Social drinking has always been a big part of comedian Helen Lederer’s life. But last year it spiralled out of control. She tells Julia Llewellyn Smith about the embarrassing wake-up call that forced her to sober up.
The tipping point for comedian Helen Lederer’s relationship with alcohol came shortly before last year’s second lockdown when she visited a friend for the evening.
‘There was a bottle of vodka in the kitchen, pretty much full. I hadn’t eaten properly that day but I just grabbed it and we sat in the garden wearing layers of jumpers and coats and got the crisps out. I was thinking, “We’re not going to be able to do this for a while”, so I started knocking it back.’
So far, so fun, until Helen, 66, stood up. ‘I just fell over,’ she says. ‘My poor friend tried to pull me up and, apparently, I told her – I was shouting – she’d have to be very strong to do it, because it just wasn’t happening.’
Helen then called an Uber taxi to drive her back to her Southeast London home. ‘I went outside but I must have been teetering so much the cab just drove straight past me. I got rejected by an Uber!’
The way she tells the story makes it sound a hoot. But the next morning, Helen (who played dippy magazine journalist Catriona in cult 90s sitcom Absolutely Fabulous) didn’t feel so amused. ‘I wondered what I must have looked like staggering on the corner. Maybe not so cool. Although I had a lot of work on, I had to write the day off. I realised this was happening more and more after I’d been drinking,’ she says.
Helen is not an alcoholic: she can go days without boozing and, if she chooses (and that can be a big ‘if’), she can moderate her intake.
All the same, she is one of the 50 per cent of people over 50 who – according to new research by the drug, alcohol and mental health advice charity We Are With You – are regularly drinking at a level that could cause health problems now or in the future.
Shockingly, nearly one in four of the people the charity surveyed is classed as high-risk or possibly dependent on alcohol. At the same time data from the Office for National Statistics shows that people over 55 are most likely to drink at hazardous levels, with consumption having increased in recent years among this group – while it has simultaneously decreased in younger age groups.
All this boozing worsened during last year’s lockdowns, when, the We Are With You survey estimated, 1.9 million over-50s were drinking earlier in the day than before. At the same time, around four million every week were binge-drinking, officially classified for women as consuming more than six units (three medium glasses of 12 per cent wine or three pints of four per cent lower-strength beer) in one sitting. That’s the category into which Helen falls. ‘Bingeing suits my personality,’ she says. ‘I tend to get very overexcited and drinking too much is part of that.’
As with almost everyone, lockdown was nerve-racking for Helen. She desperately missed her 30-year-old daughter Hannah (who works as a chef in Ibiza), and whom she was only able to see once briefly in September. She was also worried about her husband, GP Chris Browne, who was travelling to a hospital three times a week. ‘He went to work, put on his scrubs, then came home and washed and ironed them ready for the next day. I’m proud of him but it was very stressful.’
She tried to distract herself from her anxieties with evening cocktails. ‘Life became so irregular, there was just no normality. Gin became my apéritif – but instead of sticking to one, like you should with an apéritif, I’d have several. It didn’t help that I’d been given two stonking huge gin glasses as part of a gift set. You were meant to use them with a measure but I didn’t bother; I’d just pour in the gin, add a mixer that turned the drink pink and sip it with a straw. It made me think I was having an exciting drink and really cheered me up.’
And her so-called ‘nights off’ weren’t always alcohol-free, either. ‘Even when I say I haven’t been drinking, I might be lying,’ she admits. ‘I’ve got these sweet little sherry glasses… so what it usually means is I’m having a sherry from a much smaller glass.’
Although he’s a doctor, her husband Chris hadn’t warned her graphically about the toll alcohol takes on our bodies, particularly the liver, sleep and our minds – exacerbating feelings of depression (We Are With You’s survey showing an estimated 2.1 million people had suffered mental-health problems as a result of drinking). Nor had he pointed out that alcohol would make her more susceptible to falls and injuries: ‘I hate anyone telling me what to do – all comedians dislike authority figures – but he does say, ‘‘You’ve got to be aware that if you do this it will destroy the next day.’”
That’s certainly been the case for Helen who, just the day before we speak, saw another working day lost to a hangover. ‘I felt terrible. I’d overdone it the night before,’ she admits. ‘My brain felt so dehydrated I couldn’t get to my desk. For years I could get away with the odd big night but at my age you pay a price that’s much higher than when you’re younger.’
Drinking has been a big part of Helen’s life since her 20s when she started performing on the hard-living alternative comedy scene. She didn’t drink alcohol before a stand-up set: ‘But all the way through I’d be looking forward to the drink I’d have afterwards to come down from all the adrenaline. On tour, the roadie would always put a bottle of wine with a packet of Cheeselets in the back of the car taking me to the next gig. I put on a stone.’
Helen went on to appear in TV classics such as French and Saunders, as well as becoming a regular on radio staples including The News Quiz and Just A Minute.
‘In my world, where you’re working in the evening, or seeing friends who work in the theatre, it’s normal to drink. It’s almost something you boast about: “Oh God, I was so drunk last night!” I became used to communicating with a glass in my hand.’
But while a 20-something can (just about) get away with occasionally making a drunken fool of themselves, in middle age it starts looking extremely undignified. ‘That falling over and sense of helplessness is not a good look beyond a certain age.’
Used to a busy and sociable life, during lockdown Helen had too much time to brood on past mistakes. She was working on writing her memoir, an experience she found far from cathartic.
‘I’m beginning to hate myself,’ she says starkly. ‘Retrospection doesn’t make you jump about with satisfaction. I’m feeling sorry for myself remembering some difficult times and how lonely comedy often was for me; it was always just me on my own. There were other women doing it but I wasn’t friends with them – there was a massive rivalry between us. I want to be honest, so I’d like to say I didn’t get as far as I wanted because I was ahead of my time but actually it could have been because I was crap.’
More generally, she adds: ‘I compare myself with people who are doing amazing things. I ask a lot of myself and think everyone else is having a better life.’
Clearly, Helen is very hard on herself: after all, she’s hardly been idle these past few years. After her first comic novel Losing It was nominated for several awards six years ago, she threw herself into establishing the Comedy Women In Print prize, an award for female comedy writers, who, Helen felt, weren’t receiving the same recognition as their male peers.
But in lockdown, Helen’s work promoting the prize went online, where often she’d boost herself with a drink. ‘We had an event called Witty Wednesdays where I’d chat with a female writer. Part of the joke would be, “I’ve got my cava here.” I had to have a glass in my hand to go ahead.’
Despite these online sessions, Helen still yearned for face-to-face encounters. ‘Connecting with other people, laughing with other people, is so important – it makes you feel human. We’ve all needed more of that this past year.’
That’s why Helen is attracted to We Are With You’s new free helpline, staffed by trained advisors, that people can call in confidence if they’re starting to suspect their drinking’s getting out of hand. ‘I think it’s so important because it’s difficult to find someone to listen when we can’t see friends in person,’ Helen says. ‘You don’t necessarily want to phone a friend because we’re all much more isolated right now – we’re in our bubbles, doing our bits. You don’t even have to tell the trained advisors your name but they listen to you, they offer advice, and also refer you to other services if necessary.’
Calling the hotline doesn’t mean you’re ready for Alcoholics Anonymous, or even that you have to ditch booze entirely. ‘You don’t have to hit rock bottom to pick up the phone; it’s just about talking to someone and realising that when it comes to drinking many of us are in the same boat and it isn’t taboo.’
The service can also be a great place to point out to loved ones. ‘If you think your best friend or your mother is drinking too much, it can potentially be a really awkward conversation,’ Helen says. ‘Just before lockdown, I went to see a friend who was worried about her health, and over a few bottles of wine it all got very emotional. But at what point do you ask, “Is your drinking like this typical? Do you think you should rein it in?” Those conversations are very difficult to have without sounding judgmental.’
Despite her misgivings, Helen’s not planning on turning teetotal. ‘I’m a person who has always had alcohol in my life and I won’t be giving it up,’ she says. ‘I’ve only done that once, for an extreme diet, and I was angry all the time. I’d go to an event where free wine was poured and say, “No, I just need water”, and snap at everyone. It was really hard. I lost weight, mind you.’ Yet there’s no doubt a switch has been flipped and after years of denial, Helen now understands the havoc alcohol can wreak.
‘I’m a great one for burying my head in the sand but I’ve genuinely had that wake-up call. I’ve seen how drinking stops you working and I’ve started to worry about how I might be damaging my body and my brain.
‘You have to say, “This is too much”,’ she continues. ‘And address it. It sounds very boring, serious and horrible, but I want to make the next part of my life the best it can be. If I don’t pull it back a bit then I’m not helping myself become the person I want to be.’
Is it time to reboot your drinking routine?
Make a start with alcohol advice charity We Are With You’s six easy steps.
- Keep a drinks diary – write down what drink you had, what the measure was, where you had it and what time. After a week you’ll have a reliable record of how much you drink. This will give you ideas for where you could cut down.
- Set a small, realistic goal – depending on your situation it could be, ‘I will only have one drink after dinner’; or, ‘I will have one extra drink-free day a week’.
- Measuring your drinks makes it easier to cut down. When you pour at home, it’s easy to end up with more than you would at the pub. Instead of a large 175ml glass of wine, try a 125ml size.
- Buy less at the shops: if you usually buy six cans of beer for a night, you could buy just four. That way, you won’t be able to drink more than you planned to.
- Limit your drinking to set times of the day. For example, if you often drink in the daytime, try not to drink before your evening meal.
- Get support. Contact We Are With You (see below) to chat online with their team and find helpful advice.
Helen is supporting the launch of We Are With You’s Over 50s Alcohol Helpline. this is a free service running seven days a week for anyone aged 50 or over who may be worried about their drinking, where you can speak to a trained advisor for confidential advice, information and support. Contact 0808 801 0750; wearewithyou.org.uk.