London bound, I anticipated a relaxed chat with legendary comedian Jo Brand… but it proved to be quite the opposite: gripping and unpredictable throughout. Jo attacked the Royal Family, confessed to being unaware of the charities she supports, and then admitted she never goes to see young up-and-coming comedy talent.
No mistake, it was a pleasant encounter and Jo was so genuine: her informal custom shone through with her messy office and the offer of a cup of coffee or two. She was funny and welcoming but it is, however, Jo’s unprovoked outbursts and out-of-character faux-pas that will live long in the memory, rather than those quirky episodes – asking my permission to say ‘bollocks’, for instance, and then mimicking my southern accent.
Jo criticised royalty and maintained that her comments about Prince Harry taking cocaine were perfectly valid: “The Royal Family don’t really lift a finger,” the BAFTA-winning comedian bemoaned in that droll, somewhat nasal twang. “We support the Royal Family because we pay our taxes, and they use our money to live on. They own all this land and all these castles, and in my book that’s really unfair. The very least they can do is be gracious about having the piss taken out of them.”
Jo continued: “They seem to think going to charity events is hard work, but I can tell you, I go to charity events and it’s not hard work,” she said. Understandably, I thought it fitting to explore those involvements, but in an astonishing few minutes Jo admitted that she is unaware of the charities she formally supports: her revelation perhaps better suited to a tête-à-tête rather than a full-blown interview. “For all I know, I’m not a patron of the National Self Harm Network and you could be having me on here…” I couldn’t help but shrivel in discomfort. “It’s a shame that charities feel they can’t get any recognition or attract people, unless they have a celebrity figurehead. The advice that other comics or actors tend to bandy around is only be patron of a few things. With me I’ve decided to go the other route of saying yes to pretty much everything, but making it clear that I have no time at all to do events. Who knows… I don’t know what my work involves really.”
Instead of endearing her to the public, Jo’s anti-men, slightly caustic nature has often served to irritate: “There’s a section of the male community who over-objectify women,” said the 56-year-old Londoner when I asked what if she was actually a ‘brand’. “My product would be a gas you could spray over men to make them respect women.” Jo went on to lash out at her haters, highlighting the regular ‘menopausal’ and ‘lesbian’ labels often forced upon her. Jo has, though, been married to nurse Bernie Bourke for many years and has two daughters, Maisie and Eliza – crushing those unpleasant typecasts.
With recent scandals calling into question the care and compassion of nurses, Jo outlined her concerns over current NHS shenanigans. Jo trained to become a psychiatric nurse and spent 10 years helping patients with severe mental health issues, and by the time she left the profession to try her hand at stand-up she was a senior charge nurse in a 24-hour emergency clinic. She highlighted the “more than a few bad things” going on and stressed that not all are down to privatisation. “A lot of the things that have gone wrong are about targets: managers at all costs trying to meet targets. And bollocks to the consequences.”
Jo revealed that her comedy material consists of setting up a joke with the truth, but her punch-lines will be a lie. She explained that some comics simply live off their personality: “You’ve got comics whose material might be crap and a bit dull, but their personality is so huge that they even make dross seem like comedy gold.” Jo went on to pick her favourite comedian ever, but expressed concern over some recent material by Frankie Boyle. She also admitted to never seeing young comedians or upcoming talent.
It was on the matter of politics that Jo seemed to be most fervent, claiming Ed Miliband might be too posh for the job of Prime Minister. “I know he went to a comprehensive,” she said, “but he does come across slightly posh. Tony Blair managed not to be as posh as he is. And Cameron’s really muffled his poshness.” Jo spoke of her “struggle” to continue supporting the Labour Party and stressed that the media have created a caricature out of its leader. “I think the whole issue of Ed Miliband is a complex one. When you caricature politicians, it’s really difficult for the public to take them seriously – they are reduced in people’s heads to a cartoon. I think that’s a big issue for Ed Miliband and his supporters to think about.”
I was interested in Jo’s take on the 80s’ boom in alternative comedy: the rejection of society’s deadening preoccupations – consumerism and domesticity, for instance. Jo described how some comics “just pretended to be alternative comedians for the sake of being swept along by the tide of enthusiasm and anti-Thatcherism.” It seemed she was never too involved in the whole anti-establishment movement and that perhaps she viewed that specific audience as guffaw aficionados: people for whom comedians are idols.
It was a fascinating take on what many associate with Jo’s persona, and it brought us towards the end of what was a remarkable interview. We had spoken at length for over half an hour about topics rarely touched on by comedians – but Jo demonstrated her breadth of knowledge, compassion and integrity throughout. Beyond those humorous witticisms viz. outlining her intentions of annihilating the American government, which in fairness are to be expected from comedians whose jobs revolve around making people laugh, there is a serious cognizance of the quandaries facing society today.
Stylish, red-haired and sharply amusing, Jo has a warmth entirely at odds with her deadpan on-screen delivery. It wasn’t until I dared show her my appallingly inaccurate (most probably due to nerves) impression of her voice that I genuinely felt uncomfortable… although her impression of mine wasn’t much better.