Josie Lawrence: ‘Of course I don’t think I’m sexy!’

Josie Lawrence is supposed to be talking about her new play, Our Lady of Blundellsands, by Jonathan Harvey, who is probably best known for Gimme, Gimme, Gimme. But she gets there by way of a thousand detours, from her first gig in a working men’s club, which she took in order to get an Equity card, through the late 80s, her reign as queen of improv, to Oklahoma!, which she did recently in Chichester. “It was an uber-talented company – young people who could do everything: dancing, singing, acting. It was joyous. I was Mama Josie and they treated me just lovely. I did everything with them. Bowling, parties, days at the beach, karaoke.”

There’s something in this litany of wholesome pursuits that distils the way she talks about her career: an ongoing sense of wonder at how great everyone is, as though she has just fallen fresh on to a stage from space. It’s extremely contagious – after 20 minutes in her company you find yourself thinking the best of the world and eagerly looking forward to Blundellsands, which sounds surreal and perceptive, domestic and tragic, Sunset Boulevard retold by way of Coronation Street. But “delighted ingenue” is an unusual figure on the comedy circuit, which tends to demand something a bit more savage. Lawrence – who prefers “performer” to “comic” – has always been unusual.

When Whose Line Is It Anyway? became a TV staple in the late 80s, Lawrence was seven years out of drama school, a grafter, with a Renaissance attitude to the stage. She could sing, she could joke, she was deadly serious on occasion, she was strikingly quick-witted, and that became her defining trait. “It was the thing I became known for – of course, it was because the show was so popular. But it took two weekends to film, out of the year. It really wasn’t a big part of my life.” It was a surprise, she says, to find that her agent struggled to break her out of the comedy box, since from her point of view she spent way more time doing serious drama.

This was in the days before all-male panels were frowned upon, and comedy was incredibly male. She disputes that Whose Line was at all sexist – “No, they were my mates!” – pausing only for the mild remark: “The only thing you found was the attitude: ‘Oh, let’s have one [woman] on.’ It was nice when there were two of us.” She was constantly asked at the time what her presence meant for feminism, for equality, for the new era of TV diversity. “And it was impossible to comment, really, because you just are who you are. You don’t know why they chose you.”

Lawrence in 1990.
Lawrence in 1990. Photograph: Johnny Boylan/REX/Shutterstock

The show – it is repeated on Dave now, so even younguns may not need this recap – was sharp and fast, but rarely caustic. It didn’t invent improv, of course, but it made it seem brand new, as though we had ascended to a place where you no longer needed writers, it was enough just to have these great big spirits. And it was ephemeral; nobody talked about the great lines of Whose Line because they were so rooted in the moment. The performers – Lawrence, Paul Merton, John Sessions, Tony Slattery – were stop-traffic-in-the-streets famous. In a truly bizarre BBC wheeze to celebrate the anniversaries of TV and radio, David Attenborough (“The love of my life,” Lawrence says) invited viewers to get their radios and put them on top of the tellies, so the two platforms could converse, Lawrence singing one half of Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better from the radio, Peter Cook singing the other from the telly. I bring this up partly to illustrate Lawrence’s cultural pedigree – she was the woman you went to for everything. Mainly, though, it’s a reminder that even towards the end of the last century, there were still quite senior people in broadcasting who thought it intoxicating that people owned both a radio and a TV.

Whose Line belonged to a more innocent time, which Lawrence puts down to the fact that it happened before the internet. “It felt friendly; it was the days before social media, nobody was going picky picky pick, or trolly trolly troll, you were just making people laugh.” (Even when she’s not improvising, she has a way of speaking that would work quite well as a weird, sudden song.) “You heard mostly from the people who loved it. People who didn’t just wouldn’t watch it.” She is careful not to explicitly call these the good old days. But one cannot help but feel nostalgic for that heady time when people could dislike something without going bananas. Or maybe that’s wrong, and the show occupied its benign, national-treasure space because nobody disliked it.

You can forgive the assumption that Lawrence is and was a standup: her core business has long been as one of the Comedy Store Players. “It’s the best part-time job in the world, because I started in 1985, and I’m never not doing it. I can go away and have two years at the Royal Shakespeare Company but come back the next week and do the Wednesday and Sunday like I always did. We [Merton, Richard Vranch, Neil Mullarkey, Lee Simpson and others] still get paid in our little wage packets, always on the same split as we were in the 80s. We’re all quite happy.” Loyalty like that doesn’t come along very often on the stage, but then, being able to sustain your enthusiasm for improv over more than three decades is quite a feat, also. There is no doubting Lawrence’s passion for the genre – she has another improv ensemble with Pippa Evans, Cariad Lloyd and Ruth Bratt, named the Glenda J Collective, in honour of her heroine, Glenda Jackson. (Her cat is also called Glenda Jackson. This is no casual fandom.)

If Whose Line and its fan army (who are known as Whosers, presumably so they don’t get mixed up with Whovians) was both a blessing and a partial block on her acting career, it wasn’t a serious block. The huge majority of her career has been “serious drama”, as she says – Kate in Taming of the Shrew at one point alternating with the Cherry Orchard, both at the RSC. The Peggy Ashcroft award she won for Taming of the Shrew – this was 1994 – is the one that is on her piano, “because that’s the one that says ‘best actress’”.

Related: How we made Whose Line Is It Anyway?

These were the high-demand years. She was in the sitcom Outside Edge at the same time as the RSC run and shuttled between one set and another at four in the morning like a cabinet minister in a crisis. Yet she talks with as much enthusiasm about every gig, every phase of her career. She is one of those people who, asked when they are happiest, has probably been saying “right now” since the start.

As she describes her route into show business, you can imagine it as a graphic strip in a Judy annual, nailbiting but tooth-achingly sweet: straight out of Dartington college, living with her parents – her father worked at British Leyland, her mother was a dinner lady – writing letters to anyone she could think of, the whole family waiting for the postie on the doorstep (I’m extrapolating this image just from her tone of voice), rooting for her. “When we lost our mum a few years ago, and were clearing out her wardrobe, at the bottom there were nine albums of cuttings; she’d just quietly kept everything I’d ever done.”

I won’t armchair therapise about whether it’s this intensely supportive family that made Lawrence so sunny, or the other way round, or both, or whatever: it is extremely noticeable how relentlessly she seeks the best, how effortlessly she forgets the worst. She seems protected by a rare Ready Brek shield, since however much fun it looks and she makes it sound, that moonshot to fame via the improvised moment, it sure took its toll on everyone else. Paul Merton did a bleak and wonderful show in the late 90s about his depression; Tony Slattery hit a painful rock bottom in his struggle with addiction. Lawrence steps delicately round the subject of Tony Slattery and the interview he gave last year. “I wasn’t surprised to see him say it because I was there when it happened. He worked so hard.”

Talking about Acorn Antiques: The Musical! – the ultimate cult theatrical event, since it had such a short run that many people who would have seen it never did, and the great Victoria Wood is no longer with us – she remembers a Julie Walters solo song called Macaroons. “For the entire four months, I would get ready early just so I could go down and watch her from the wings. Every body part was funny.”

Off-stage, Lawrence is like her stage self on MDMA: mention anybody and she’ll find a reason she loves them, and quite a detailed one – a song, a gesture, it’s not a randomised, luvvie love. She hates being called upon for an opinion if it can’t be a good one. Obviously, she has a critique of the industry she is in, but will go no further than: “The gates have to be cracked a bit wider … to let in bit more diversity of every kind.”

She hastily self-corrects: “It’s a lovely life – I wouldn’t do anything else,” but then adds: “It isn’t always fantastic.” We meet the morning some government advisor is sabre-rattling about the BBC’s licence fee, but she is extremely cautious about discussing it. The furthest she will venture on to the territory of politics is to worry about arts funding – and “cutting funds for the arts in schools. Educational arts cuts really worry me because I think it’s so important. It’s a key part of education, but also of life. It’s soul food.” I didn’t exactly badger her for something stronger – but I suppose I registered some surprise, since surely the whole point of being decades in to a career is that you can say what you like; she is as guarded as a starlet. “I think what’s happening in this world beggars belief. All across the world, all you can think is: ‘Where are we living now? What’s happening to everyone?’ But what can you do, except be with the people you love? There are still people around who really care, and you’ve just got to keep reminding yourself of that.”

And if she is diplomatic on the subject of the world, that’s nothing on how positive she is about her corner of it. “I could count on two or three fingers of one hand the number of people I wouldn’t want to work with again,” she says. (Not even a whole handful!) Has she never had any disillusionment, or disappointment? “Of course there are days, when I walk in my local park – there’s a car park where they always have a unit film base, and I walk past thinking: ‘I wish I was there, doing a bit more telly.’” (This bit delivered is in a self-deprecating, tight-lipped voice, like you would do for an animal, maybe a vole?) “But it is what it is.”

Upon hitting 60 last year, Lawrence scandalised the Daily Telegraph with the line: “Forget 60 - I’m sexy years old”, which plagues her still. “It was a joke! I turned 60 three days into rehearsals for Oklahoma!, so I was surrounded by people who were 19 years old, giving me cake and singing. But of course I don’t think I’m sexy!” I don’t see why “of course”: sexy is about life force, really, and some combination of loving the Comedy Store gig as much today as she did in 1985 – and still having it! – and having that old-school, hoofer professionalism where nothing is ever boring, where she always takes her A-game, makes her vivacious in the truest, least dating-app sense of the word.

Our Lady of Blundellsands is at the Everyman, Liverpool, from 6 to 28 March.