I chatted to Jenny Eclair at her home last week. In the first blog that came out of that, she talked about parts of her very varied career. In the second blog, she talked about iconic comedian Malcolm Hardee and that led on, obviously and easily, to his drinking.
“Towards the end, the last couple of years before he died,” I said, “I thought all those years of drinking were taking their toll and were showing.”
“But,” said Jenny, “brains do dry out as well. I have a friend who basically flooded his brain with alcohol but, because he now doesn’t live in London, he’s drying out. It’s like an old carpet. It’s gone a bit but it is repairing.”
“I have a smoker’s cough, but I don’t smoke,” I said. “I have a beer gut but I don’t drink. Sometimes I think I would be in better condition if I had taken heroin. Keith Richards can fall out of a tree with no problem and Dennis Hopper was perfectly lucid in his latter years.”
“Heroin’s better for your skin and it doesn’t make you fat,” suggested Jenny. “But the trouble with coming off heroin is you normally go to something else. Once an addict, always an addict.”
“I suppose someone could come off heroin and get addicted to the Salvation Army or something worse,” I mused.
“They’re just at the bottom of the road,” said Jenny. “The most beautiful building.”
“Yes,” I said, “I saw it coming out of Denmark Hill station.”
The Salvation Army building at Denmark Hill, South London
“The Salvation Army are actually quite good,” Jenny added, “because once Geoff (Jenny’s partner) was choking – he had been greedy over a sausage – and I was trying to give him the Heimlich manoeuvre but, because he was too fat, I couldn’t get both my arms round him. I was really struggling and he was about to die and there were two Salvation Army people walking past and they came in and they Heimliched him between them and saved his life. They also come and play Christmas carols round the corner, which is nice.”
“Well,” I said, “Christians, by and large, are OK.”
“They get a lot of stick these days,” said Jenny. “You’re not allowed to slag off any other religion. But you can slag off Christians. That pisses me off. There are too many smart-alecky people around in the media who wouldn’t dare slag off Moslems, who wouldn’t dream of slagging off Jews, but they give Christians a right old kicking and you just think: Hold on! Hold on here!
“I can’t bear the hypocrisy. It really does piss me off. Those people who do all the science stuff and find Christianity an easy target. They show an intolerance about Christians that isn’t allowed about anything else.”
“There’s nothing wrong with religion,” I suggested. “Just organised religion.”
“Or people talking about it to you,” said Jenny. “On the bus.”
“That’s people trying to convert you,” I said.
Jenny with her back to bad weather last week
“No. That’s because I live too close to the Maudsley Hospital. Nutters. A lot of religious nutters… Ooh, look at the weather. It’s horrible…” The rain had started battering on her back windows.
“I’ve got to go to Greenwich to deliver some Ladybird books to my eternally-un-named friend,” I said.
“I love Ladybird books,” said Jenny.
“My eternally-un-named friend,” I said, “was brought up in the RAF and you were an Army child, so you have that in common. You were in…?”
“Kuala Lumpur and Berlin and then Barnard Castle in County Durham,” Jenny replied. “Barnard Castle was tough. I went to a very tough school there.”
“People whose parents wear uniforms – police or armed forces or whatever – sometimes rebel, don’t they?” I asked. “You became a punk poet and comedian. Was that rebelling?”
Jenny performing at Malcolm Hardee’s Tunnel club in 1986 (Photograph by Bill Alford)
“No. My dad was an Army major, but he wasn’t ‘an army major’, if you see what I mean. He’s very funny. And my mum didn’t work – she was an Army wife – but she was very, very clever. In fact, she should have worked. She was a wasted opportunity.”
“I suppose,” I said, “all that generation of women were wasted.”
“Yeah,” said Jenny. “also, she was a cripple in an old-fashioned sense of the word. She had polio.”
“My mother was born without a left hand,” I said.
“Did she have a hook?” asked Jenny, perking up.
“Just a rounded stump at the end,” I said. “Why did you perk up at the thought of a hook?”
“I do love a hook,” said Jenny. “A hook and a glass eye.”
“You could get them if you wanted,” I suggested, “through the wonders of modern surgery.”
“I don’t want my own,” said Jenny, “but I am very drawn to that sort of thing.”
“Have you done Peter Pan in panto?” I asked.
Robb Harwood as Captain Hook in a production of Peter Pan c 1906
“No,” Jenny replied, “but I do like the look of a pirate.”
“What’s the glass eye got to do with it?” I asked.
“Anything that’s a bit wrong,” Jenny explained, “I’m quite attracted to anything that’s a bit wrong.”
“Was your mother in a wheelchair?” I asked.
“No, Full-length calliper. It’s only one leg. She is really magnificent.”
“My mother only had one hand,” I said, “but she didn’t let it affect her. She seemed to be knitting all the time in my childhood. She used to play tennis when she was younger, which is actually quite difficult – You have to hold the racquet in one hand and have to throw the ball up in the air.”
“My mother was a tennis player,” said Jenny.
“My mother,” I said, “mostly hid the end of her left arm – because her parents had told her she shouldn’t show it.”
“Yes,” said Jenny. “It was slightly shameful. My mother told me that, after she got polio, her father assumed she would never marry.”
“I don’t think my mother expected to marry,” I said, “because she thought Who would marry a one-handed woman?”
“And with my mother,” said Jenny, “it was Who would marry somebody with a great big leg iron?”
“A pirate, perhaps?” I suggested.
“My dad,” said Jenny. “It was the only romantic thing he ever did. He was abroad when he heard it had happened. He got Compassionate Leave and hitch-hiked his way back from Aden or somewhere like that. She had been his girlfriend and then they’d fallen out. He was in the Army and went off to Aden. She went to a cinema in Blackpool and caught polio there. He heard about it and made his way back to Britain and to Blackpool Infirmary.
“My grandmother was there and said: Derek, you can’t go in and he said Yes, I must and he saw my mother. She said I’ll never walk again and he said Yes you will – when you walk down the aisle to marry me.”
“Aaaaaahhhhh…..” I said.
Example of a modern egg poacher, seldom seen as romantic
“I know,” said Jenny. “But he’d used all his romance up in that one sentence. In terms of romance, never anything again. He once bought her an egg-poaching pan for her birthday and said: Go on, June. I’d love some eggs…” They’re both very gung-ho and Northern and good fun. Both from Blackpool.”
“So you feel Blackpudlian?” I asked.
“Not really,” said Jenny.
“The place I feel most at home,” I said, “is Edinburgh, but I’ve never had a home there. I always had relatives there until recently, so I was visiting there every year as a child, probably since I was an embryo.”
“I feel Northern,” said Jenny, “I think it’s more to do with the sense of humour than anything else, I understand that quite graphic, broad, seaside postcardy humour.”
“Blackpool is seasidey,” I said. “Not like Manchester.”
“No,” agreed Jenny. “I went to drama school in Manchester. And Liverpool’s different again. But I wouldn’t leave London now.”
“I met your daughter with you,” I said, “at Glastonbury about… It must have been…”
“Nine years ago,” Jenny told me. “When she was 15. She’s 24 now. She’s a playwright. She’s got the writing gene. She’s working at the Royal Court Theatre at the moment. Then she’s got a play on at Theatre 503 on Monday (that’s tomorrow if you read this blog on the day it’s posted) in a thing of new writing, then she’s got a residency at the old BBC building in Maida Vale… or it might be in Marylebone. It starts with an M anyway.”
“And you?” I asked.
Grumpy Old Women – touring the UK April to June 2014
“Grumpy Old Women on stage,” said Jenny. “We go into rehearsal in March; we tour in April, May, June. And I’m writing a Radio 4 series at the moment for broadcast later this year: six 15-minute monologues. They’re all set in real time.”
“Will you be starring?”
“No. The producer thought we should get better actresses and she’s right, because I’m quite limited and I always sound like me.”
“That’s the sign of star,” I said.
“I wouldn’t live anywhere other than London now” Jenny said again.
“It’s where everything happens,” I said.
“It is,” said Jenny. “I like it when things happen.”