‘My reproductive life is over? That’s liberating!’ Bridget Christie on comedy, TV and the menopause
What’s it like to break into television in your 50s? The award-winning standup talks about her new series The Change, her late-blooming career and her issues with Tupperware
Written by Emine Saner in The Guardian on June 15th, 2023
‘This show has changed my life in the most positive, liberating way’ … Bridget Christie Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer
There is a photograph of Bridget Christie and her siblings, she says, taken in a forest in the 70s, that sounds so dreamy and nostalgic I can almost picture its curling edges: nine children, probably dressed in hand-me-downs, smiling out from under a big oak tree. “Or was it eight of us, and my eldest brother had to take the photo?” she wonders aloud. It must have been hard to keep track when there were so many of them.
We have been talking about her childhood in Gloucester, as the youngest of all those kids, and the forests that inspired her new TV comedy drama. A big oak tree stands in the centre of The Change, seemingly transported straight from Christie’s childhood. The heroine, a tree-climbing girl like Christie was, hid a time capsule in its boughs some time in the late 70s. We meet Linda, played by Christie, at her 50th birthday party – weary, put-upon, menopausal – wondering what happened to her life. For years, in stacks of notebooks, she has recorded the time she has devoted to caring for her family and home, the invisible work usually done by women. She decides to take some of that time back, and heads off on a motorbike (Christie has one, too, bought around the time she turned 50 last year) on a heroic quest in search of who she used to be. That time capsule should have some clues.
Christie has packed so many themes into six episodes. There is sexism, the menopause, sexual harassment, the climate emergency, capitalism and greed, the importance of local community, our lost connection with the land, folk traditions and who they are for, gender identity, the inescapable sense of time passing, even a fair bit about eels.
It’s funny, touching, sometimes unsettling, and singularly Christie’s voice. Making it has, she says, been “a defining moment in my life and career. I feel like whatever happens with it, it’s already changed my life in the most positive, liberating way. I kind of can’t lose with it.”
This is her first TV commission, which seems remarkable, given her success: she won Britain’s top comedy award at the Edinburgh festival in 2013, and has had sellout West End and Edinburgh shows. She has had series on Radio 4, but it’s hard for comedians to get TV shows, she says: there are only so many slots available. But other comics – I mean men – get shows commissioned all the time, I point out. “Yeah, I’m really angry,” she says with a laugh, when we meet in a London hotel bar. “I’m having a hot flush now – you’ve made me really angry.”
She started writing The Change about six years ago. She had always wanted to set something in the Forest of Dean, stretching across the border of England and Wales, near where she grew up. “It hasn’t been gentrified, it’s quite hard to get to, you can’t really build there, so it’s still this kind of forgotten place,” she says. While she was writing it, Christie’s menopause started and with it, a new phase. “I think finding out who you are when you’ve lost yourself is a universal story,” she says. “I don’t think that this just talks to women of a certain age – I hope it does, because we really need to be represented much better on TV and film – but I think most people understand that feeling of losing your identity and wanting to get it back.”
The Covid lockdowns had made her think even more about domestic life, and the division of labour – surveys showed women in heterosexual partnerships did more housework. “And teenage girls were doing more while their brothers got on with homework,” she says, eyes widening. “I thought about my mum and my sisters, and my friends, and all the women over time who have been doing this. It seems like a really simple thing to be able to sort out in terms of equality, but we haven’t, so how are we going to sort anything else out?”
In her house she does the most. “Probably. But I think it’s a universal story rather than my own personal …” She pauses, before pouncing on the example of Tupperware, that symbol of domestic labour. In The Change’s opening episode, Linda battles an avalanche of plastic. “The Tupperware thing does drive me a bit crazy,” Christie says, “but I got rid of a lot of it. That was the good thing about the menopause. What gives me a hot flush? OK, eliminate those things: caffeine, alcohol, stress, Tupperware.”
She likes to think women could go on strike, like they did in Iceland in 1975, when they took a “day off” from their workplaces and homes. “It might make the government think about women’s contribution to the economy. I’ll be the Mick Lynch of dusting.” Ultimately, she says, it’s about whose time is of more value, and women’s time is clearly considered less worthy. “I’ve often been early for meetings with male producers, and they’ve been late – there is a real difference in how we handle our time.”
Lockdown also gave Christie the opportunity to think about nature. “I did start kind of worshipping the sky and the wind and the sun and the moon,” she says, smiling at herself. “I moved a sofa and then I noticed a tree over the road that I hadn’t noticed before. It made us stop and notice things. We were reminded about the beauty and the magic of our own country, and it made me think about our ancestors, and the really rich seam of culture that we have.” She brought the artist Ben Edge in as “folklore expert” to consult on the show. “That idea of who are we, where did we come from? These traditions and rituals, who are they for, and why do we do them? We’re so divided at the moment politically, and, I think, emotionally and socially. I wanted to bring all those themes into the show.”
The small town that Linda arrives in is about to host its annual eel festival, and she quickly witnesses a culture skirmish, rather than a war, about its traditions. It cuts to the idea of what Britishness is, and who is allowed to be considered British. “What do we see in our minds when we think about that?” says Christie. “Do we just see white people? It’s not even factually correct – we are a multicultural nation and that’s what we should see. These rituals and festivals are for all of us. Once you start excluding any of us, then they’re meaningless, because they are a celebration of what it means to be human and to be British.” And traditions and rituals should evolve, she says – how is changing black face paint to blue, for instance, any great loss to morris dancers? If festivals don’t evolve, she says, “they become irrelevant. You need to retain the things that make it what it is, and make us connect to it, but also connect with who we are now, and who we want to be in the future.”
However frustrating her previous attempts to get something made have been, she says she is glad that this show happened at this point in her life. “I’m not sure I could have written it before. Sometimes you’ve just got to hold your nerve and keep going and keep working.” Christie is a model of success in the middle years, having garnered most of her commercial and critical acclaim when she was in her late 30s, and now this in her early 50s. “I think it’s great that things are happening to me post-50. It feels really exciting, and I hope it inspires other women to think that they don’t have to have done everything by the time they’re 30.” When she was 30, she hadn’t even started standup.
She grew up in a Catholic family, 14 years younger than her oldest sibling; for a time, all 11 of them lived in the same small house. Their father worked in a factory and their mother was a nurse. Christie and one brother had bunk beds in their parents’ room, and she thinks there were six girls in one bedroom. What happens when you are the youngest of that many children – did it make her an attention-seeker, or was she overshadowed? “Both,” she says. “We were very creative. We would put on plays, create our own fun, make stuff in the garden, come up with weird games that didn’t cost anything. I was born quite extrovert, I think – I’ve always been sociable and outgoing. But also, I don’t think I was always heard, because I was the youngest.” She smiles. “It might be why I’m in standup.”
Christie left school at 15. “I felt like I wanted to get on with my life,” she says. For a while, she was in a biker gang, then she moved to London and took jobs in factories and offices, working on the Daily Mail’s diary column for a while, so she could do standup gigs in the evenings. Her early work included dressing up as Charles II for her show The Court of King Charles II, until her breakthrough 2013 Edinburgh show, the feminist triumph A Bic for Her.
“I started talking about things that were important to me,” she says, although she points out that feminism “was a hard sell back then”. But she had nothing to lose, she says. “I didn’t care by that point. No one was really coming to my gigs anyway.” The timing helped – fourth-wave feminism was taking off – but Christie found that she liked the challenge of “working out how to talk about difficult subjects in a humorous way – that felt like a breakthrough. How can I be silly and funny about something that’s quite important?”
Had she been close to giving up? “I came close to thinking that my tours were not financially viable,” she says. But as long as she had enough money from day jobs – she was 38 when she became a full‑time writer and performer – she could carry on with comedy. “I didn’t want to compromise, because it’s so important to me. I love the creative process, starting with nothing. I love the puzzle of writing and performing – why is this funny? What is the wider context? I didn’t want to do work that I didn’t enjoy and wasn’t proud of. That’s probably made this process longer for me. Maybe if I had done jobs that raised my profile I would have got a TV commission. Maybe I wouldn’t have; I don’t know.”
It was tough for female comics when Christie started. She remembers the heckles: “‘Get your top off, show us your tits.’ Rolling their eyes, bit of hostility. But I genuinely don’t think that is the case now, because the numbers are just different – there are far more female comics.” She is touring her new show, Who Am I?, and at one gig recently a stag party came. “I mean, they’d come to a show about the menopause and they stayed for the whole thing. They were slightly disruptive at the start and then it became this fun back-and-forth. But they weren’t sexist at all – it was a human-to-human interaction. There was nothing to do with my gender. That was interesting to me.”
Her experience of the menopause has been positive, and liberating – although, she stresses, “I know for a third of women it isn’t, and it’s terrible and there should be more help”. Menopause brought a confidence she hasn’t had before – for her TV show, she sent the script out to her dream cast, including Omid Djalili and Tanya Moodie, and asked people such as the folk singer Shirley Collins to be involved. “I probably wouldn’t have asked certain people a couple of years ago, but I just felt: ‘What is the worst thing that can happen? They just say no. Is it so bad?’” They didn’t say no.
For Christie, menopause has been a rebirth of sorts. She has a sense that she is “out the other side and I feel like it’s the beginning of the rest of my life. I find the fact that my reproductive life is over quite liberating, like a return to form. There was this middle section that was all about, whether we know it or not, ‘attractiveness’, or having relationships, and I feel that that’s gone. The Bridget I was when I was a child, before I had my periods – I feel more like that person now.”
Written by Emine Saner in The Guardian on 15th June 2023.
Filed Under: The Change