An Ungrateful Woman
‘It’s trickery, hiding serious bits within a comic framework’
Two years ago she delivered her standup routine to 10 people in a strip club. Now she's a star of the Edinburgh Fringe and touring the country. She talks biros, big families and why the new pope is 'bloody marvellous'
Written by Mark Lawson in The Guardian on August 29th, 2014
'My uncle was a priest and I used to talk to him about how he wrote sermons - about how he'd try to make them funny'...Bridget Christie. Photograph: David Levene
The day after returning from playing 23 sold-out gigs at the Edinburgh Fringe – and with a 51-date UK tour starting next month – Bridget Christie is exhausted but elated. And also relieved because, although she returned to Scotland as the holder of the Foster’s prize (the Edinburgh comedy Oscar), she had, as seems to be an aspect of her temperament, feared doom and ruin. “I went there with an imagined review in my head: ‘She took 10 years to find her voice and then a year to lose it.'”
Christie’s notional notice, which did not prove prophetic, refers to the unusual curve of her career. She is a veteran of the comedy circuit, having performed for more than a decade, but, in terms of success, a two-year-old. During her first seven summers at Edinburgh, she met critical indifference and public ignorance, with The Court of King Charles II, her historical costume romp of 2006, once playing to a single woman in the auditorium – who left before the end, further destabilising a show that depended heavily on audience interaction.
But in 2013 Christie won the Foster’s with A Bic for Her, a show about the modern prevalence of sexism and misogyny, and followed it with a well-received Radio 4 series, Bridget Christie Minds the Gap, and this year’s Edinburgh hit, An Ungrateful Woman, which has confirmed her curious status of being considered a newcomer at 43.
Watching An Ungrateful Woman, I noticed that Christie, rather touchingly, seemed to have cue words scribbled on the back of her hand. The inked reminders, she says, included “Steve Davies – Gove – Celebrity Squares – Pants”, which also serves as a useful aide-memoire for those who haven’t seen Christie’s act: the prompts referring to a snooker player who said that women are incapable of being funny; the former education secretary whom Christie emailed in her campaign against female genital mutilation; the TV game-show on which she reluctantly appeared to raise money to make a film against FGM; and a range of so-called “anti-rape pants” marketed online.
In the show, these riffs are fitted, with considerable structural skill, around a howlingly funny account of Christie auditioning for a Müller yoghurt commercial, in which a woman alone at home is thrilled to find a semi-naked man standing in her fridge with a half-open pot of yoghurt, which, in the act, Christie ridicules as a rape fantasy. She insists that her stage stories are almost always true – apart from one about complimenting Richard Dawkins on his “Jesus sandals” – and that the audition is nearly verbatim. “I was asked to leave because I was laughing so much, my face was contorted, there were tears rolling down my face. But it was because everyone else took it so seriously.”
The combination of painfully serious subject matter such as FGM with jokey anecdotes that have an ideological sting is classic Christie: “I knew I wanted to talk about anti-rape pants and female genital mutilation and the yoghurt commercial gave me licence to do so. It’s trickery, really, hiding the serious bits within the comic framework.”
In an age that has provided the furious and abusive with bright and sharp new digital tools, making misogyny her subject has predictably made Christie the subject of misogyny.
“Most women who speak out in public – Mary Beard, Stella Creasy, Caitlin Moran – have had to put up with it. I’d already had it for 10 years, just for being a female comic, but, when I started talking about [FGM] and then my show did well, it just got horrible. The point is that I’m 43, I’m fine, I’m OK, but the next woman who has to put up with it might not be able to cope. So it does matter, this online abuse.”
The counterbalance to such hostility, though, is that, as Christie’s act has become more consciously feminist – jettisoning the character sketches of the earlier work – her audiences have vastly increased.
A ‘newcomer’ after 10 years on the comedy circuit… Bridget Christie performing in Edinburgh earlier this month.
Photograph: Murdo Macleod/Guardian
The shift in her act followed a series of depressing experiences during 2011 and 2012: “The tour before A Bic for Her, I suddenly found myself in a strip club that hadn’t been cleared up properly, in front of 10 people and dressed in a donkey costume. The mens’ toilet was just next to the stage. A man walked across to go to the loo and he was already getting his willy out as he walked in front of me. And I did think then: what am I doing? What am I trying to say?”
Later, she received a newspaper review suggesting she owed her comedy career (“such as it was, I was playing to 15 people”) to having slept with the right men; on the same day, she read an article saying that labial “enhancement” was the new rage in cosmetic surgery, and had an argument in the women’s studies section of a north London bookshop with an aggressive male assistant who farted noxiously in front of her.
Further encouragement to write a feminist show came from an anti-feminist writing implement. “I was in Ryman and I saw them on the counter: A Bic for Her. I asked the assistant: ‘What are these? Have they been selling well?’ She said: ‘No, we think they’re a bit silly.’ So I bought six packets and thought I could use them in some way.”
This purchase led her to pen a riff on how the Brontë sisters got all those novels written before the invention of a special pen to fit their delicate feminine fingers. Christie apologises that, not having brought her bag to the cafe, she doesn’t have any lady biros with her but, apparently, they are chunky although light, and have a rubber pad to prevent pressure calluses.
“Do you write with A Bic for Her?”
“No, that would be too much. I think Sarah Millican does, though. She’s been really supportive and came to see an early preview of a A Bic for Her. She said: ‘That Bic bit was very funny, but I do actually use them – they cheer me up.”’
Another difference between Christie and Millican is that, when the latter does standup about her “ex-husband” or “boyfriend”, she is broadly drawing on real people, whereas Christie claims on stage to be married to a sexist, racist pig who is infuriated if she has to do a gig when he has no clean pants. In the act, she refers to this misogynist monster as “my fictional on-stage husband.”
This subterfuge is partly professional – the humorous potential of a feminist comedian living with a Neanderthal man – but also personal. Christie is married to Stewart Lee, the comedian and co-author of Jerry Springer: the Opera, and prefers not to talk about him for reasons of both history – early on, it was common for trolls to suggest she owed her career to him – and privacy. “We deliberately never do personal material, either of us, and never do stuff about the kids. I have three or four lines in the show, which are obviously made up, and it’s funny if you think it’s just the character’s husband, but also funny if you know who I’m really married to. We were mentioned in an article recently about comics making use of their relationships, but we’ve never done that.”
Christie already has a fictional onstage daughter – “with a really deep voice” – and may add an on-stage son to match her off-stage offspring. “I’ve always been protective of my family. I’ve never talked on-stage about my upbringing. I was the youngest of nine …”
“Surely there’s a show in that?”
“Yes. It’s obviously a show and it’s obviously a book. But I don’t know at the moment. It’s something I’d have to take more than a year to do, and ask my family how they felt about it. I’m very conscious of the dangers of using what other people have said and done. I’m not ruling it out, but not now.”
Christie’s mother died in 1997, after a life in which she had been pregnant for a remarkable 81 months. The size of the family was partly due to her Catholic parents’ obedience to the Vatican rule against artificial contraception, but also “because they really loved babies. They thought children were great fun. We had a fantastic time with them. Storytime was a big thing – everyone sitting round the fire, my dad scaring the shit out of us with ghost stories.”
With her father, eight siblings and more than 20 nieces and nephews, the Christie clan could fill 30 seats at a gig. They never have, because the comedian is nervous of performing in front of them; her dad had never seen her act until A Bic for Her last year, and she was “nervous about doing the ‘spunk in champagne bottle’ bit, but I heard him laugh very loudly, so that was fine. But I’ve always been terrified that, if someone from my family was in for a gig that went badly, they’d think that I was delusional. So I try to avoid them coming.”
Bridget Christie performing A Bic for Her last year at the Edinburgh Fringe.
Photograph: Murdo Macleod/Guardian
Intriguingly, Christie describes her conversion to feminist comedy as an “epiphany”, the term in Catholic theology for a spiritual revelation, and says: “Sometimes I wonder if my feminism has crossed over with my upbringing. Do I not like seeing pictures of objectified women because they’re objectified or because it’s a bit rude?” Does she still consider herself a Catholic? “That’s a big old chat, that is. It’s not clear-cut. I’m loving this new pope, he’s bloody marvellous, but I still obviously have a lot of problems with a lot of it.”
That “it” covers priestly paedophilia, the refusal to ordain women and the definition of homosexuality as a sin. But Christie clings to better adverts for the faith: “I still go to church, partly because it’s the one hour of the week where you can find silence, and sometimes you hear a really good sermon. My uncle was a priest, and I remember talking to him about how he wrote his sermons: how he put himself into the narrative and tried to make them funny and tried to humanise theology so that people listened. He talked a lot about structure – a very clever man.” That description of his sermons – the serious hidden within the comic – could also be a description of his niece’s standup act? “Yeah, I know! I hadn’t made that connection until telling you about him now.”
In all households containing two writers or performers, the question arises of to what extent the other person is a first audience or adviser. So do Christie and Lee try out material on each other? “No. I said, ‘I’ve got a bit where you say you haven’t got any pants, is that OK?’, and he said: ‘Yeah.’ But he didn’t see A Bic for Her until the end of the run, and he hasn’t seen the new show yet.” Is that a policy? “It’s logistics; he’s working.” Do they ever discuss theories of comedy, or why a gag is failing? “No. Because part of the thing for me is that, if it isn’t working, I have to find a way of making it work myself.”
Comedy tours are constructed around the availability of venues and towns considered receptive to certain types of material, forcing performers to make geographically counterintuitive loops. Christie, for instance, is required to play York, Farnham, Abergavenny and Dartmouth on four successive nights.
“I’ve got to do it,” she says. “But I find it very hard being away from home.” She will drive herself or use the train, insisting that she is not yet successful enough to hire a tour van with a roadie-technician driving. “We’ll see how this goes. Just because I’ve been successful for two years in Edinburgh doesn’t guarantee it will work.”
A second series of Bridget Christie Minds the Gap is in production and Christie is writing, though not with a Bic, her first literary work: A Book for Her. She can also expect many invitations to appear on TV panel shows, especially since Danny Cohen, the BBC director of television, has pledged that every quip-and-clip show must be gender-balanced. Christie, though, says she is unlikely to help meet the quota.
“I don’t think the question should be: ‘How do we get more women on panel shows?’ It should be: ‘Why do we have to have so many panel shows?’ Let’s try other formats. I don’t think Danny should have made it public that that was what he was thinking. Because now, instead of being ‘the unfunny woman’, we’re officially the ‘token unfunny woman’. It makes it worse,” says Christie.
When she appeared on Have I Got News For You?, host Jack Dee introduced her “as a woman who collected her Foster’s comedy award wearing a ‘No More Page 3’ T-shirt, but got a bigger round of applause when she took it off.”
The row that ensued goes to the heart of Christie’s comedy, and the wider question of whether it is possible for sexism to be “ironic”. The producer (a woman, as it happens) argued that it was obviously a joke, but Christie responded that the gag depended on the TV audience knowing that she was a feminist comedian, which most of them wouldn’t, with the result that she and the Page 3 campaign became the butt. The show refused to change the intro, and Christie emailed to say that she would never appear again. “Have they ever introduced a male comedian with a joke about his cock?”
And then she has to leave because her fictional on-stage husband “doesn’t even know I’ve left the house – he thinks I’m just putting a wash on”.