I last blogged about Susan Harrison in 2013 and first saw her perform at Pull The Other One – as Mina The Horse. Yup. a horse. Not an act I am likely to forget. She also runs Cabarera! themed comedy nights. The next one has a 1970s theme and is on 24th March.
“You must have done most decades?” I asked her last week.
“We’re revisiting some,” she told me. “We did a pre-historic one and one act came on as a prehistoric rock. He took ages to get to the stage.”
When we chatted, she was with Gemma Arrowsmith. They are previewing their separate new Edinburgh Fringe shows as part of a double bill at the trendy Proud Archivist in London this Tuesday. The two met at Free Fringe venue Le Monde in Edinburgh in 2012.
“This year,” Gemma told me, “I’m operating my own sound in Edinburgh; my techie will just do lights. I saw Ivan Brackenbury – Tom Binns – do everything himself and I think it was seeing that which inspired me to do it myself.”
Susan chipped in: “I saw Michael Brunström do that recently. He was being Mary Quant for Cabarera! and he was operating the sound of whales noises because it was Mary Quant who went whaling, obviously.”
“Obviously,” I said. “Can we recap? Whaling? He was being Mary Quant?”
“It was for the 1960s night,” explained Gemma, then asked Susan: “Who were you that night?”
“I can’t remember,” said Susan.
“That sounds like a very realistic 1960s night,” I suggested.
“Andy Warhol,” said Gemma.
“Yes, Andy Warhol,” said Susan.
“What did you do with your hair?” I asked Susan.
“I emerged from a soup can,” said Susan.
“I still want to know what you did with your hair,” I told her.
“A wig,” she replied.
“But you have an awful lot of hair,” I said, enviously.
“Well,” explained Susan, “if you’re a character actress and you have long hair, you get used to wig caps.”
“I suppose,” I said, “once you’ve played a horse with unicorn aspirations, you can play anything… You’re both actresses, really.”
“I think we’re both obsessed with comedy,” said Susan, “and have been since we were little.”
“Recently,” said Gemma, “I had to get rid of my enormous comedy collection to the Museum of Comedy. It was getting out of hand. Absolutely ridiculous. I started collecting comedy when I was 10 and, by the time I was 12, I had 500 VHS tapes. So you can imagine what it was like by 32… VHSs, books, scripts, book tie-ins. Getting things signed as well. Going to see Ben Elton, Jack Dee, Hale and Pace. I saw Hale and Pace at the Wolverhampton Civic when I was about 13. They were amazing.”
“I think,” said Susan, “they’re much-maligned because they were on ITV, not BBC.”
“That could be true,” I said. “So what are your shows?”
“Mine is Everything That’s Wrong With The Universe,” said Gemma. “I call it a rogues’ gallery of quacks, charlatans and con artists. So homeopathy comes in for a few blows.”
“That’s a bit harsh,” I said.
“No it’s not,” said Gemma.
“I’m guessing,” I said, “that you have traditional medicine people in your family…”
“No,” said Gemma, “I just have a hatred of nonsense. I was in a double-act with a guy called Steve Mould for a long time. We did a trilogy of shows in Edinburgh and Steve got me interested in science. I did a video for a charity called Sense About Science and their Ask For Evidence campaign, which means, if anyone makes a bold claim, you should ask for evidence.”
“I go down the Fortean Times route,” I said, “where you just accept anything, unless…”
“Oh God!” said Gemma. “Fortean Times!” Then she asked Susan: “Have you ever read the Fortean Times?”
“No,” Susan replied.
“It’s this magazine,” Gemma explained, “of nonsense. Aliens and stuff like that.”
“It’s not a parody?” asked Susan.
“No,” said Gemma, “it’s on the level, though sometimes I think Is it? because it’s so ridiculous.”
“Their philosophy,” I explained, “is Don’t disbelieve anything, unless you can disprove it.”
“Surely,” argued Gemma, “Don’t believe anything until you can prove it should be how you look at things?”
“But,” I said. “if you don’t disbelieve anything, there’s some tremendous fun to be had. I think they mostly don’t believe most of it. They used to have annual UnConventions. Do you remember the supposed alien autopsy film? The newspapers had been talking to doctors for months to prove it was a fake. Fortean Times flew over two movie special effects men from Hollywood who immediately explained how it had been faked.”
“My show,” said Susan, “is called Jennie Benton: Wordsmith and it’s about a character I’ve done on the circuit and in sketch shows for years.”
“Does the horse appear?” I asked.
“Unfortunately not,” Susan replied.
“She could appear as a pot of glue,” I suggested.
“That’s harsh,” said Gemma.
“There is a line about glue in it,” said Susan, “but it’s not about her. This show is all about two 15-year-olds who are really into spoken word and hip-hop. At the moment, the other act is Richard Soames from the Beta Males. Basically, he’s in love with her and she’s in love with her teacher and it’s all about unrequited love.”
“And the object of appearing at Edinburgh,” I asked, “is to get commissioned by BBC Radio 4?”
“I don’t think those are the aims any more,” Susan told me. “I think the thing with my stuff and podcasting and YouTube is, because you’re making it yourself, you know it’s going to get made – as opposed to sending a script off on a wing and a prayer and getting so far and then it’s Oh, the producer has left and it’s not happening any more. That just happens so many times.
“We do a podcast where we play two reviewers. It’s called Susan Harrison’s Back Row and it’s a bit like BBC Radio’s Front Row. So we are these two hideous reviewers who are… I’m a real hipster reviewer and Gemma’s character is more of a broadsheet reviewer.”
“Everything,” explained Gemma, “is very super-beneath us.”
Susan added: “We started reviewing proper things – books, exhibitions and things like that – but recently we’ve reviewed Christmas crackers…”
“…and,” added Gemma, “our experience of New Year and Hallowe’en costumes.”
“The thing I hate most,” said Susan, “is pretentiousness, so it’s really fun to lampoon that. It’s these characters’ nonchalance that’s annoying.”
“So no Radio 4 aims?” I asked.
“The point is to create,” said Susan. “It’s just a matter of making something, doing something. I wouldn’t see it as a realistic option to have to be on the radio, because there are so many reasons why people get on there and so much of it is a fluke. There’s no point that being your goal. Your goal should just be to make what you want to make and just keep getting out there and performing.”
“That’s certainly,” Gemma agreed, “why I started doing my YouTube channel Sketches In My Flat. I got home after doing the Edinburgh show in 2012 and decided, purely for fun, to record a few of the sketches in my living room with a budget of zero.
“One of the sketches got re-Tweeted by a few people – Simon Singh, Richard Dawkins – and overnight it was seen by 10,000 people – It was seen by ten times the number of people who had seen my Edinburgh show across the whole month.
“That was on a budget of zero and it makes you think when you know how much you spent on your Edinburgh show. So I decided I would take at least a year out just doing videos on YouTube. I started off doing some of the sketches from the show and then I started making new sketches specifically for YouTube. One of my un-written rules is I don’t spent any money whatsoever on it. Except wigs.
“I did a year of doing a lot of YouTube and then a year of doing… well, it’s put out as a podcast, but it’s like an audio series. And I’ve really enjoyed not going to Edinburgh.”
“So why are you going back this August?” I asked. “Someone once described performing at the Fringe as like standing in a cold shower, tearing-up £50 notes.”
“Well, it’s a trade show for comedians,” said Gemma, “but I heard someone recently also describe it as a dog show for comedians.
“I like what Holly Burn said: that basically you just throw a load of shit at a wall. That’s what Edinburgh is – Everybody throwing shit at a wall and hoping that something sticks. Both of us have had a break from Edinburgh and I feel like getting all the shit and throwing it all out there and seeing what comes of it.”
“That’s a show I would like to see,” I said.