Sharon Stone once said: “If you have a vagina and a point of view, you are considered a threat.” Of course, not all of us women are as free and easy with our vaginas as Sharon Stone, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a point of view, and so it is with this in mind that I go to meet Bridget Christie, a friend and fellow comedian whose debut Radio 4 show ‘Bridget Christie Minds the Gap’ is about to be broadcast.
The series of four shows form a funny exploration of feminism by Christie, taking in topics such as how she realised she was feminist in the first place (it involved Mary Wollstonecraft and a fart, which I believe, coincidentally, is also how Sharon Stone became a feminist, although I could be wrong), how women treat one another and that hardy perennial, how the comedy industry treats its female members.
We go to the very top of a hotel next to BBC Broadcasting House where there is a bar with an incredible view over London. It seems somewhat appropriate to be able to see far, as sometimes it feels that equality for women is still a long way off. Bridget is keen to talk about her passionate and somewhat new found desire to represent women’s rights in her comedy, but first I want to find out a little more about her. I want to talk about being a comedian as much as about being a feminist, after all, Harry Hill did once describe her as ‘the most original comic I’ve seen in years’.
Christie was born 41 years ago in Gloucester to Irish Catholic parents, who individually moved to London and then met and married in England. As the youngest of nine, she felt impatient to get on with her life, and so she left school at 15 and went straight into the world of work. “I wanted to make my own money,” she says, “and I didn’t feel an academic education was relevant to what I wanted to do.” Her decision was supported by her family, who she says were a noisy but creative bunch – one sister is now a fashion designer. Others do what she describes as ‘dignified’ jobs, such as working in care or as a police community support officer (PCSO).
Christie also credits her rise as a comedian to the Irish knack for telling a good story, along with a down to earth humour she was surrounded by in the city of her youth. There was much teasing at home, and her siblings were quick witted, so there was no time to sit about being a delicate flower – a little toughness and a little resilience learnt in childhood can go a long way, especially in a career as hard as comedy.
Over the years the young Bridget worked in many different jobs, including as a farmhand (“I lasted three days – I fed the cattle gravel by accident – it looked just like their feed”), a greetings card packer in a factory, and general admin in faceless offices too numerous to mention. When I ask whether she thinks this early work ethic has contributed to her success as a comedian, she nods emphatically, “whatever job you do, you should take pride in your work. And you should never think any job is beneath you. You should work hard because there is satisfaction in that”.
At the age of 23, Christie decided to make good on her long held desire to become a performer. She applied to the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts (another former pupil is Miranda Hart), and received a scholarship from Gloucester County Council – the only one available for drama that year. After spending three years training, she left, only to find that she was not especially cut out for the life of an actress and remembers failing at auditions for adverts: “I just couldn’t eat yoghurt convincingly enough,” she quips.
In the end, she decided she wanted more control – a familiar theme for many trained actors turned comedians – and started writing in earnest. Nine years ago, she did her first comedy gig, and hasn’t stopped since.
Bridget Christie has become well known on the live comedy scene for her uncompromising style: past shows have seen her dressing up as the young King Charles II, a variety of bacteria and an ant. The Guardian reviewed her style as, “Avant garde comedy…a writer and performer of prodigious talent”.
She quotes the producer of her radio show as summing up what a lot of people in the industry thought, “we love you, but we have no idea what to do with you”. She wasn’t willing to change her act to get on the TV though, even though the income she received from her live shows was minimal, and the audience was perhaps a little narrower than some of her arena touring peers.
Bridget is not motivated by money or fame. “There’s a quote – it’s either Laurence Llewellyn Bowen or Oscar Wilde – I always get them muddled up, I think it’s the shared love of frock coats – that says something about how fame is not a dignified way to live your life, and I completely agree. I’ve seen how fame can affect some of my friends and it’s ugly,” she muses, looking out of the window at the roof of the British Museum, trying articulate her thoughts.
I suggest that fame is a sort of side effect of being successful, and one some people could do without, and she agrees. “Some producers think if they attach a famous person to a show, it will be the best show, but that’s not necessarily true.” She continues: “I would rather have 300 people really get what I’m doing than be passively consumed by thousands.”
This certainly chimes with the group of comedians she tends to work with, as seen on TV channel Comedy Central’s Alternative Comedy Experience (Josie Long, Paul Foot, Tony Law), along with the ultimate in anti-mainstream comedians, the brilliant Simon Munnery, who is often given that most ambiguous of descriptions, “a comedian’s comedian”. As Christie says, and I can certainly attest, “in this business, there is no correlation between talent and success”.
The emphasis on staying true to what you want to be doing, rather than adapting to changing tastes or commissioning fads has served her well critically, if not always commercially – she has a lovely figurative folder of clippings from her live shows (“Beautiful insanity” so said The Sunday Times). However, perhaps she has been a little under the radar as far as the British public is concerned.
But now, as she puts it, she has her “first proper job in 36 years” in the form of her Radio 4 commission. In ‘Bridget Christie Minds the Gap’, she suddenly seems to have taken a step out her self-invented, absurdist world, and talks directly to her audience, with no costumes or props. So what happened? “Well, there’s no point in wearing a costume on the radio, is there?” she shoots back at me. I know this to my cost, but in truth Christie believes this desire to speak more directly to her audience can be attributed to two things: becoming a mother, and the aforementioned fart.
She has two children, aged five and two, and one day when she was at a gig, she realised her babysitter was making more money than she was. “I suddenly felt that if I was going to be away from my children, I had to ask myself, is what I’m doing important or relevant enough to justify that?” Touring was especially hard: “I felt my heart had been ripped out every time I left my kids, but I know the men comedians feel the same. It does really focus you – you have to be passionate about what you’re doing.”
This feeling, combined with a project falling through and a particularly toxic and breathtakingly misogynist review in a newspaper led her to comfort herself in the women’s section of a book shop. As she browsed the literature on offer, she smelt a truly horrifying fart, and realised the unhelpful shop assistant who had denied all knowledge of a women’s section (and Mary Wollstonecraft) in the first place had obviously “let one out” there, thinking nobody would ever smell it in the most unpopulated area of the shop. At this moment, something that had been bubbling up inside Christie for years, decades even, was given a name: “I am a feminist,” she thought.
As many of us have also discovered, saying you are a feminist is less about waking up one day in a pair of DM boots and getting yourself a load of new opinions, it is more about suddenly buying into a word that describes how you have felt and acted all your life. Christie’s early years – being teased by her brothers and sisters and teasing them back, becoming financially independent in her teens, working hard, finding her own opportunities – had formed a feminist in deed, rather than in word. But now she had the word, she wanted a bigger audience, and this was where Radio 4 came in.
The series, which she describes as ‘a gift’ is very funny, but the passion in her voice as she performs her monologues is unmistakeable. She says her work with Amnesty International has shocked her deeply, citing the figure of 1,000 women dying every day as a result of complications in pregnancy as especially upsetting. There have also been some horrifying statistics on Female Genital Mutilation in the UK this week, showing the fight for equality is far from over. She advocates a “total ban on women’s magazines”, and laments the fact that no matter what a woman achieves, she will almost always, at some point be reduced to her looks. She says that “feminism is really simple: everyone is affected by it, it’s not some academic subject – it’s just about equality for every woman in the world.” Yes, but can it be funny?
According to Christie, absolutely: “Some aspects of misogyny are so ridiculous you have to laugh – it’s the absurdity of female oppression in some ways – even small things, like a big company marketing a special ‘lady pen’, as if women can’t write properly with normal pens.” So, for perhaps the first time, Bridget Christie actively wants a wider audience. She says now she has something she is so passionate about – that she feels is important as well as funny – she is willing to embrace the mainstream comedy world a little more. Although she is still not motivated by fame or money. “If I was motivated by money, I wouldn’t have been f***ing around for the past nine years – seriously, if it all goes wrong, I’ll just go back and work in an office again like I did for twenty years.” She now feels she wants to engage with the world in a new way, to make comedy that is funny but also relevant.
She may not have to change too much, though – as she points out, “comedy goes in cycles – if you hold on long enough, and just keep doing what you love doing, it’ll eventually come round”. And come round it has – not only is there the Radio 4 show and the Alternative Comedy Experience, but also a starring role in Kevin Eldon’s new show It’s Kevin, soon to be seen on BBC 2 – Eldon is another poster boy for doing your own thing, rather than adapting to the prevailing comedy wind, and it has served him well. She also has her own live show on the South Bank tonight, as part of the Women of the World festival. It will be the first time she has performed a full hour without putting on a single costume, which is something she intends to do more of (although she reserves the right to get the Ant out, or anything she fancies in the future).
But even with all this, it is having children that Christie says has changed her the most, and given her a new lease of life. It is a hackneyed old cliche that motherhood stops women’s careers in their tracks (and is still too often the case now), but for Bridget Christie, the reverse is true: “Becoming a mother has changed the way I perceive myself as a comedian. By focusing my mind and my comedy, my kids have given me a career.” It doesn’t get much more feminist than that. And she’s funny as hell too.
Bridget Christie Minds the Gap runs on BBC Radio 4 every Thursday at 11pm during the next month.