With a guide to life, Bake Off and a role in a musical, Jo Brand tackles life one gag at a time
Jo Brand looks like butter wouldn’t melt. In a bright apricot top and carefully made up, she’s surrounded by our favourite foodies as she presents another serving of The Great British Bake Off: An Extra Slice, the spin off from the ratings busting TV show.
She couldn’t be more rehabilitated from the days of her vilification as the man-hating, acerbic lesbian stand-up she never actually was, to the favourite aunty now welcomed into the nation’s sitting rooms to serve up their feelgood comfort food TV.
“I think I’m seen as a bit more fluffy now,” says the 61-year-old in her pleasantly dry laconic drawl. “A lot of the press thought when I got married, ‘oh she can’t be a man hating lesbian after all’”, she says, sounding as if she’s scuffing the toes of her Docs on the ground as she drags herself all the way to double home economics. As for the sartorial makeover, Brand is happy to ditch her matching black T-shirt and leggings for pastels on TV because “they make me. No, they don’t, but my thing is to fight bigger battles. I wouldn’t select colour for myself but if someone else does, I’ll wear it. And they do your make-up too,” she says, sounding pleased, as she loves a bit of lippy, and an aubergine tint in her hair.
Because despite the rebranding, Brand has retained her ability to subvert expectations, as well as her feminist or left-wing principles, along with her talent for devastating one-liners. She’s been making us laugh for 40 years, since Channel 4’s late night comedy show Saturday Live in the late 80s, after she’d already made her name as the heckle-proof deadpan ‘Sea Monster’ on London’s comedy circuit. Her own shows Jo Brand’s Big Splash and Jo Brand Through The Cakehole followed and she became a regular panellist on Have I Got News For You, QI, Would I Lie To You and Countdown. Moving into writing, she penned and starred in NHS comedy Getting On, for which she won a Bafta to add to her four British Comedy Awards and most recently, social services satire Damned. Her several books include an autobiography and novels, one of which she adapted into this year’s film The More You Ignore Me, starring Sheridan Smith. And there’s her latest book, the amusingly useful life guide, Born Lippy: How to Do Female. All of which amounts to the sort of career that leads to you being called ‘national treasure’, so how does she feel about that?
“It’s not my favourite thing because it limits your behaviour. I don’t hate it, it’s quite funny, but I would reserve judgement because I don’t want to behave like a national treasure for the rest of my life. I might want to do things that don’t fit into that category…”
Such as… back in the Extra Slice studio it’s dessert week and Jo is revisiting the contestant’s chocolate spheres. The trick is to pour hot chocolate sauce over and watch it melt daintily, but an impatient Brand speeds things along with a tenderising mallet, inadvertently also smashing the white china plate underneath. “Sorry,” she says, unconvincingly, as the guests and studio audience cheer her on. This national treasure still has an irreverent bite.
Brand loves presenting Bake Off: An Extra Slice despite admitting that if we shouted ‘Show Us Your Bakes!’ at her, she’d come up with... “not much – a very plain sponge or a rhubarb crumble. The problem I have is making it look nice and Bake Off is as much about art as baking.”
Did she take the hosting gig for the comic potential of soggy bottoms, cracks and buns then?
“To be honest, I did it because they asked me, and I love its happy audience, funny panel and – unintentionally terrifying sometimes – audience baking. And I liked the format. It’s a bit like Have I Got News For You, presenting, with a panel of funny people and an audience.
“I’m doing another HIGNFY soon, hosting this time, and it’s like promotion, being a grown up,” she says.
The panel show allowed Brand to demonstrate her more reasonable than raging approach to feminism when she calmly reprimanded a dismissive Ian Hislop and the all-male panel for downplaying sexual harassment in the House of Commons, by saying, “For women, if you’re constantly being harassed, that builds up and wears you down.”
“I really like Ian a lot and have known him for years and I was really surprised, but I felt I had to say something. Because it’s a creeping thing, a collective set of experiences that wear you down. It’s not a one off touching your bum, or ‘you look gorgeous’, it builds up.”
As the mother of teenage daughters, Maisie and Eliza, Brand is used to being uncool, but for once they were impressed.
“They loved it because I was trending on Twitter for three months. And I’m pleased it got the attention it did. My instinct was to speak quietly because it’s such a cliché about feminists, that they’re just a load of shouty women with no sense of humour.”
At which point it seems apposite to insert one of the jokes from Born Lippy:
How many Feminists Does it Take to Change a Lightbulb?
Do it yourself, you lazy bastard.
Things have changed for women in comedy too, for the better according to Brand as attitudes have moved on.
“For a long time male comedy was described as being lots of different styles – Eddie Izzard did surreal, others did puns – and women were just ‘women doing comedy’, but these days women are allowed to have all kinds of different personalities and styles.”
Away from the telly, Brand is back on stage and heading for Edinburgh, with Birmingham Repertory Theatre’s Nativity! The Musical.
Thanks to Maisie and Eliza, she has been to her share of nativity plays and is a big fan of the Nativity! films. “What you do is totally focus on what your child is playing, even if they’re a rock or sheep, and for my money, the more mistakes the better.
“I’m playing a newspaper critic who starts off cynical and is swept away with the show because the kids are so great.”
Being self-deprecating, Brand is downplaying her own starring role in a school nativity, when she played not ‘Bethlehem’, as she’s claimed, but Mary.
“Well, I remember virtually nothing about it, apart from wearing a white head thing and a blue dress. It was the 1960s and traditional – no space ships – they didn’t give Mary an awful lot to say. Mary doesn’t say a word in the Bible, it’s all Joseph. And she was very pregnant, wasn’t she, so she’d probably just have said ‘My God I’m tired.’”
Born in South London in July 1957 to an engineer and social worker, with an older and younger brother, Josephine Grace Brand grew up in Kent then moved schools at 15, hated it and started to skive, smoke and drink. In Born Lippy she doesn’t hold back describing her headstrong teen years with stories of the time her dad punched her heroin addict boyfriend, or when he threw all her clothes on a bonfire after he and her mother caught underage Brand coming out of Emmanuelle, stoned, accompanying seven men, the incident that prompted her leaving the family home.
Moving in with her posh heroin addict boyfriend, she went on the pill and put on four stone, becoming the spiky haired, thick-skinned ‘Sea Monster’, an alternative comedian who faced down the hecklers with her deadpan drawl.
Ask Brand if she regrets leaving home as a teenager, she demurs.
“No… I would say I probably did the right thing actually because I don’t think things would have been any better at home and to some extent, my leaving added to the weight that made my father get some help. I needed to get out just because we were in one of those awful relationships where you can’t work it out and be calm.”
While honing her comedy she trained as a psychiatric nurse and worked at an emergency department where knives, guns and abuse were a reality and made the clubs look tame.
“When you’re a stand-up comedian and people are off their heads, you get a lot of abuse. But the manic phase of bipolar disorder is way more eloquent than the average drunk bellowing ‘f*** off you fat cow’”.
Brand’s ten years working as a psychiatric nurse provided her with background for her sitcoms satirising life at the sharp end of the caring professions and she acknowledges that her father’s struggle with depression may have influenced her original choice of career.
Set in a geriatric ward the BBC Four series Getting On, which she co-wrote and co-starred in three series of, was directed by Peter Capaldi and did for the NHS what The Thick Of It did for politics, as well as winning her a Bafta in 2011 for Best TV Comedy Performance. Meanwhile Damned, the second series of which screened this year on Channel 4 is set in a social services office, and stars Brand, and her friends Alan Davies and co-writer Morwenna Banks.
“They say write about what you know then you don’t have to spend a lot of time researching to make it relevant. That’s why I haven’t done any dramas about scaffolding. I stick to stuff I do know about, mental health, nursing, social work, and not many people are doing stuff about that. I have experienced a lot of life. My favourite comedy is the kind where you see that, where people have had proper jobs before they came into it. It adds something.”
Mental illness (and Morrissey and guinea pigs) is also dealt with in The More You Ignore Me, a novel she turned into a film, set in 1980s rural England. Starring Sheridan Smith as Gina, a schizophrenic mum who is hospitalised after becoming obsessed with a local weatherman, it also features Mark Addy, Sheila Hancock, Ricky Tomlinson and Brand herself.
“The central thing is how unglamorous it is to be ill like that, and its impact on the family. In the 1980s it was something that was kept private, shameful. My dad suffered depression from his teenage years and didn’t seek help until his mid-fifties. It’s unrecognisable now in comparison, and the power of the person seeking help has risen exponentially.
“A few of my friends who are psychiatric nurses saw it and they’re hard-bitten cynical people, so to make them cry and laugh too, I was satisfied. I couldn’t believe I had the power to move people with something I’d written.”
Her latest book Born Lippy: How to Do Female is moving too, as well as funny, and most of all useful. A collection of all the things Brand wishes she’d known, things she’s learnt, and things she hopes for the future, among the chapters are, How to Manage a Bully, Your Family And How To Survive It, Having Fun, Not Having Fun, How Not to Fall in Love, Feminism, a Rebranding and Staying Sane.
There’s also handy practical advice for you to try. Can’t get on with your toxic family? Lower your expectations. People making you unhappy? Ultimately, you can walk away. Nervous at parties? Try some ice-breakers: “What’s the most violent incident you’ve ever witnessed?” Or “What’s the worst lie you’ve ever told?”
Find yourself confronted with a flasher? Shout “That looks like a penis only smaller,” and for women faced with that old favourite: “You obviously hate men,” try “No I don’t, it’s just you”, while “You need a good shag”, can be dispensed with “I’ll look elsewhere then.”
Hitchhiking alone at night, falling in love with a heroin addict or smashing up an abusive driver’s windscreen when you have PMT? Read Brand’s own experience and it might put you off. Although she’s conflicted about that last one.
“I’m not advocating violence,” she says, “but if you do suffer from PMT be aware you might go there one day. I used to control it 95 per cent of the time, and when I didn’t, I tried to appreciate it. And it was always towards things, never people, and that’s not quite so bad.
“The book is all stuff that was familiar to me, that happened to me or was interesting to me. Hence the lack of a chapter on motor mechanics. I wrote it for my daughters in a way.
“If you’re a comedian rule number one is ‘be funny’. There are serious bits but a lot of it is tongue in cheek. I don’t like to give advice and I think the best way is to tell people stories about what went wrong for you and say, if you can avoid doing that you’ll be better off.”
Brand is keen to write more novels – “so I don’t have to get dressed” – but hasn’t lost her love of stand-up. The problem is being away too much from the South London home she shares with husband of 21 years, Bernie Bourke, a psychiatric nurse, her daughters and cats Louis and Dotty. Script-writing and TV work suit her at the moment, but she’s never been one for five or ten year plans.
“As things come up I think do I want to do it or not?” she says.
And she decided she did want to do the Edinburgh and London legs of the Nativity! The Musical tour as she “likes Scotland”. Speaking of which, Brand was one of the 200 celebrities who signed an open letter in the Guardian to the people of Scotland urging them to stay in the UK in 2014. Does she still think that, in the light of the Brexit vote?
“Well, I think so, just because I like Scotland,” she says. “But to be honest, I don’t blame you for wanting to leave because I would if I was in Scotland. You have policies that are good on health, such as free care for the elderly, and it’s more caring.
“As for Brexit, I would support another referendum because I think we are much better suited being in Europe than on our own, but it looks as if around half of the people are delighted by Brexit, and that’s quite a difficult thing to live with.
“A bit of me thinks ‘you’ve made your bed, see what happens when you haven’t got enough people for the health service, doctors, teachers…’ Let’s see what happens. I think we are in the last chance saloon and if we do leave, I’m not sure how it’s going to be,” she says, sounding resigned.
But if anyone should be tempted to say to her, “Cheer up love, it may never happen!” I refer you to one of her handy general purpose put-downs, “Keep talking and it will.”
Jo Brand will appear in Nativity! The Musical, Festival Theatre Edinburgh, Wednesday 28 November to Sunday 2 December, evenings Weds to Sat 7:30pm, Sun 5pm, matinees Thurs and Sat 2:30pm, Sun 1pm.
For tickets (£22-£55), tel: 0131-529 6000, www.capitaltheatres.com/nativity
Born Lippy: How to Do Female by Jo Brand is published by John Murray Press, at £20, out now.