Award-winning Janet Bettesworth: her Mercenaries novel and a Ukraine song

Walking a tight-rope on a roller-coaster

Stand-up comedian and comedy club promoter Janet Bettesworth has published her first novel Mercenaries

The blurb says it “plunges into the no-holds-barred dark world of Airbnb machinations” in which “Carla, a comedian, and Louise, an actress, are bribed by an elderly landlady, Alice to… extract revenge… A mélange of gruesome memories emerges as events unfold”.

And… “This plot line walks a tight-rope on a roller-coaster! And includes all you need to know about Butlins Holiday Camp Margate, Countess Elizabeth Bathory, racism, Airbnbs, #MeToo, bribery, the Royals, insects, coffins, croissants, failed comedians and revenge.”

Janet started creating the book by posting a series of her portraits of characters on Facebook (I blogged about it in 2020) and asking people to suggest their backgrounds.

So I had a chat with Janet and fellow comic Peter Stanford at her undeniably prestigious book launch in South London.


JOHN: So why write this book?

JANET: The genesis was when I won £1,000 in a writing competition.

JOHN: From whom?

JANET: The Oldie magazine. The topic was The worst job I’ve ever had.

JOHN: Which was?

JANET: Being a waitress at a Butlin’s holiday camp in Margate. I had to go to the Garrick Club where The Oldie held their Award thing. I went with (comedian) Will Franken. 

The evening dragged on and they hadn’t told me when the presentation was going to happen. I really needed to go to the loo and thought: When on earth is it going to be time to give out the prize? Everyone was drinking away so I thought I’ll quickly just nip to the loo and the next thing I knew there was a banging on the door of the toilet and it was Will Franken…

JOHN: This was the Ladies toilet? 

JANET: Yes.

JOHN: Was he dressed as a lady?

JANET: No. But, by the time I got back, they had lugged (comedy icon) Barry Cryer on to fill the gap because there was no Me to be seen anywhere… Barry Cryer was in the middle of one of his parrot jokes but they kind of wheeled me on and I looked a bit shamefaced… When they wrote it up in The Oldie, it was all my fault this had happened: the person who didn’t really know what they were doing.

PETER: One would have thought they would have checked you were there before making the announcement…

JANET: Exactly! OR told me when it was going to happen.

JOHN: … or done the presentation in the toilet.

JANET: Before all that, I had been going round the room talking to various people who didn’t know anything about me. But, after the presentation, everyone was incredibly much more friendly. So I talked to Maureen Lipman and also to this really nice woman called Elizabeth Luard and she said: Have you ever thought of writing a book? And I said I genuinely felt it was beyond me.

I’d read hundreds of books and quite often I would be so full of admiration for the writer but I would think it was one step too far: I wouldn’t be able to do it.

JOHN: So why did you do The Oldie competition if you weren’t interested in writing yourself?

JANET: Well, I could write short things. Like for comedy writing….

But Elizabeth Luard said: If you can write something like the short Oldie piece, all you need to do is get ten more bits of that length and sew them all together.

JOHN: So the book is not so much a novel, more like a series of vignettes.

JANET: You’ve not read the book, have you?

JOHN: No.

Former art teacher Janet’s portrait of Peter Stanford…

PETER: Do you even own a copy of the book?

JOHN: I was hit by a truck in 1991 and can’t read books. I can write them, but I can’t read them.

PETER: You could always buy it and not read it…

JOHN: When is the audio book coming out?

JANET: Actually, a blind friend of mine asked the same thing. But I’ve never had anything published before and I’m completely new and it’s a strange world to me. My husband reads to me every single day, usually in the afternoon. I love being read to and he loves reading things out loud. We’ve read the Diaries of Alan Clark and… 

PETER: Does your husband do all the voices?

JANET: Yes. He always does the voices. I have actually had part of Mercenaries read out loud by a voice artist: Seanie Ruttledge.

 He read out the very first bit, which is quite pornographic.

JOHN: That’s a good start. If they read the first five pages, they’ll get some porn.

JANET: Oh, there’s plenty more after that.

JOHN: Why is the book called Mercenaries?

JANET: One of the themes is the difference in outlook between the generations. You have two women – the slightly younger generation – who are tangentially in the comedy or acting worlds. One of them is a vegan and she is very Me Too; and the other one is an elderly woman called Alice. So it’s the way she is viewed.

JOHN: Autobiographical in some way? 

JANET: I am 77 at the moment. When I was about 68, that’s when I started doing stand-up comedy and, in a way, going to all these gigs was a bit like going back to my youth. The kind of atmosphere of going to all these gigs was like a kind of renaissance, in a way.

Janet’s impression of me as an East End street trader…?

JOHN: It gave you a new lease of life?

JANET: Yes. And it gave me a sort of different prism to see the world.

JOHN: And the relevance of that to the book is…?

JANET: Well, they’re both aspects of me.

JOHN: So, if you’re describing different aspects of yourself, did it make you understand something more about yourself?

JANET: (DUBIOUSLY) I suppose so, yes. The hard part was trying to put it more together so there was some sort of plot.

JOHN: The easy bit was the pornography?

JANET: I dunno.

JOHN: You are an arty person as opposed to a wordy person. You were an Art teacher…

JANET: (DUBIOUSLY) Is it not possible to have both interests?

JOHN: Yes, but I thought maybe you were a fulfilled arty person and an unfulfilled wordy person.

JANET: I suppose. 

JOHN: Have you an idea for another book in your brain?

JANET: I did have the other day, but… 

JOHN: I know. I can’t remember what happened yesterday.

JANET: All the proceeds are going to the Ukraine, by the way. 

PETER: The book was published after the Russians invaded Ukraine.

JOHN: So the profits go to Ukraine charities for how long? Forever?

Janet checks the Ukrainian song’s lyrics…

JANET: Why not? Until Ukraine stops needing it, I suppose.

JOHN: So, if it’s all going to Ukraine, you’re going to earn nothing from this.

JANET: Great.

JOHN: So are you going to write another book?

JANET: I don’t know. I just have to wait for…

(AT THIS POINT, PETER PULLED OUT A PIECE OF SHEET MUSIC…)

PETER: We can sing. Here’s a song in Ukrainian. 19th century.

(JANET, WHO CAN READ MUSIC, STARTED SINGING “A PRAYER FOR UKRAINE”…)

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