John Swannell
Karen Dunbar in Calendar Girls Picture: John Swannell
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Swept up in the ‘discombobulating snow globe’ of touring in the Scotland-bound Calendar Girls The Musical, Karen Dunbar talks to Janet Christie about loving the show, her 30 years in comedy, and getting her kit off every night

Karen Dunbar is naked. In nothing but a string of pearls and high heels she’s sitting on stage in front of an audience of hundreds in Newcastle’s Theatre Royal, playing the piano and singing her heart out. Along with co-stars Fern Britton, Anna-Jane Casey, Sarah Crowe, Ruth Madoc, Rebecca Storm and Denise Welch she’s starring in Calendar Girls The Musical, Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s hit based on the film, the play and the true story of the WI women who make a naked calendar, now heading north on a nine-month tour of 19 towns and cities from Aberdeen to Southampton.

Karen Dunbar is touring in Calendar Girls The Musical. Picture: John Swannell

Karen Dunbar is touring in Calendar Girls The Musical. Picture: John Swannell

Karen Dunbar is dressed. Fresh off the stage and between today’s matinee and the curtain call for this evening’s performance, she stands up to greet me, long legs now encased in black leggings, then sits and as she hugs one knee, her vest top revealing a dolphin tattoo on one shoulder. Slim and tall, she radiates the sunflower warmth that is the symbol of the show. It’s as if the nudity never happened.

Karen Dunbar is “discombobulated. Today I am here, the place to get food is there, the where I live is there, the theatre is here. I don’t know what month it is or what day it is, I just work by the clock. I’m a huge I am in the now, I am in the moment person, and largely, I don’t know if you need to change this quote, but I find it best to bring my head to where my arse is, because if my head goes too far into things, I lose it. So it’s where do I stand, when do I take my clothes off? Then there’s the packing and moving to the next place... and this show is very precise – don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot harder work out there – but the harmonies! And here’s me [Dunbar adopts a fruity, thespy voice] a veteran of performing, and I’m like ‘I don’t know WHAT. TO. DO!’ Fortunately the rest of the cast is great. I’ve never toured, apart from my own show and then I was home most nights. Now I’ve been away since July and it’s like being inside a beautiful, yet discombobulating, snow globe.”

We’ve got 30 minutes before Dunbar has to be ready for the evening performance and in the nicest possible way she’s keeping her eye on the time.

“This is no’ me being Madonna, just want to make sure you get what you need. I’d talk for ever, ask me the time and I’ll tell you where the watch was made.”

Karen Dunbar as Winnie in Beckett's Happy Days at The Tron, Glasgow, 2015

Karen Dunbar as Winnie in Beckett's Happy Days at The Tron, Glasgow, 2015

So how does she feel about getting her kit off night after night in front of hundreds of people as Cora, the single mother vicar’s daughter?

“I had feelings of nervousness and shyness and then I thought, 20 years ago, these women did it and I want to honour that, the spirit of it. And that shifted something for me, and I thought right, either don’t do it, or do it with gusto. So I don’t know what you saw today, but I hope you caught a bit of my gusto.”

I did.

“All gusto, but no gusset, there’s a tagline,” she sits back and laughs, much like the audience who have also cried, then risen to their feet to give the cast a standing ovation for their collective, life-affirming two fingers to cancer and its aftermath.

Karen Dunbar and the rest of the ensemble cast of Calendar Girls The Musical,  Fern Britton, Anna-Jane Casey, Sarah Crowe, Ruth Madoc, Rebecca Storm and Denise Welch, with writers Tim Firth and Gary Barlow

Karen Dunbar and the rest of the ensemble cast of Calendar Girls The Musical, Fern Britton, Anna-Jane Casey, Sarah Crowe, Ruth Madoc, Rebecca Storm and Denise Welch, with writers Tim Firth and Gary Barlow

It may be about a naked calendar, but the nudity is like Jaws, where you never see the whole shark, and by the time the cast finally take off their dressing gowns, it’s almost incidental.

“At first I thought I’m the only one who is naked completely!” she says, eyes popping. “However, I’m the only one with my back to the audience and I’m at an angle, so even if you’re on the front row you can’t see. And there are nine of us doing it so that was very ameliorating, bonding.

“It isn’t meant to be a, pun intended, a titillating show. It’s meant to be a celebration of the women who had the bravery to do what they did, and their legacy, the money they’ve raised for Bloodwise, are raising right now, and it’s a homage to that.”

Fresh faced and open, devoid of make-up, one of the things she loves best about playing Cora, who also shuns lippy and mascara, with Dunbar what you see is what you get. “I will wear make-up if I must, professionally, but they didn’t want that, so that was perfect, because I like a wee bit of vive la difference,” she says, wearing a gleeful grin.

Karen Dunbar plays Trinculo in The Tempest for this year's Donmar Warehouse Shakespeare Trilogy

Karen Dunbar plays Trinculo in The Tempest for this year's Donmar Warehouse Shakespeare Trilogy

There’s no artifice, no mask, everything is written on her wonderfully expressive face. When she speaks she gesticulates, not so much with her hands, but with a face that has more bounce than Kim Kardashian’s trampoline selfies. When she’s being funny eyes pop, nostrils flare and her mouth boomerangs as she flings out words. When she’s listening, considering, all is calm and still.

She’s authentic, a quality Dunbar believes is true of the Calendar Girls The Musical, and one of the reasons for its success. Authentic to the story of the first naked charity calendar in 1998, produced by a Yorkshire WI to raise money to buy a sofa for the visitors’ room of the ward where one of their husbands was being treated for non-Hodgkin lymphoma. When he died, it became about honouring his memory and about a group of women who achieved something extraordinary. One calendar became seven, the calendar became a play, then a film and now a musical, and so far, they’ve raised nearly £5m for Bloodwise, the blood cancer research charity. As we talk, the cast are outside braving Storm Ali with collecting buckets.

“I think it’s popular because it’s poignant and extremely true – there isn’t a person in the audience who cannot relate to it. And it’s written with such humour. To have an audience laughing their heads off and crying their hearts out with a true story that threads it all together, with great music. I love this show. I’ve loved the film, I’ve loved the play and when I read the musical I wanted to do it.”

Born in 1971 and raised in Ayr, she was adopted by her grandfather and grandmother.

As a child she sang at the Labour club, or for passers-by, and at ten she wrote in her diary, “Watch out world, here I come”. What would she say to that ten-year-old now?

“You don’t need to wear high heels, just because all your friends are wearing them. You don’t like them, they hurt your feet, and you’re tall enough. Just wear your baseball boots Karen.”

Dunbar as the Lonely Shopkeeper in BBC's Chewin' The Fat in 2002

Dunbar as the Lonely Shopkeeper in BBC's Chewin' The Fat in 2002

Dunbar moved to Glasgow at 21 where the former YTS post office worker was a natural as a karaoke host and compere on the gay scene, where fast talking put downs were a means of survival. As her TV comedy career took off with the BBC’s Chewin’ the Fat and The Karen Dunbar Show, she ditched the clubs. Stage work came first in the form of panto from 2007 and more TV comedy in Happy Hollidays, then serious roles such as the poetic monologue A Drunk Woman Looks at the Thistle, adapted by Denise Mina from Hugh MacDiarmid and a one-off in BBC Scotland’s River City last year. In 2014 she had secured her national treasure status by going live to introduce a worldwide audience of billions to the 20th Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, in 2015 she was Role Model of the Year at the Icon Awards which celebrate Scotland’s LGBTI community, and this year she surprised herself by doing a TED talk.

“I love TED talks, but I never set out to do one,” she says. “I’ve been watching them for about 12 years. Nine days out of ten my routine is make my breakfast and watch a TED talk. I’ve had so much helpful, insightful information, it’s a great way to breakfast. How Riviera does that sound?” She adopts a transatlantic filmstar drawl, “a wonderful way to breakfast...” and laughs. But it’s a great start to the day.”

After encouragement from friends to apply, she was invited to talk and did so, about our need for humour. Entitled ‘Use humour as a tool, not a weapon’, she describes her 30 years in comedy and how she started young, using humour as a way to fit in. Adopted, poor and badly bullied, humour allowed her to connect with people. She tells how when her career took off she stopped looking for connection, seeking instead money, fame and power. She bought things, drank too much and hated herself, and that came out in what she calls cruel, offensive humour.

“It was about 20 years ago when I was working on the gay scene and hosting karaoke. A microphone is a powerful weapon and I found myself using it more as a weapon than a tool. I wasn’t consciously going to work saying I’m going to be really cruel tonight, but I was working in pubs and sometimes things are thrown at you and you’ve got to come back. But my comebacks were more and more acerbic and each night it was growing, that muscle was being exercised. It was sarcasm, cynicism, and the more I did that type of comedy, the less I liked myself.”

Then a former fan left her an anonymous letter that said her humour had become cruel and abusive and she knew they were right.

“I will be forever grateful to them, because I needed a wake up call.”

Dunbar ditched the sarcasm and her career took off. She also did a bit of work on herself, and she’s still big on psychotherapy.

“Well I would be an advocate as my wife’s a psychotherapist,” she says of Linda, the long-term partner she married in 2016. “I’m no’ in therapy now, but I wouldn’t hesitate.”

She sought help for “formative years stuff, the stuff everybody’s got in there. There are people that can swim along the surface of life, and I celebrate them, I’m not saying they need to change, but there are deep sea divers and I’m a bit of one of those. I’m a curious soul. I’m right, ‘let’s get to the roots of this’ because it helps me to change.

“I’ve been a comedian since the age of four. It was such a coping mechanism and also how to connect. And hopefully the more I learn with it, the more I connect with other people and that’s what I want to do.

“There’s a line I heard years ago and I thought ‘wow, wow!’ It’s ‘what is laughter but making the unbearable bearable’.”

You can see how the bleak hilarity of Beckett’s Happy Days appealed. Buried up to her waist in mud for an hour, then neck for another, she injected a Scottish slant to his absurdist play at the Tron in 2016, and again more recently in Martin McCormick’s darkly comic Ma, Pa and The Little Mouths, for the Tron Theatre in association with the National Theatre of Scotland. As Dunbar put it, “Ma is what Molly Weir would be like if she was in a zombie apocalypse kinda – with a depth of emotion, as Molly had.”

To go back to the “formative years stuff,” was it being adopted she got to the roots of?

She sits still and considers, then says: “You know I talked about it years ago to a newspaper, and then nobody’s ever asked me about it again. There’s a difference between privacy and secrecy and sometimes there was a bit of vulnerability at the beginning of my popularity. I felt I didn’t know what I could and couldn’t say. And then my grandfather who brought me up – he passed away in 2014, my grandmother passed away long before that – there was something about it that felt like… not that he would have been hurt by it, but that was my dad. He’s the man that brought me up.”

So does she ever talk about her birth parents?

“That’s… well,” she hesitates then says, “I’m sorry but we’ve only got about 45 seconds left, how do you want to use it?”

OK, maybe talking about your mother?

“That’s a whole other interview. Actually I’m interested in that. But it’s something I would check out first, because I’m always aware – I’d talk about myself all day – but I’m aware of other people and I try and respect what they may or may not feel about things. So maybe we could do a second interview?”

OK, what about homophobia? She was bullied herself, does she think we’re more tolerant these days?

“Ahhh. There’s sooooo much I would want to say about that! That’s not me being evasive. It would take too long to answer, that’s the third interview!” She laughs.

“I’m so sorry, I feel it’s been rushed, but we’ve got the evening show to do,” she says, full of apologies. There’s only time for a quick bite to eat then she’s back onstage.

As we head for the door she tells me she’s loved Calendar Girls so much she’s mid-way through writing a musical herself.

“In my head it’s called ‘I f***ing hate Shakespeare!’ but that’ll probably have to be changed. And I don’t, I LOVE Shakespeare!” she says. Of course she does, she appeared in this year’s acclaimed Phyllida Lloyd all-female Shakespeare trilogy of The Tempest, Julius Caesar and Henry IV at the Donmar Warehouse, winning plaudits for her serious side as much as for flexing her funny bones.

So, Shakespeare, the musical, but while it’s still brewing she doesn’t want to talk about it, although you can tell if we had more time, she would, because she’s a born storyteller, it’s what she does. Every year she performs Tam O’Shanter for precisely that reason.

“Oh, it’s one of the best stories I’ve ever heard! It’s like, wait till you hear what happened, you’re NEVER gonnae believe it, and it’s brrrrrrrrrrilliantly written. If we had more time I’d do it for you right now!”

But we don’t, another time, another interview, right now it’s time for her to get naked again. n

Calendar Girls The Musical, Festival Theatre Edinburgh, 2-13 October (0131-529 6000, and His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, 19 February-2 March, 2019 (01224 641122,;