Interview: Susan Calman on her Edinburgh Festival talk show Fringe Benefits

Susan Calman is up for a chat. Witty and irreverent, she loves a laugh, a bit of banter, and that's exactly what the Strictly star, TV presenter and comedian is going to be doing this Festival on BBC2 tomorrow night. Susan Calman's Fringe Benefits is her pick of the Fringe, with comedians, actors and another Strictly veteran all lined up for a chat with her in the heart of the action in the BBC Blue Tent.

Susan Calman invites you to sit down for an evening of stand up with Frange Benefits on BBC 2. Picture: Steve Ullathorne
Susan Calman invites you to sit down for an evening of stand up with Frange Benefits on BBC 2. Picture: Steve Ullathorne

Susan Calman is up for a chat. Witty and irreverent, she loves a laugh, a bit of banter, and that’s exactly what the Strictly star, TV presenter and comedian is going to be doing this Festival on BBC2 tomorrow night. Susan Calman’s Fringe Benefits is her pick of the Fringe, with comedians, actors and another Strictly veteran all lined up for a chat with her in the heart of the action in the BBC Blue Tent.

With almost 4,000 shows in 300 venues, the Fringe is bewildering but Calman has a top method for cutting through the shows that leave you feeling as flat as a flyer in the Cowgate gutter to find those that sparkle like the Strictly Glitterball.

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“The thing with the Fringe, I always say to people, is to buy a ticket for someone you like and know, and also take a chance on someone you don’t – go to the free Fringe, don’t just go for a five star review, because reviewers can be desperately wrong about comedy. Don’t just go to the shows you think are going to be good, because sometimes the shows that are a bit weird are the ones you talk about all night. I once went to see a show called Beckett in a Bucket, someone pulling Beckett quotes from a plastic bucket… And go by word of mouth, that’s the best way.”

Susan Calman discovered a love of dance on Strictly, with partner Kevin Clifton on last year's show Picture: Guy Levy (C) BBC
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Calman’s own word of mouth can be found in her Fringe Benefits recommendations, and will see comedians Daniel Sloss, Felicity Ward, Zoe Lyons, Miles Jupp, Sindhu Vee, Alex Edelman, Luisa Omielian, actor Julie Hesmondhalgh and fellow Strictly survivor Judy Murray on the Fringe Benefits sofa.

“It’s kind of a chat show, speaking to guests and also stand-up performances from comedians at the Fringe, a broad spread. I’m so pleased about the programme because for years we’ve not really had TV coverage of stand-up comedy and chat at the Fringe.”

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Calman hopes the one-off festival show will grow into a full series next year “filmed late at night showcasing stand-up in Scotland like Live Floorshow did, like the Funny Farm – which had Bill Hicks on it, Rhona Cameron’s first stand up – I think it’s time for another show like that,” she says.

Susan Calman dances away with an honorary degree from the University of Glasgow in June. Picture: John Devlin

A former corporate lawyer, 43-year-old Calman lives in Glasgow with her wife Lee, who she married in 2015, and five cats, Pickle, Daisy Fay Harper, DCI Jane Tennison, Olivia Pope and Dr Abigail Bartlet, the nomenclature signifying Calman’s love of a strong female protagonist.

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“They’re all rescue cats, the ones no-one else wants; one has anxiety, another a heart murmur, another a pancreas problem. We call our house The Calman Home for Wayward Girls. Our dream is to one day retire and have a cat and greyhound and donkey sanctuary, somewhere with a more temperate climate.”

After the Festival, Calman has a new TV show for Channel 5, Secret Scotland, in which she reveals the secrets of the country’s iconic destinations. Loch Ness, Skara Brae, Rosslyn Chapel, Stirling and Edinburgh Castles, you think you know them, well think again. There are secrets to be told and Calman’s the woman to winkle them out.

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“For instance at Stirling Castle they told me that Mary, Queen of Scots was 5 ft 11 and gorgeous, played football and spoke several languages. You can understand why thingymabob, Elizabeth, hated her so much. She was this striking, beautiful woman, north of the Border, and not only was she claiming the throne, but she looked like a supermodel, only ever wearing black or white. And I just didn’t know any of that about her.”

In Secret Scotland Calman also gets hands-on, from golf to Highland dancing and while she may have scored on Strictly, the traditional dancing proved more of a challenge. “Not good. That was not good. My instructor was a world champion and wonderful, but it became clear very quickly that I was not capable of doing anything because it’s so technical in terms of feet and arm placement. It took Kevin eight hours a day, five days a week to teach me one minute 30 seconds. I’m not a natural dancer.” She laughs.

Making her name in stand-up, after leaving her legal career, Calman is a veteran of stand-up tours and knows the circuit, including the Fringe well. Apart from an appearance at the Big Brain Benefit, her first stand-up in two years, she’s not performing comedy live at the Festival, and has no plans for another stand-up tour at the moment, preferring to concentrate on presenting and writing.

“I love stand-up, but I’ve kind of stopped doing it because of the commitment – a year to write it, a year to tour it, when you can’t do anything else, and I toured for four years, 170 dates each tour. You’re away from home a lot and it restricts other things you can do and I want to do more presenting and acting. So I decided to stop doing the stand-up for a few years to see how other things develop. I’d love to expand on presenting work on TV.

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A regular on BBC Radio 4 comedies, The News Quiz and I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, she’s equally at home on TV with QI and Have I Got News for You, and last year presented BBC1’s play-along whodunnit show Armchair Detectives.

“I’m lucky because I do radio, TV and stand-up, things like Strictly and CBBC, so I have a diverse audience, lots of people liking what I’m doing.”

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Moving more into writing as well as presenting, Calman has already written three radio series, including a sitcom, and has just had her new radio show commissioned by Radio 4.

“We’ll record it next year and it’ll be broadcast in the autumn,” she says. “It’s called Susan Calman Makes Me Happy and it’s about things that make me happy.”

She’s also writing TV scripts and has written herself into one of them, so more acting could be on the agenda. Between 2011 and 2013 she played Nadine the ‘just holding it together with a cheery smile and a bucket load of platitudes’ therapist in the student life comedy Fresh Meat.

“I’m writing a drama and a comedy, and who knows, they might well come to something. Comedy is something I understand more, but drama is structurally a little more interesting, so that’s been fascinating. I’d love to move into doing more.”

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“There’s so much good British drama at the moment. I just watched Marcella and Unforgotten and I love the very dark humour you get in Last Tango in Halifax and Happy Valley.”

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As well as writing scripts, Calman has a second book out, with a (sold out) preview at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival. Entitled Sunny Side Up, A Story of Kindness and Joy, it’s an update on Calman’s journey since her 2016 book Cheer Up Love: Adventures in Depression with the Crab of Hate. She started writing it before Strictly and there’s a fistful of sequins in there, but there are also chapters entitled “body confidence, how to take your clothes off without hating yourself”.

“I started it when I was on my last stand-up tour, just after the Brexit referendum and I just wanted to bring positivity back and talk about kindness and the effect of kindness. At every gig I would ask the audience to tweet me their stories of kindness, often from strangers, like seeing someone ahead of you at the till in the supermarket who can’t pay and saying, ‘I haven’t seen you in ages, here’s that fiver I owe you.’”

At this point she reaches back to her law training and study of forensic medicine to make her point.

“It’s the forensics principle of every contact leaves a trace, and as human beings every contact we have will leave a trace, so why not try and leave a positive one?”

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Calman already had this twitter tsunami of kindness coming her way from the tour when she launched herself on Strictly, which also danced its way into the book.

“That was such an extraordinary experience, one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life. It’s just joyous, and brings people a lot of happiness.”

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Always a huge fan of Strictly, Calman wowed viewers with her joie de vivre and the way she handled the twitter trolls, pointing out to the social media body shamers that whatever they said, she was having a glitterball. The audience approved and she lasted ten weeks of the competition, and later carried off one of the coveted trophies with her professional dancer partner Kevin Clifton from this summer’s Strictly Cruise round the Mediterranean. It sits in her dining room next to her Pointless Celebrities trophy, “the two most important things I’ve ever won in my life. The yin and yang of being on telly,” she says.

“It was like one of those old Hollywood films where you end up dancing with the leading man. To me it was a complete dream. I ended up dancing a quickstep and a tango which is not something I ever thought would happen, and the reaction… I still get hugged by strangers in supermarkets! I’ve never done anything that’s had such a positive response in my entire life, from little kids to older people, it just makes them all smile and that’s great.”

Being a smile-seeking missile, Calman has a theory why Strictly is such a hit with audiences, after 15 seasons pulling in more than 13 million to watch its star-spangled finale.

“I think it’s partly the dancing of course, but it’s also because it’s a very simple show. People trying dancing on a Saturday night, the costumes, lovely lights, and it’s a happy show.

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“And for me, learning to dance, and the friendship I had with Kevin, was just beautiful, I’ve never laughed so much in my life as I did with him, he’s just so funny. We trained eight hours a day, five days a week and didn’t see anyone else, so when you spend that much time with someone doing something so intense, you really do build up a huge bond.

“There was a joy of dancing that I never thought I would find. I literally have never been happier than when I was doing some of those dances, and that translated to joy in an audience.”

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This sheer joy at dancing finds its way into Sunny Side Up, and it’s clear that Strictly also influenced Calman’s thoughts on learning to be kinder to ourselves.

“I had to learn that on Strictly. Because it was exposing in terms of wearing those dresses and dancing. For goodness’ sake, I was dancing in front of a million people! Cheer Up Love was a book about depression and being hard on myself, and this one is about the progress of being kinder, and if you’re kind to yourself you can be kind to others. When you’re filled with anger at yourself and wake up in the morning disliking yourself, your outlook of the world is less kind. If you have a gentler outlook on life, then you tend to be slightly gentler on others; it’s a holistic approach to trying to be kind and joyous.”

If the chapter on about Kevin Clifton was hard to write – “I cried throughout the entire thing, because I just love the stupid boy,” she says, and has an “I love Grimsby” tattoo on her foot in commemoration of his hometown to prove it – the one on body confidence was tougher.

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“It’s about how it felt being in those dresses and putting myself out there,” she says.

A pink frothy concoction in which to dance the quickstep, Calman’s all-time favourite of her Strictly dances, is one thing, but doing a samba in a Wonder Woman outfit when you’re only 4ft 11 is another. And Calman definitely wasn’t feeling the effects of Diana Prince’s projectile tiara, indestructible bracelets and invisible jet as she stood backstage, knees knocking, waiting to go on stage.

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“I said to Kevin, ‘I don’t think I can do it,’ and he fronted me. He said, ‘You’re Michelle Obama, you’re Gal Gadot, you’re Oprah Winfrey, you’re a powerful woman. Strut it like that!’ That was a life-changing moment. I went ‘well, sod this then, why not? Let’s just be Wonder Woman.’”

“People think because you do stand-up that you’re confident, but I’m very risk-averse, I don’t like change. But I have realised if I do something outwith my comfort zone, it can actually be pretty brilliant, so why not try and do that with the rest of my life?”

Which is why, given the choice of one costume from the show to keep, Calman went for Wonder Woman.

“Occasionally I’ll take the bins out wearing it,” she jokes. “I’m going to get it framed and put it in the hallway so I’ll see it every day and think ‘Come on Calman, you can do it! If you can do that, you can do this, whatever it is!’”

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• Susan Calman’s Fringe Benefits, BBC2 Scotland, Sunday, 10pm and on BBC iPlayer