Mum was murdered and my in-laws are gangsters

GLASGOW comedienne Janey Godley had a radically different upbringing from most of the nice middle-class white boys working the stand-up circuit today and it shows in her material. Not for her lame philosophical debates about whether Bagpuss was better than The Clangers, or why men don’t lift the toilet seat. Godley’s humour comes from a much darker place.

"My mum was murdered," she states, matter of factly. "She ended up in the Clyde. I was abused by an uncle and ended up marrying into a family of gangsters."

Some of her show at this year’s Fringe Festival revolves around an incident some years ago when guns and explosives were found in a house where she was living. "At the time it was really frightening and I thought I was going to go away for a long time," she says. "How we got out of it is the best punchline in the whole world."

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It is a bleak history in many ways but not one in which Godley has let the darker elements dictate her life. Married for 25 years and with an 18-year-old daughter, she is at a stage in her life where she has dealt with her troubles.

But while others might choose to keep the more disturbing aspects of their past confidential, Godley turns them into award-winning stand-up comedy.

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"I decided to tackle subjects people don’t normally tackle," she says. "I make child abuse funny on stage. I talk about my mum being murdered. There are funny sides to all that." Or at least Godley can make her experiences funny.

In 2002, she won Best Show Concept and Best International Comedian award at two New Zealand comedy festivals.

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This year, a Radio 4 show she appeared in won a gold gong at the Sony Radio Awards, and next year Random House is bringing out her autobiography, Handstands in the Dark.

It is not what people expect of a 43-year-old ex-pub owner who calls herself "uneducated and from the wrong side of the tracks", and Godley knows it. "When I go onstage I tell people I know what they are thinking: ‘She’s not a comedian. She’s just an over-friendly cleaner that chats a bit.’ I don’t look like a stand-up."

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Just as well, then, that she is so good at confounding expectations. Her early life certainly held out little promise. Godley’s was not a happy or stable family.

Her mother and father were both alcoholics and there was not a lot of money around. Her maternal uncle abused her for several years when she was a child. Thirty years later, she and her sister took him to court and he was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in 1996.

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Her mother drowned in the Clyde in 1982. Godley thinks it was murder but also says that had her mother been sober she would have crawled back out.

By this time, Godley was running a pub in Calton with her husband. It was just at the start of the heroin epidemic that laid waste to Scotland’s most vulnerable estates. Seventeen of Godley’s friends have died from drug abuse.

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"People assume that because I’m Glaswegian and used to own a pub that I am an alcoholic or I do drugs," says Godley. "I don’t. I’m actually very straight and stable. That annoys people and I don’t know why.

"It’s like you’re not damaged enough. People expect you to be a drug-f***ed, promiscuous, self-harmer and the bottom line is that I don’t drink, smoke or do drugs."

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Godley says she never touched drugs after seeing the harm they caused and never really got a taste for alcohol. She smoked for eight years and then stopped. "Next I’m going to give up chocolate and touching myself," she says.

For most people, her past had enough trauma to last several lifetimes but she also has her husband’s colourful family to draw upon should she ever be stuck for an anecdote.

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Godley is her stage name and she is careful never to reveal her husband’s identity. As she notes: "The whole show this year is about writing my book and trying to keep my family out the nick. There can’t be many women going to the Festival this year and saying: ‘Never mind Take A Break. I’ll give you handy hints on how to get Semtex off your walls.’"

Ask if her family are known to the police and she replies: "It’s not my family, it’s my husband’s family, and I don’t mention his name ever in the press."

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She adds that her husband has no interest in comedy or showbusiness, although he’s supportive of her choice. As to the rest of his family: "I don’t know what the rest of his family think of it. I don’t speak to them."

It seems unlikely, but never knowing if Godley will get to the end of a set without being busted adds a piquancy that tends to be missing from, say, watching a Puppetry of the Penis gig. At a recent show in Richmond an off-duty policeman stood up and said: "You know this should be reported." Godley countered with: "You know this isn’t my real name?"

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How much is true and how much is a good story is a secret that all comedians know to keep to themselves. Godley has different ideas. "Most comedians lie and people believe it. I tell the truth and people don’t," she says.

Good Godley, Smirnoff Underbelly (0870-745 3083), until Wednesday, 10pm