TV

Jo Brand: "My dad knocked out a couple of my boyfriends"

Comedian Jo Brand on being a nihilistic teenager, her 'humiliating' stage debut - and how she finally found the happy family life she dreamed of as a child

I was pissed off a lot of the time as a teenager. There were two big issues, to coin a phrase. One was that my dad suffers from depression and didn’t have it treated until he was in his 50s. It was particularly bad through my teenage years. And my parents were on the verge of splitting up for a long time, so the atmosphere in our house was terrible.

My dad knocked out a couple of my boyfriends. Those sort of things overshadow everything else – and didn’t do my relationships any good. It was awful. Humiliating, embarrassing, frightening. Looking back, it is difficult not to feel that the whole time was coloured by my dad’s behaviour but one has to take into account that he was ill at the time. There was much less knowledge about mental health. Particularly for men like him, it would have been the kiss of death to admit you had depression or anxiety.

Because it was so crap at home, I was nihilistic about the future. Any kid dealing with emotional fallout finds it difficult to assess where they are going with their life. My parents were keen I would go to a posh university. We had lived in a village in Kent, and I’d been at a school I really liked, even though it was two-and-a-half hours each way on the bus. When we moved to Hastings, I would skive off and go to a coffee bar on the seafront and sit all day smoking fags. So the idea of going to Oxford or Cambridge disintegrated. I was hanging around with a very unsavoury character, hence my dad lamping him.

My parents met at Young Socialists, so they would talk politics over the kitchen table. I would ask my friends, what do you think about the Kennedy assassination – I was 11 when the second one happened – and they would not have an opinion. I found it weird that not everyone’s household was political.

Jo Brand on the beach. Photo: Andrew Campbell Photography

I didn’t want to act, I just wanted to tell jokes. But there wasn’t any identifiable career path in comedy. All the comics were blokes and nearly all were northern. The only woman was Marti Caine, a beacon of womanhood amidst all the growly blokes. I didn’t know how you did it. It was a question of treading water until I found out.

I was kicked out and moved into a bedsit at 16. It was such a relief. The house was fantastic. Up top were five Korean chaps sharing a room, below them was a Rastafarian called Eric who was a drug dealer, then there was me. Below me was the landlady’s daughter, who was a single mum, and at the bottom was my landlady, who dealt cannabis. It was like being in a play! It was a lovely time. I trained as a nurse, then stayed in nursing for another six years. During that time, the alternative comedy scene was getting going, which was tailor-made for me to have a go.

There are huge numbers of prejudiced, unkind people around – and they are getting louder at the moment.

First time I stepped on stage was humiliating. Dying on my arse. Death by a thousand non-laughs, doing five minutes on Sigmund Freud to a pissed audience in Soho at 1am at the end of a Greenpeace fundraiser. I was so nervous I drank all evening. As soon as I got on stage, some guy started shouting: “Fuck off you fat cow.” Over and over. Until I did, indeed, fuck off.

I was never bothered by failures because I never had a career plan. I let myself be carried along with the tide. I make decisions depending on what stage I am at with the family. I was offered one show where I would dress as a Victorian explorer and go down the river in Africa as if it was the 19th century. But my kids were young so I didn’t want to be away from home. And I didn’t want to drown.

A lot of young women, including my younger self, are under-confident. They let themselves be pissed about by a certain sort of guy who is very manipulative. We blame ourselves when things go wrong. But that person who has just slept with your best friend is probably not the best person to be with.

The most important thing in life is to support other people. Friendships are very important and I try really hard not to be negative. If you do that, the rest of your life falls into place. There are huge numbers of prejudiced, unkind people around – and they are getting louder at the moment.

Jo Brand with her friend Alan Davies in Damned.

At the beginning of the alternative comedy scene, I felt I was kicking against the pricks, literally. But it was said that I was a man-hater. I was doing my act, talking about a culture rather than individuals. The scene went from Bernard Manning types to the alternative circuit almost overnight. It was a totally different art form and very inclusive. When I started, I was 30. Because of the age gap, I was the driver and the counsellor and became quite motherly to some of them. Alan Davies became a really good mate.

I became a parent late but only because I didn’t find the right sperm donor. I always fancied being a parent. At school, I’d stay with my best friend, who was one of eight kids. Her dad was a builder who liked a drink, her mum sat chain-smoking and watching telly. This big warm, smoky household with everyone laughing and rowing was the sort of home I fancied. We only have two children but we have the warmth and laughter.

When I have a new show, I bury my head in the sand until it is all over. I make my husband watch it and if he says it is crap I believe him. He is one of the few people who will tell me the truth. In comedy, if you have done well they tell you it was brilliant. If not, there is this weird wall of silence around you.

My younger self would be absolutely bloody flabbergasted by my life now. I thought I would stay in nursing and be a senior nurse, even though I broke into my file at the hospital and it said I would never be promoted because I dressed “too Oxfam”! Charming, eh?

It is inevitable teenagers are going to try most things. I certainly did. So I wouldn’t advise my younger self against drink, drugs or anything. My approach to life is it is all out there for you, take a few risks. You will always regret it if you have lived too safe a life.

Damned airs Tuesdays at 10pm on Channel 4

Top image: Jo Brand in Friday Night Live, ITV, 1987/88. Photo: ITV/REX/Shutterstock

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