Helen Lederer: 'My childhood self was like David Frost, but a fat female child version'
I was a very annoying child. I went to Blackheath High School in London, which had very strict teachers who weren’t used to children who were jolly and would come up with ideas to introduce a bit of fun. That’s the kind of child I was – making up rude games and getting into trouble by mistake.
It must have been very irritating for those teachers, but the truth is that we’re all annoying, even though we don’t mean to be. My older sister used to hum, and I remember flying at her, desperate for her to stop. I now realise she did it naturally, but it used to annoy me so much.
So my worry is that I can annoy people even now, but I think my younger self would have complete sympathy with me. Wanting to have a laugh, and finding a connection with people through finding life hysterical, that's what makes me who I am now, just as it was then. I attract people like me and I still get into trouble, but something in me means I always just about survive.
My need to write and perform is something that my younger self would understand, too. At home I was always role-playing with my sister and another pair of sisters who would come over. My sister would engineer it so that, in whatever game we were playing, she didn’t have to do anything – just something like reading a comic or being served drinks. Whenever we did a play, our poor parents had to sit there being the audience and looking pleased.
My father, Peter (born Klaus), was Czechoslovakian, and came to this country when he was about nine. My mother, Jeanne, similarly exotically, was from the Isle of Wight. Dad had left Czechoslovakia because of the war and all that hoo-hah, but he did really well here and I suppose that’s partly what drives me. They were both funny people, but I think they were always faintly concerned about what I was going to do next. My younger self would still see parts of them in me: my father always enjoyed spotting something amusing about people, and my mother always liked to spin out a story.
One of the earliest bits of TV I did was a sketch show called Naked Video in the mid-1980s, around the time that women were doing a bit more writing and performing. I’d been doing stand-up, and I played a Sloaney girl mouthing off at the bar. My childhood self, who did sketches of her own and was like David Frost, but a fat female child version, would have really rallied to the idea of being able to write her own monologues as an adult. Whether she’d be pleased about or proud of much else is hard to say, because I always try to avoid doing difficult things.
She would have been horrified by my appearance on Celebrity Big Brother, which was so stressful for some of us who participated – I remember one day looking around and seeing three different arguments going on around me! Three! – that our bodies were stuffed with adrenalin and we could barely go to the loo.
But maybe she’d be happy to know what I’m doing now, which, apart from stand-up and a podcast, is running the Comedy Women in Print, or Cwip prize. I set it up and I’m seeing it through, which is hard work, with all that managing and getting support, and being nice to hundreds of people all the time, which kills me, yet it’s required. It means that, even in lockdown, which I’ve been spending with my husband, Chris, in south London, I’ve been able to do something that’s real: helping people get published and maybe changing the conversation a bit.
That makes it slightly more purposeful than the clubs I used to set up as a child. I’m not proud of this, but I made one called the Anti-Golfers’ Association. Our house used to back on to a golf course, and I don’t think my sister and I wanted to annihilate the golfers who played there, but we certainly did sing at them in quite a hostile manner.
My younger self would be disappointed by my failure to maintain her hatred of golfers, and bemused by the expansion of my interests beyond getting a boyfriend and wearing Levi’s jeans. But she would see me as the same silly person, deep down.
Helen Lederer is founder of the Comedy Women in Print prize. Visit comedywomeninprint.co.uk for this year’s shortlist