My blog yesterday, in which comedian Charmian Hughes remembered her teenage crush on disgraced UK politician Chris Huhne has had more than a normal share of hits. And the Mr & ex-Mrs Huhne court soap saga is again all over today’s newspapers.
But Charmian asked me this morning: “Why is it OK for (alternative comedy godfather) Malcolm Hardee to have two driving licences, deny offences and have affairs and yet be seen as a jolly old loveable rogue as a result, but for Chris to do the same thing and to be the most vilified man in the press?”
“Perhaps,” I teased, “you still hold a torch for him? Or maybe just a small Swan Vestas match?”
“No,” Charmian replied, “but Chris was urbane, witty, clever and took my mind outside its bourgeois confines for the first time. I remember all the exotic things he introduced me to: Nescafé Continental Blend, Das Kapital, progressive underground music, mime….”
I have no answer to this.
But Charmian is taking her full-length show Charmageddon! to the Leicester Comedy Festival at the end of next week.
“The Mayans predicted the end of the world in December last year,” she told me. “It didn’t happen… But maybe we misunderstood what they meant by the end of the world. Maybe they meant the end of the world when your heart is broken, when you realise your boyfriend is imaginary, your teenage crush thinks you’re a nuisance and when you discover you are not adopted. That’s what Charmageddon! is about and it ends with the erotic Dance of the Seven Cardigans which will restore order to the universe.”
“But will it include personal stories about Chris Huhne?” I asked.
“I will probably mention him,” admitted Charmian, “I will fill in the censored bits I didn’t tell you yesterday. Charmageddon! is about what happens when your world ends.”
Later this year, she will be taking her new, as-yet untitled comedy show to the Edinburgh Fringe.
“It is going to be stories about always being a minority,” she told me this morning. “About being a girl in a boys’ school, a Catholic in a protestant family, a Catholic with a Protestant mother in a fiercely Catholic school, about my great escape from minority to belonging. I might call it Odd One Out.”
“Or Odd One In,” I suggested.
“Or not,” she said. “I performed at the last two Edinburgh Fringes after a long child-rearing break of 17 years and Edinburgh is very addictive. You get to do those student things all over again. You know – break out in hives from poor nutrition, pursue the elusive, spend a lot of time hanging out on street corners trying to attract the one you want – a big audience – obsess about whether anyone is talking about you (the legendary ‘buzz’) and then slip your sad face back despondently into your instant cappuccino. I love it.”
“When you went back to the Fringe after the 17 year break,” I asked, “did you notice a change?”
“There was more stuff,” Charmian said, “and, when I came back again, it felt like there was much more big business, corporate stuff and fewer weirdy little plays.”
When I first went up in the early 1970s,” I agreed, “it was more of a student theatre Fringe. It only started being comedy in maybe the mid-1980s.”
“The first time I went up,” said Charmian, “was with my university in about 1977. We went up to the main International Festival to do The Soldier’s Tale which was Stravinsky ballet stuff and I went up to help and also to do readings of my own poems at lunchtimes.
“At first, I didn’t get many in, but then I realised if I did it straight after The Soldier’s Tale and actually locked the audience in the room, then I had a huge audience. My poems were very long. I took my poetry very seriously.”
“And,” I asked, “you stopped because…?”
“I discovered comedy,” said Charmian immediately. “I found that people had started to laugh at my dark, dark, dark poems and I thought If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. So I discovered comedy. I’m now thinking of doing a burlesque show.”
“You are?” I asked.
“You’re suddenly interested now, aren’t you?” observed Charmian. “I think they’ll find it very interesting when I have seven cardigans and, one-by-one, I put them on in the Dance of the Seven Cardigans.”
“You got good reviews for your Edinburgh show last year.”
“I did. One reviewer said my show was ‘intelligent and well-put together’, but I didn’t use the quote in case people dug further. The same reviewer said ‘despair turns to horror’.”
“Using review quotes in Edinburgh is an art form in itself,” I suggested.
“The only trouble with Edinburgh,” said Charmian, “is it’s annoying not having a summer holiday with my family.”
“Can’t they come up to Edinburgh?”
“They want the sun,” explained Charmian.
“Ah,” I said sympathetically.
“And they distract me too much,” she added. “When my daughter came up two years ago, I found it exhausting because she didn’t understand the pain and torment we were all going through as performers and she wanted things like cake and cups of tea.”
“What pain and torment?” I asked.
“You know,” said Charmian. “Having to walk up hills. Last year, I got an Edinburgh monthly bus pass and found there was no bus that went to where I lived, so I had to walk.”
“When did you start doing comedy?” I asked.
“I think I started in about 1985 but, the first few years, I was just mucking around, doing my Teatro de Existentiale. I did Malcolm Hardee’s Tunnel Club a lot and then he would book me into weird colleges and balls.”
“Balls?” I asked.
“Balls,” confirmed Charmian. “He booked lots of us on the college circuit. We would all go off to colleges and do 20 minutes and get £90 and he would get £600 to do one joke and then walk off.”
“Did you enjoy Malcolm?” I asked.
“What can I say?” replied Charmian. “Errr… I did. I did. But I don’t like being teased. I had a family that teased me mercilessly from the moment I was born, telling me I was adopted and stuff. I find it quite hard being teased. So Malcolm probably thought I was a bit of a wet blanket and a killjoy.”
“Back in 1989, what did you think you wanted to become?” I asked.
“In 1989, I was just so relieved to be experiencing anything like comedy, because I’d had this job in advertising. Eventually I was a copywriter, but I’d had to go in at the bottom as a personnel clerk.
“I had come out of university with my degree in English and I couldn’t get any work. I just didn’t know how to present myself without apologising all the time. But that job in advertising made you lose the will to live.
“So I went to the City Lit for clowning classes just to meet different types of people and then I hung out with them, left my job and started a children’s theatre and then, at Molesworth Peace Camp, when I was a bit drunk and maybe a bit stoned, I got up on stage with a red nose on and just started mucking around and people thought I was so brilliant they threw plastic cups at me. But I felt like I’d been rescued and I didn’t care if I was good or bad, just that I was doing it.”
“Had you,” I asked, “felt the threat of ordinariness stretching ahead of you?”
“I didn’t mind being ordinary,” said Charmian, “but I hated feeling suffocated.”
“By what?” I asked.
“I… err… I’d have to go into a lot of things…” said Charmian. “I… Not professionally, but as a person… I can’t think of a funny way to say it… I had a very emotionally-abusive family who basically bullied me all the time. I felt very crushed as a person for a long time. But it’s all alright now. A lot of them died and left me their money!” Charmian laughed.
“Just performing comedy helped,” she said.
“I’ve never known anyone called Charmian before,” I said. “Where does that come from?”
“It comes from Antony & Cleopatra. Charmian and Iris were Cleopatra’s handmaidens.”
“Does ‘Charmian’ mean something?”
“Source of joy.”
“In what language?”