Because You Demanded It
Crisis comedy: Fringe star Bridget Christie on laughing in the face of the Brexit catastrophe
Written by TEDDY JAMIESON in Herald Scotland on August 6th, 2016
ALL changed, changed utterly. The show that comedian Bridget Christie is performing in Edinburgh this month isn’t the show she had planned. That was called Mortal and it was about just that: mortality. But then Britain – or rather large parts of England and Wales (but not London, where she lives) – decided to vote to leave the European Union. We now live in another country. And how can you ignore that, she says?
So the new theme for her Fringe show is Brexit. “We voted to leave on a Thursday and on the Friday night it seemed like the world had changed so much it would have been incredibly weird to go out on stage and not talk about it.
“That Friday I wrote about 20, 25 minutes and did them that night and you can see people …” She doesn’t finish the sentence. I’m guessing it didn’t go down well.
“It’s hard,” she carries on.
Monday morning and Christie is sitting in her London garden, possibly with her head in her hands (I can’t be certain down the phone line) at the state of the world or, in particular, our little corner of it. She is horrified by the referendum result. Angry too. And throughout our conversation she worries away at what it means. And sometimes she just worries.
She’s now taking those worries to the Fringe in a show she’s still working on as we speak less than a week before travelling to Edinburgh. As the ads say, it is a work in progress. What will you write on the back of your hand as prompts before taking to the stage, Bridget? “I think I’m going to have to have sheets of paper,” she says. “My hands are not big enough.”
To not talk about Brexit would, Christie thinks, be a dereliction of a comedian’s duty. But at the same time she’s apprehensive. Because the country is split as a result and as she points out “even within the bubble of Edinburgh and London, quite liberal areas, it’s likely to be 50-50 in your audience”.
Nearer 60-40 up here surely? “But that’s still quite a number of people who are not going to be agreeing with you. I’m really interested in seeing how touring is going to go. What you don’t want is just to have people agreeing with you. What you want is to be able to reach everybody because actually we’re already divided and the trick is to find a way of talking about it that doesn’t alienate half your audience.”
She’s had that already. She road-tested material in Hemel Hempstead. “It’s a huge Ukip town … And I thought feminism was divisive.”
Christie, of course, came to prominence in 2013 when she won the Foster’s Edinburgh Comedy Award (after a decade of playing the Fringe to one-woman-and-a-dog size audiences) with her show about feminism entitled A Bic For Her (hijacking a slogan advertising female-targeted pink pens).
That show was born out of a need to talk about the thing that was front and centre in her mind at the time. Her new show was born out of post-Brexit anxiety.
“I’ve been periodically crying since,” she admits. “I think I did know it would be really close and it might go the way that I’d not hoped. Something I was really upset about was when Nigel Farage unveiled his poster of Syrian refugees [the much criticised Breaking Point poster] and then the murder of Jo Cox and the polls didn’t really change at all. There wasn’t a big shift.”
She rails against the lies and untruths told during the campaign and the recklessness of (now former) Prime Minister Cameron’s decision to hold the referendum in the first place. “There are a lot of debates to be had. There are obviously not 17 million racists in Britain. Not everyone who voted to leave was a racist. But all racists voted to leave and all racists do vote for Ukip. We’re seen a 500 per cent rise in racism. There was a story that came out this morning that the highest incidents of racist abuse have been in areas that voted to leave. You cannot say these things are not connected.”
She barely pauses for breath. “Another thing I’m quite annoyed about is people saying you can’t criticise people who voted to leave. You’re demonising the working classes. I don’t think anybody’s doing that. People voted to leave and it was for multitudinous and complex reasons.
“But it was such a binary vote. In or out. It came down to immigration at the end of the day. But no-one said, ‘Well, the immigration you don’t want doesn’t come from the EU anyway.’
“Nothing made any sense. Every single argument to leave the EU disintegrates after about five minutes. Well, less than that actually.”
You could make a case that the EU is itself a problematic entity I suggest. “It’s incredibly flawed,” she agrees, “but if you’re out of it you can’t make it better. You’re not in a position to negotiate.”
The thing is, she says, Cameron didn’t think it would happen. And now we’ve been left with a culture that is anti-intellectual, anti-expert and anti-establishment. “It’s the establishment that got us into this mess and actually the tragedy is that the people who voted to leave are the first who are going to be hit.”
All this anger, Bridget. How do you turn it into comedy? “Well, you’ve got to. Otherwise it’s just a really awful show. You’ve got to find the absurdity in it … Which is not difficult.”
Let’s zoom out for a moment. Christie is the ninth child of Irish immigrants. She lives in north London with her husband comedian Stewart Lee and children. (By the by, the couple went to Shetland for their honeymoon. It was December. Shetland was shut, she recalls.)
When we speak the family is not long back from a holiday in the south of France where everyone was very kind to them despite the referendum result, but where they couldn’t get the rose petal ice cream they had driven 40 miles for especially, which is the kind of consequence never properly spelt out during the Brexit campaign. (“Whatever else happened – the economic fallout, the huge rise in racism – if I can’t have rose petal ice cream the world has ended,” Christie says. Although in the interests of accurate reporting she also points out that the ice cream had only run out because there was a festival on.)
Growing up, she always imagined she might become an actor. She even went to drama school, but then couldn’t get any work. There was rent to pay and she needed money for food. “I had day jobs and I thought I could do stand-up and hold down a job. And also have a little more control, I suppose. I could write something and perform it that night.
“I didn’t realise how addictive it would be. Then I wanted to be a really good stand-up. It was a necessity really.”
And yet for years no-one paid much attention. As she writes in her humorous memoir/feminist polemic A Book For Her (you can see what she did there): “I used to dress up as dead kings and insects and plagues and fires and things like that. Not very many people came to see me and I didn’t earn any money.”
That all changed when she decided to do a show in 2013 about how in terms of gender equality women “are still getting the shitty end of the phallic-looking stick”.
Suddenly everyone started listening.
Did she need to find her theme to find her feet as a stand-up, I wonder? “I don’t think I’ve found my feet now really,” Christie replies. “All that’s happened is the thing that I’m doing at the moment is more popular than the things I used to do.”
Really? Anyone who saw Christie at the Citizens Theatre earlier this year during the Glasgow Comedy Festival – a performance of someone on top of her subject and at ease with her stagecraft – will be surprised at the notion that she still isn’t sure of herself.
And surely you don’t win awards if you’re not on your game? What Christie does concede is that her writing has improved and maybe she has a bit more stage confidence these days. And maybe by the time she got to 2013 she felt she had nothing to lose. “I was 42 and I’d had a lot of bad Edinburghs where literally no-one came and I got two-star reviews. So I was quite calm about everything.”
In those earlier years she had done shows about King Charles II and ants among other things. Then she started doing feminist routines. She still included the odd fart joke of course. She even managed feminist fart jokes.
“Feminism was alienating in 2010, 2011, 2012. I knew that because me and my friends were doing stuff and we were really criticised for it. People looked uncomfortable. But the following year I thought, ‘Well, I’ll do a whole show about it because that’s what I’m interested in. I’ll do this show and see what happens. But I was still silly. I suppose the thing was I started writing about things that were important rather than things I thought might be funny.”
There was certainly no shortage of material. On the page and on stage Christie riffs on social media abuse, the misogyny of language, labiaplasty (yes, depressingly, it is a thing), female genital mutilation and Jeremy Clarkson.
I worry, I tell her, about the way that we seem to be going backwards rather than forwards. When female role models are Kim Kardashian and Katie Price there is something wrong. Pop stars used to be Kate Bush and Annie Lennox dressing up. Now it’s Rihanna and Miley Cyrus stripping off.
“We live in a highly sexualised society now,” agrees Christie. “That’s partly because of the mainstreaming of porn. I think these things are worrying, but I am unable to isolate aspects of what I consider to be female oppression. Things like highly sexualised role models for young girls or gendered products, they’re negative things.
“But when compared to child marriage and FGM and domestic violence and rape … I’m not saying they’re not important. They really are. But they are things you can micromanage to a degree. Parents can keep an eye on it. Those other things we need governments and communities and continents to pull together and fix. I think it’s sometimes more important to maybe focus on those things.”
Her thoughts circle round to Brexit again. “I’m really worried that the kind of attitudes we’re seeing now have been emboldened by the Brexit vote. It’s the same sort of attitude I’ve been hearing for years about feminism and women’s rights. It’s the same sort of language that feminists have had for years. ‘Stop whinging and moaning, get on with it, stop playing the victim.’ But that doesn’t make any sense to me. What is the opposition for? You don’t not argue about things because they’re happened. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Of course, Bridget, in UK terms we don’t really have an official opposition at the moment. “What really makes me angry is, the Tories should have been absolutely annihilated by now. And what did they do? They sorted it out in like a week. You’ve got to admire that. I hate the Tories but you have to admire their organisational skills.
“Meanwhile the opposition who should have cleaned up are an absolute shambles. I’m so worried and depressed about everything I can’t tell you.”
Well, at least we’ve now got a woman Prime Minister, I say. The silence extends for a while. “Let’s not expect too much,” Bridget Christie says.
Bridget Christie’s show Because You Demanded It is at The Stand Comedy Club, York Place until August 20 (except August 15 and August 16). Visit https://tickets.edfringe.com for details.