Yesterday afternoon, I had tea with comedian Diane Spencer at Soho Theatre in London, to talk about the recording next Tuesday of Diane Spencer: Power Tool, her sixth hour-long show (at the Backyard Comedy club in Bethnal Green). We got diverted from the subject, though it started off OK.
“DVDs are on the way out,” I said.
“And there is a slight problem,” said Diane, “because a DVD may be region encoded. I sell them through a website where people can digitally download the stuff and watch it on their computers, iPads or phones. And I put all my work on YouTube anyway.”
“For free?” I asked.
“Yes. And people can buy a copy if they would like to. I did have a DVD deal for a while but the collapse of HMV had a knock-on effect and then the European version of HMV also collapsed and that had a knock-on effect to the company I had a DVD deal with.
“A lot of people have told me putting my shows online for free is bonkers but, equally, what’s now starting to happen is what I wanted to happen – people are coming from the online world to my gigs because they’ve seen everything I’ve ever done. I’ve just come back from a festival in Denmark and there were a couple in the front row. Afterwards, the woman told me: I’m so glad I got to see you live. I saw you on YouTube and think you’re great. So she bought a ticket to come see me.”
“Richard Herring,” I said, “reckons his online podcasts get him a bigger audience for his live shows in theatres. Everybody has to move on. You were in a play at Edinburgh this year. Any plans to act more?”
“I was an actress before I was a comedian,” said Diane. “I’ve been in several commercials and I was at the end of a Japanese film.”
“Called?” I asked.
“Climbers High. It ended with the man finding his son in New Zealand with his Kiwi wife – me.”
“When was this?’
“Around 2009. I also got nominated as Best Actress in a 48-hour film festival – a short film called Nature’s Baby, where I gave birth to a giant who also had achondroplasia – dwarfism.”
“So you gave birth to a dwarf?”
“A giant dwarf,” Diane corrected me, “and he rampaged through the city.”
“So what is next for you?” I asked.
“I’ve decided to get serious about making a sitcom. I got an email today from a company who have made very successful, award-winning radio programmes. We’ve been working together on a comedy sci-fi radio sitcom. I’ve always wanted to write sitcoms: that’s why I got into stand-up comedy – I wanted to check I was funny. So there’s that and I’ll be working on my next hour-long live show.”
“Do you know what it’s about?” I asked.
“At the moment, I can only describe it in terms of almost shapes, colours and feelings.”
“I’m happy with that,” I said, “Go for it.”
“It’s pinky-blue with a little bit of green. Pinky-blue is definitely there.”
“What shapes?” I asked.
“I’d say triangles. But dark triangles.”
“And feelings?” I asked.
“It needs to be direct. There’s an issue of communication there. And it’s going to be uplifting. I know that much.”
“So,” I said, “it will be uplifted pink triangles.”
“Uplifted pink and blue triangles,” Diane laughed.
“Why pink and blue?” I asked.
“I dunno. I just see pink and blue.”
“Once,” I told her, “I was directing a voice-over man I had never worked with before and he asked me: What colour are the words? He said: Are they brown? They feel brown or orange.”
“Of course they did,” Diane told me. “He probably had synaesthesia. I have it too. My brain makes an automatic connection between letters and colours and numbers and colours. Some people make an automatic association between music and colours or music and tastes. I once wrote a sci-fi thing about this. I wrote the pilot episode. We recorded it at the BBC with seven comedians. It was about how anybody with synaesthesia went on to develop telepathy. It didn’t get anywhere.
“Synaesthesia only affects 4% of the population. There is a book called The Tell-Tale Brain by Vilayanur Ramachandran and he had a chapter on it. The funny thing was he was writing Is it real? and I was thinking Trust me, buddy, I’m looking at the colours in your words. It is real.”
“What colour was his book?” I asked.
“A whole book,” explained Diane, “wouldn’t be a colour for me. To me, it’s individual letters and numbers.”
“What colour,” I asked, “is 666?”
“That’s purple-purple-purple,” Diane said immediately. “But not quite purple: it’s more like a burgundy purple. A six is almost like a two-tone purple.”
“What is 665?” I asked.
“Five is blue,” Diane said immediately. “a steely blue, like a grey-blue.”
“What,” I asked, “is Fleming?”
“What’s interesting,” said Diane immediately, “is that the F in Fleming is overshadowed by the L. So F is green – L is white – E is light blue – M is orange – I is a weird one because it can be white or black – N is a warm colour like a yellow – and G is dark green like a bottle green, a darker green that the F.”
“So,” I asked, “are these colours unique to you? Do all the 4% of people with synaesthesia feel the same colours?”
“No, we don’t have the same colours. Everybody has different colours.”
“Does it help you write your scripts or perform?”
“I don’t know. It helps me remember things, because I can see the shape of them.”
“So you don’t see one word as one colour,” I said. “It’s individual letters.”
“So,” I said, “looking at a poster on the Soho Theatre wall, “if I said Olivier Award winning, as a phrase, that wouldn’t have any effect at all?”
“Well, it does, because I’m aware of the different colours in the words. Every single word has its own colours. I know that, on that poster, all the words are in white, but the A is also so clearly in red.”
“That’s fascinating,” I said. “And you have always thought this way, even as a child?”
“I thought everybody saw the same things I did. The shock was when I discovered not everybody had it. I was working at the University of Auckland in New Zealand and had decided I wanted to be a comedian…”
“You could have been a chameleon,” I suggested.
“…and an e-mail went round,” Diane continued, “from one of the research students saying Do you see colours over letters? and I thought Doesn’t everyone? and then, when I realised not everybody had it, I went Oh my God! I’ve got a THING?”
“But,” I asked, “your eyes don’t see a letter as yellow? Your brain understands it as yellow?”
“It’s like two layers,” explained Diane. “It must be a cross-wiring of the senses, though I can’t see how a colour can be a sense. My eyes quite clearly see that’s white lettering on that poster there, however I can also see-but-not-see the imprint on top and that’s clearly yellow.”
“You’re seeing the imprint with your eyes?” I asked.
“No, but I know it is yellow. The thing is, if you tell someone that, you sound like a loon… But my new show is nothing about that.”
“Maybe it should be,” I suggested.