Helen Lederer was one of a clutch of funny women who shaped the alternative comedy scene in the 1980s. Now with her first novel just published, she talks to Yvette Huddleston.
IF THERE WAS such a thing as a golden age for women in stand-up, it would have to be the late 1980s and early 90s. Bright young talents such as Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Jo Brand, Josie Lawrence, Jenny Eclair and Ruby Wax were coming through, writing their own material and making their mark on the London comedy circuit. Among them was Helen Lederer, a feisty, energetic presence who quickly broke through into television with appearances in The Young Ones, written by her Comedy Store colleagues Rik Mayall and Ben Elton, and a regular slot as “Girl at the Bar” on the sketch show Naked Video.
Lederer has had – and continues to have – a varied and interesting career as a stand-up, writer and actor. She has written columns and features for a number of national newspapers including the Guardian, the Telegraph and The Independent, is a frequent panellist on radio and television discussion shows and her theatre work in the West End includes The Killing of Sister George, The Vagina Monologues and Calendar Girls. In 2013 she was also a participant in the TV reality show Splash! in which celebrities learnt to high dive with Olympic medallist Tom Daley as their mentor. Novelist is now another occupation she can add to her already impressive CV as her first novel, Losing It, was published last month.
The book has at its centre a very honest and authentic portrayal of a middle-aged woman, Millie, whose life is in a bit of a muddle. She is overweight, divorced, has a complicated relationship with her grown-up daughter, is struggling with debt (so much so that she is on the verge of losing her house) and on the look-out for a relationship. She works as an agony aunt for Good Woman magazine and when her editor suggests that she becomes the front woman for a new diet pill and weight loss programme – a role that could earn her the money she needs to alleviate her financial difficulties – she jumps at the chance. But she needs to lose a considerable amount of weight in a very short time and the pressure is on.
Add to that the fact that her daughter Mary is away working in Papua New Guinea and seems to be going through a bit of a crisis herself, plus she is the focus of unwanted attention from her eccentric neighbour Harry and the scene is set for a deft comedy of manners.
“I have been wanting to write a novel for around 10 years,” says Lederer. “I had a couple of attempts which stalled and then before you know it you have talked yourself out of it. Fortunately with this when I started writing I thought ‘this is it’ – this is the story and the voice. It was challenging because I knew how hard I found trying to write the previous novels but when I had a story to tell it just happened. I thought it’s not going to write itself, so just get on with it.”
Millie is not perfect – she can be mean-spirited and generous, changeable as well as loyal – a believable human being, in fact. And she is very funny. “The narrative voice of Millie is that neurotic part of my personality that I don’t like people to see,” says Lederer. “Particularly with comedy writing, people either love a character or hate them, but I kind of understand how I am writing and why – and I found a voice that I really like.”
Lederer’s own relationship with food and struggles with her weight was a source of inspiration and other aspects of her life also found their way into the book which gives it a pleasing authenticity and refreshing honesty. “I have been in some of the situations Millie has been in,” says Lederer. “The weight issue has always been with me whether I am fatter or thinner. That has been an issue for me forever. I was a fat child. And the complexity of the mother-daughter relationship is drawn from my own experience. My real daughter [Hannah, an actor] is actually abroad – in Thailand – as we speak, but when I was writing it she wasn’t in Thailand. Everything in the book – more or less – has happened.”
Millie’s best friend Florence is also an interesting character who has found a new lease of life – and a voracious sexual appetite – since she has been prescribed testosterone supplements to combat symptoms of the menopause. “I do have a very lovely friend and some aspects of Florence are based on her,” says Lederer. “I absolutely adore my real friend and I am going to have to do a lot of damage limitation before she gets a copy of the book to read but she is the kind of lovely person who will just laugh. I do find the whole thing about women with testosterone implants intriguing – my friend’s personality did change.”
Lederer – who has been a judge for the Costa Book Awards – has referred to Losing It as “mid lit”, literature for women who have outgrown chick lit and want to read about the concerns and issues of their age group.
“I think if you go back to my days of doing stand-up in the 1980s – you can only write about who you are the time,” says Lederer. “I am not going to write now about being single and in my twenties. I am writing about the things that are going on in my life now and that are relevant for women my age. I have been divorced and the character is divorced, and debt is everywhere now. And for Millie all these things are spiralling out of control. The book is a way of laughing at those things. Life’s too short just go for it, follow your feelings.” From the outset Lederer was clear about what she wanted to achieve with her debut novel. “My ambition in writing this book was to make people laugh,” she says. “My aim is for somebody to read this on the Tube and find it funny. If you keep things simple, it’s achievable.”
One of Lederer’s best-known roles on television is as the ditzy Catriona, a recurring character who popped up in all five series of the hugely successful comedy Absolutely Fabulous alongside Jennifer Saunders as the monstrous Edina and Joanna Lumley as party animal Patsy. It was, she says, a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
“Those were the days in the 80s and 90s when people were quite straightforward and we all thought ‘this is fun’. Reality TV hadn’t happened. It was a different time and people connected differently – there weren’t so many pressures and Jennifer was very gracious and listened to our suggestions.” There are rumours that Saunders, who also wrote the original series, is planning a film version and Lederer is certainly up for it. “I so want to be in it,” she says. “I loved it – it was a fantastic cast – and I love the fact that people loved it so much.”
When we speak Lederer is in the middle of filming several episodes of Hollyoaks reprising a role she has played before. “It’s such a lot of fun,” she says. “There is something really nice about getting up in the morning and being told what to do. With writing it all has to come from you. I play a drunken midwife – it’s quite a hard-hitting storyline. I do like the people on Hollyoaks, they are a very welcoming bunch.”
Lederer has other TV projects lined up including a part in the BBC’s daytime soap Doctors and she is already well on the way with her next novel.
“I had already written the story as a TV script,” she says. “The publishers are waiting to see how this one does first, so I am kind of hoping there’s a good reception. If not, I will publish it myself.”
Happily married for the second time to GP Chris Browne and with a portfolio career that continues to flourish, Lederer is content with her lot.
“I think there were some years I regret – when I didn’t get the series or this or that, but a lot of that is luck and also to do with my personality – I get bored doing the same thing,” she says. “Maybe things have just fitted my personality without my realising it. I can do a few things quite well; I don’t have a plan, I have always gone where the work is. I have learnt to enjoy what I have – there are many ways to be ok. I think it’s about accepting things. That is one of the pluses of having got this far.”
• Helen Lederer is appearing at Huddersfield Literature Festival in a Literary Afternoon Tea with David Nobbs at Fixby Hall on March 8, 3-5pm, for details visit www.litfest.org.uk and at York Literature Festival on Saturday, March 28, at St Peter’s School, York at 7pm, www.yorkliteraturefestival.co.uk.