Jan Ravens: I'm glad I left it late to make Fringe debut

Feminism comes in many forms. Sadly many of those forms exist nowadays only on stages, social media and T-shirts. Jan Ravens is from a time when women were still storming the metaphorical barricades of the literal boys' clubs.

Jan Ravens: "When Theresa May did that speech on the steps of No10 I thought 'Oh Yes!'". Picture: Contributed
Jan Ravens: "When Theresa May did that speech on the steps of No10 I thought 'Oh Yes!'". Picture: Contributed

“When I was in the Cambridge Footlights, no women were writing,” she says, over a pot of tea. “We got to pop up in the sketches and be the sort of “your laugh is here, Mr Smith” feeds, but that was it.”.

When Jan, Emma Thompson and Sandi Toksvig did their female review in 1980, it was the first time women had written for the Footlights. “Miriam Margolyes told us in quite vitriolic terms,” says Jan, “about how she wasn’t allowed in the Club Room. She could be in the show but she couldn’t be a club member.” But not only did Jan Ravens get membership, she became the first ever female President of the Cambridge Footlights. She frowns. “Once I started I wondered why they had not got a woman before … there was really quite a lot of drudgery involved.”

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She followed up her pioneering presidential office by directing Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson and Tony Slattery in the Footlights Review which won the inaugural Perrier Award. That, she freely admits, was “intimidating” but her success gave her the clout to lead womankind into another Big Boys’ Club: the BBC. “I was asked to go and be a BBC radio comedy producer.” This was no small responsibility. “There was a lot of pressure, being the first woman. You pretty much know that if you muck it up they will never hire a woman again.” Her peers were Gryff Rhys Jones, Jimmy Mulville and Geoffrey Perkins. “It was like some sort of country club. Geoffrey Perkins told me that the head of the department took the chaps aside for a little cautionary word: “Now Jan’s a woman so you will probably find that at certain times of the month she’ll be a bit difficult.” She shrugs. “It was a different world.” But it was one she helped change.

However, producing was never on the Ravens To Do List.

She did drama and education at Cambridge and trained as a teacher. Coming, as she did, from Birkenhead, it was generally accepted one had to have “something to fall back on”. But in her heart, she always wanted to be an actress. Specifically, she wanted to be Glenda Jackson, who also came from Birkenhead. And an actress she became, list of RSC credits and all.

She left her groundbreaking producing job at the BBC, got back into performing via shows with Sandi Toksvig and, later, her first husband, musician Steve Brown. On the basis of the quality of her studio warm-up performances, she was taken on by agent Vivian Clore and kicked off her career in impressions on Carrott’s Lib. When Spitting Image came along, she had found her comedy fiefdom and has ruled ever since.

Although Ravens and the Fringe are not exactly strangers, this show will be her first solo performance. Fifty-nine might seem a tad late for a debut but, in fact, that is part of the point of the show.

“The show is partly a celebration of a tide in the affairs of women. There are so many women in positions of power now, and it became a question of if not now … when ?”

The timing is not just about catching the a neap tide in womanly power, but also marks a turning point for Ravens personally.

“ There were suddenly a lot of things in my own life that I couldn’t control. I thought, ‘I have to give myself a kick up the arse and get out there’,” she says, suddenly sounding very Iron Butterfly. “I’ve been through the change – it’s a funny time of life – and I felt I needed a reboot, so I changed my agent, I put some films out on YouTube and I decided to do Edinburgh.”

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That rebooting process is also a lot of what the show is about. “It is about me and about women in their 50s … and the kind of choices there are for you... if you are not going to be Prime Minister.”

Do not worry, Dead Ringers fans. Theresa May will be there. But so will Jan Ravens.

“In my mum’s time a menopause was… here you go, have a shampoo and set and a hysterectomy. It was a full stop. Now it’s a comma. Now we know we will live to our early eighties and I have another 
30 years to go so… embrace it. If there is something you want to do go out and do it … don’t sit there waiting for things to happen to you.”

She pours more tea. “I have so many friends whose kids have left home and they are saying “Oh I don’t want to rush things... I’m just going to take stock,” but, you know, they’ve been taking stock for the last 20 years! Get out and do something.”

She worries about having to wait for the hindsight goggles to be fitted before seeing how good you have it. “You know when you look back at photos of you in your teens when you were so worried about being fat and you look at the picture and think ‘You’re not fat! You are beautiful… why are you worrying?’ These are the times we’re gonna look back on and think … I had it all going on...”

She talks about her mother in the show, and compares their lives. “Mum took care of Dad, who was schizophrenic and, in those days, she just couldn’t talk about it with anyone, she just had to be stoic and get on with things.

“When I have had troubles, all through them I have had drugs, therapy, family, friends – just so much support. Recently I was very anxious : my husband was ill and I was trying to write this show and the first previews were coming up and my therapist said ‘Just get some more diazepam.’ She told me to think of it as part of my toolkit. Just take it and feel better… it is far better for you!”

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And the tools, plus a new partner, seem to be working, previews have gone well and Jan and her Difficult Woman will be entertaining Edinburgh for the full three weeks.

I ask if she worries, in this image-obsessed world, that women in the public eye will become more anodyne.

“Oh these days people like Anne Widdicombe and Clare Short wouldn’t even get selected, they just look too extraordinary,” she nods.

Luckily, for every anodyne Blair Babe there is a Theresa May. “When she was Home Secretary I was always saying to the guys on (Dead) Ringers ‘We’ve got to do her!’ But she never said anything! Finally, when she stood on the steps of No 10 and did that sort of Francis of Assisi speech I thought ‘Oh yes !’ There was this diaphonic voice… the tense mouth… and a complete lack of authenticity.

“I knew there was so much I could do with her and Brexit and everything.” She looks suddenly worried. “Although now I am thinking ‘Is she going to last until Edinburgh?’”

I never imagined I would say this but, please, Mrs May, stay. At least until the end of the month.

Jan Ravens: Difficult Woman, Gilded Balloon Teviot, until 27 August. Today, 7pm.