Sue Perkins: Interview

Sue Perkins talks to Time Out about comedy minus Mel and the trials of being a TV poker prodigy

  • Sue Perkins performed her first stand-up gig in 1988 while she was at Cambridge University. She did it as a bet. It went badly. ‘I was like a Christian thrown to the lions. I was terrified and chain-smoked my way through it.’ The routine was interrupted by a woman wearing a boiler suit and called Mel. For the next 17 years they worked together with great success as the double act Mel and Sue.

    Last year, after they’d decided on a temporary professional separation, Perkins returned to solo comedy with a full-length show at the Edinburgh Fringe. The effect was astounding. It was as if she’d worked as a stand-up since the dawn of time. She’s been touring the show ever since. ‘Tweaking it, changing things, introducing new stuff. I set myself the challenge of ad-libbing the first ten minutes every time. It’s been an old person’s tour, though. Someone like Dara O’Briain will do 60 dates in 60 days. I’m doing 60 gigs spread over an entire year.’
    Never one to brag, she acknowledges her ability as a stand-up has improved. ‘It’s come slowly. I’m very impatient. I kept feeling that I wasn’t good enough. Now at least I feel better inside my skin. I’ve learnt how to develop routines. To play with each bit. To enjoy expanding on it. To get used to the stage being mine.’ She says she’s even learnt to pause for breath. ‘But not to have a drink of water. If I do that, will the audience be bored? Will they look away? Will they leave?’

    In between the touring dates Perkins has recorded a couple of radio shows. She’s also made a name for herself on TV in ‘Showbiz Poker’. She’s not proud of her achievements. She only took part as a favour to a friend. ‘I hadn’t played before. I kept getting through all the way to the Grand Final.’ On the way she knocked out veteran footballer Teddy Sheringham. ‘A nice guy. And a real card player. I was riddled with guilt.’ Why the success? ‘It shows how far you can progress with just a go-getting attitude. If you’re a novice, you don’t feel so inhibited. You’re not preoccupied with the subtleties of the game.’

    Perkins never saw any of her TV poker triumphs. She never watches anything she’s done. Not even comedy. ‘Life’s too short. I’m not like some dog returning to its own vomit.’ It’s the same with her stand-up shows. You’ll rarely find her there ten minutes after the gig has finished. So there’s little point in hanging around outside the stage door when she brings her stand-up to the Bloomsbury Theatre for one night on Wednesday 17. Within a few blinks she’ll be gone.

    The current show, Perkins says, amounts to a snapshot of where she was when she wrote it. ‘It’s a window into me at that time. It was like my new starting point. An indication of what I found funny. In a double act, you have a definite role. For better or worse, this is the real me.’
    She accepts that, to the outside world, her separation from Mel looks like a parting of the ways. ‘It’s not. I love being with her. But we have to go where the work is. Mel has the responsibility of two children. I have two animals to look after.’

    It could be significant, though, that Perkins performs her stand-up using just one side of the stage. It’s as if there’s a line down the middle that she can’t cross. ‘It’s as if there’s a zone that’s kept free out of respect,’ she agrees. ‘As if there’s a space that isn’t my territory.’

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