“You’re all over the place,” I said to Jenny Eclair. “What are you?”
“I’m a writer/performer.”
“Performing just seems like a form of masochism,” I said.
“I really enjoy it,” Jenny told me. “I like audiences. I’m always relieved when there IS one.”
Last weekend, Jenny appeared on Splash! the celebrity ITV reality show in which celebrities jump off diving boards into a swimming pool in Luton. She had previously been in the Australian jungle for I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!
“Why did you do Splash!?” I asked her.
“I didn’t get panto this year.”
“Oh yes you did,” I said.
“Oh no I didn’t,” said Jenny. “Well, I didn’t until there were two Saturdays Jo Brand couldn’t do her panto in Wimbledon, so I stood in for her. It was one rehearsal and on. I did five shows as Genie of The Ring so she could go to (her agent) Addison Cresswell’s funeral and do the judging for Splash!”
“Well, there’s big money in panto,” I said. “The Fonz from Happy Days – Henry Winkler – he does it!”
“Yes, panto’s a strange one,” said Jenny. “And for stand-up comics – who are by nature quite lazy – panto is a real kick up the arse. It’s good to have the experience, because it actually makes you a better performer as a stand-up. It’s two-and-a-half hours per show, two shows a day. So it’s performing five hours a day mostly seven days a week. It’s gruelling. I have done three shows a day – a 10.30, a 2.30 and a 6.30. By the end of that, you don’t know what you’re wearing.”
“But why,” I asked, “do Splash! and I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!? Usually, to an extent, these celebrity reality shows are for one-time stars on the way down or people who need to revive their careers and you are in neither category.”
“Well, it’s not about career revival,” explained Jenny. “Everything needs to tick over and they’re quite well-paid and it means I buy myself time for writing books that I don’t get paid very much for. I buy myself the extra six months that I need to finish or start a book.”
“But you must get vast advances and sell millions,” I asked.
“I don’t!” said Jenny. “Not at all.”
“You’re a TV star,” I said.
“But that doesn’t translate into selling books,” explained Jenny. “I think I fall between two stools. People who are very into books and their reading are very dubious about me because they think She probably didn’t write it anyway. And, for people who don’t care about books, mine are not shiny and chic-litty enough for them. But it doesn’t matter. I like writing. Though I am quite greedy, too. I like making money.
“I think the thing is to throw yourself around a bit and cast your net quite wide these days because it’s really tough out there. There’s generation after new generation of comics rising and not enough of us are dying. In fact, too many of the old fuckers are coming back and storming round the country doing big gigs and soaking up everybody’s money… Did The Pythons REALLY need to do a tour?”
“But you are one of those people taking the food out of 23-year-olds’ mouths,” I suggested.
“I’m not!” said Jenny very firmly.
“You’re in books, you’re in television, you’re in comedy… You’re taking up ten people’s jobs.”
“I’m not hogging the live comedy circuit in London,” Jenny replied, “I do the arts centres out-of-town. I feel really sorry for 23-year-old youngsters trying to get into the business, because there are just too many people doing it.
“They’re all really well-educated and bright and funny and they’ve seen a career pattern – there was never a career pattern before, so people didn’t know they could do it – but now there’s a template and you can’t blame them for having a go. I saw a picture of John Bishop’s house in the paper today – his vast country pile.”
“Yes,” I said, “The first time I encountered him was around 2007 when I was in Edinburgh doing the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards in the middle of a Late ’n’ Live show which he was MCing at the Gilded Balloon. We had eye contact for about two seconds. I had never heard of him and thought Oh, he’s one of those good, solid Northern club comedians who have been around for ages toiling away unseen, never going to make it at his age… And then suddenly… SNAP!”
“That’s it,” Jenny agreed. “The weird randomness. The fickle finger of Fate that just goes Oh, I’ll have you!
“I think if you’re not going to be one of those very very big ones, it’s quite good to keep not totally under the radar but to change tactics every so often. A lot of my bread-and-butter is doing the arts centres but you can’t do the same ones twice a year. You have to fuck off for about three years because the audience won’t come back if they’ve seen you too recently. I’ve paid to see comics but whether I’d pay to see them twice in two years I’m not sure.
“You can’t be fashionable all the time. You’ve sometimes just got to go away and lick your wounds and say: Well, I’ll just try doing something else for a bit. People sneer at the celebrity reality TV stuff, but it’s silly to think of a career without it now unless you’re very very successful or very snotty about these things. And I’ve never been snotty about ‘light’ entertainment… Well, as a drama student, I thought I was going to be a proper actress. I never thought I’d even end up doing regional theatre. We used to sneer at regional theatre, never mind panto or reality TV.”
“You got into this whole thing because you saw an ad,” I prompted.
“Yes,“ said Jenny, “in The Stage in about 1982. An ad for novelty acts. I was still kind of wanting to be an actress. I was waitressing, auditioning now and again. But I’d been part of a cabaret act at drama school in Manchester and I had these punk poems.”
“And you were just starting out and taking anything,” I said.
“Yes. I was with two modelling agencies for odd looking people— Uglies and I think it was Neville’s… Might have been Gavin’s”.
“But you weren’t odd-looking,” I said, surprised.
“No,” said Jenny. “I was quite pretty, but I had anorexia at the beginning, so that was quite a look. They were after girls who could do faces and I used to get quite a lot of beer commercials in Germany, because I speak a bit of German and they didn’t have enough girls who were prepared to look funny. So I’d get auditioned in London and be flown over to Berlin or Stuttgart or wherever and pull faces for beer commercials. Some were for TV. Some were poster campaigns.
“I also worked on the phones for a lookalike agency when Princess Diana had just arrived on the scene and there were millions of grandmothers all over the country sending in photos of their granddaughters saying Doesn’t she look like Diana? And she didn’t at all. She’d be some spotty 17-year-old from Derbyshire. I had odd little jobs like that. I was a life model at Camberwell Arts School.”
“And you still live in the Camberwell area,” I said.
“I moved a lot when I was little,” said Jenny, “but I’ve not moved since. I’ve moved houses, but not moved area.”
“You moved a lot as a kid because your father was in the British Army?”
“My eternally-un-named friend’s father,” I said, “was in the RAF. Malta, Germany, Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Scotland, all over. She says she doesn’t feel specifically British: she’s not from anywhere specific.”
“I feel Northern,” said Jenny. “My parents are northern. It’s something about roots and spirit and sensibilities. I love London. I’m passionate about it though it was hard work when I arrived. I had no money and didn’t know anybody and was incredibly lonely. I had a waitressing job at a bar job in Covent Garden and I couldn’t work out how Camberwell linked to Covent Garden. The shape of London was just completely beyond me. I still don’t understand Ealing.”
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