Susan Calman interview
We speak to the Radio 4 regular and 'Have I Got News For You' star about her political new show
Susan Calman’s new show is her most personal, political and passionate yet. Ben Williams speaks to her about getting serious.
As Peter Parker’s wise uncle once said, ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ Glasgow-born stand-up Susan Calman is of a similar opinion, having chosen to provide a strong political message with her comedy at a time when her profile is rapidly on the rise, thanks to spots on ‘Have I Got News for You’ and ‘QI’.
In her latest show, ‘This Lady’s Not for Turning Either,’ as well as telling superbly silly stories about her cat obsession, the feisty comic discusses her recent civil partnership to her long-time girlfriend and gives a passionate and emotive speech about same-sex marriage. I spoke to the ‘News Quiz’ panellist about taking the political plunge.
You gave up your career as a lawyer to be a full-time stand-up. Do you think your comedy would be different if you’d started performing straight out of school or university?
‘Yes, I would’ve been in quite a state, I think. You work in a pub, essentially, and people laugh at you. I think I would’ve just gone, “This is brilliant,” and got quite drunk. I would have got entirely caught up in the social aspect of it. Whereas now I go, “No, I have to drive to Edinburgh tonight because I have to get up early in the morning to get a train, and I can’t be hungover when I’m doing a radio show,” you know?’
You’re a regular on Radio 4 these days. Have you noticed your audience change as you’ve become more prominent on the station?
‘Oh, yes. The first year I did the Edinburgh Fringe, my audiences were mostly people who’d seen me at The Stand [a comedy venue in Glasgow and Edinburgh]. The first year when I was starting to do Radio 4, I was quite perplexed because there were lots of lesbians, Stand regulars who’d seen me do rowdy Friday nights, Radio Scotland listeners and then Radio 4 listeners who wanted me to do jokes about, I don’t know, Nietzsche, and things like that. It was quite odd. I wasn’t sure who I was as a comedian, in terms of dealing with who was coming to see me. So I took a year off [from the festival] to get my head around who I was becoming as a stand-up.’
Do you feel under pressure now that people are coming to see you specifically, having seen you on TV or heard you on the radio?
‘It’s a little bit more pressure, because they’ve seen me or heard me on flagship shows, which are tremendous national treasures, like “QI” and “Have I Got News for You” and “The News Quiz”. So I feel like I don’t want to let them down. I don’t want to be that woman off “The News Quiz” who they went to see live and she was shit, you know?’
You’ve said that political comedy is something you’ve always wanted to do but didn’t have the guts. What gave you the courage this time?
‘I got a little bit more confident in who I was, and a little bit more confident that people might actually want to listen to what I had to say. I purposely share things with the audience. That means some people might hate me, but if you like me then you tend to like me a little bit more because I’ve told you about myself. I think with comedy, especially today, a little bit more bravery is required. I like the comics who do what’s in their gut.’
You get quite emotional in the show. Did you expect to be so teary when performing it?
‘Unfortunately, I have a complete inability to hide what I’m thinking. Living in Scotland, there are still articles in the paper about how gay people are an aberration. So if you read a cardinal saying horrific things about you, and then go on stage and all you’re asking for is the same rights as someone else, it’s an emotional thing.
'I don’t apologise for that because, at 37 years old, I didn’t ever think I’d have to be replying to the same criticisms I had in the 1980s. I’ve been beaten up and spat at. It doesn’t necessarily get any better unless you stand up and talk about it.’
Do you feel it will get better if same-sex marriage is legalised in the UK?
‘To my mind, while the government are saying that they’re going to pass legislation in both countries, England and Scotland, it’s more of a battle of hearts and minds. When I was growing up, the only two lesbians on telly were Sandi Toksvig and Sue Perkins and that’s not really changed. They’re wonderful, and I adore them, but it’s not really changed in terms of visibility. Gay men, I think, are much more visible in the media now. But for gay women it’s not quite gone as far.’