What’s there not to love about the deliciously moreish Jenny Eclair? Feisty, feminist and irreverently funny, the 57-year-old stand-up is once again the voice of her generation – 30 years after she joined the alternative comedy scene as a ‘punk poet’ – sounding a clarion call for women d’un certain âge, like me, who genuinely believe saying it in French makes us sound younger. Or at the very least sexier.
‘Helen Mirren has ruined middle age for women everywhere,’ Jenny grumbles. ‘Being allowed to have hobbies and handcraft your own Christmas cards does not make up for the pressure to look hot in a coral bikini.’
With her signature red lips, peroxide hair and statement glasses, the comedian and novelist is as instantly recognisable today as she was back in 1995 when she became the first woman to win the coveted Perrier Award for Comedy. Or so you’d imagine. ‘People come up to me thinking I’m Su Pollard,’ she sighs theatrically. ‘So I tell them, “Su is ten years older, thank you very much, even if she has better legs and can sing. If I’d had any sort of voice I’d have been the new Debbie Harry.” You can see it, can’t you?’
Apart from the crazy-lady hair, not really. But I don’t say so and thankfully it turns out to have been a rhetorical question. Jenny, who will be touring from March with her fabulous Grumpy Old Women show, is already galloping off on one of her wind-her-up-and-let-her-go tangents, and, as always, every word rings true. ‘I thought I would be immortal,’ she announces by way of a non sequitur. ‘But suddenly, I’m 57 and I’m going to bed with cellophane over my eyes, which are filled with gloopy ointment – I have severe dry-eye syndrome, which you get with age. I’m blind until I take it all off, so I can’t see a thing when I need the loo in the night.’
She doesn’t say what her husband, building and interiors designer Geof Powell, makes of her bedtime ritual, but having been together 35 years, and with a 30-year-old daughter, Phoebe, he is presumably accustomed to Jenny’s hilariously off-colour remarks. The pair finally tied the knot last year, but Jenny briskly rejects any notions of schmaltz: ‘It felt more like tidying things up than anything else. I mean, I love him to bits, he’s 70 now and when I see him on the stairs I think, “Don’t fall!” But the truth is, I was getting increasingly cross about the taxman getting his hands on so much of my very hard-earned money when I die, so I insisted that Geof marry me this time.’
She says ‘this time’ because the last time she proposed, he declined – mind you, she did yell it down the stairs. It might not be romantic, but it’s certainly authentic, and that is Jenny’s USP.With her breathless delivery, wide eyes and throwaway punchlines, she’s exactly the same in person as she is on stage. Chatty, eccentric, remorselessly honest – and, deep down, kind – she is the sort of fierce, frank best friend we’d all love to have. Maybe not next door, but certainly in the next town.
‘As a stand-up, I’ve built my career on saying out loud the things that women have in their heads,’ she says. ‘I maybe used to scream them a bit too raucously for some people’s tastes, but in my defence, when I was starting out people would go along to comedy clubs specifically to heckle, so I had to be quite loud. For a long while I was a lone woman on the stand-up circuit – when Jo Brand came along I was gutted, I hated her,’ says Jenny cheerfully.
‘There I was enjoying my own novelty in a man’s world and along comes this other woman who was very good. After seeing her show, I went to bed in a terrible sulk for days. Jo and I are great friends now and she’s the first person I call when I’m feeling bleak, but she did hoover up all the TV work as soon as she came on the scene. I’ve had to stay out on the road and tour endlessly for decades like a long-distance lorry driver. If I ever go on Mastermind my subject will be motorway service stations of Britain. I know them all. Intimately.’
After she had Phoebe, Jenny continued to gig, which took its toll on her if not her daughter. ‘She was quite a frail baby and I remember all those evenings leaving her hot and feverish in her father’s arms or the nanny’s, feeling terrible guilt but also secret relief that I wasn’t the one who was responsible for her,’ says Jenny, skewering an uncomfortable truth about the push and pull of motherhood that many of us have felt.
It wasn’t until Phoebe was around 12 that she and her mother spent much quality time together. Now, they tease each other about her absentee parenting – Phoebe has confessed she used to deliberately call her mother by the nanny’s name to make her feel bad; Jenny was impressed. ‘We are very close and I love every single molecule of Phoebe. She’s a wonderful playwright and I get her to read my stuff sometimes; last time I ran something by her, she rejected it as not being funny enough. She was right, of course.’
Born in Malaysia (her late father was a major in the British army there), Jenny was the middle child of three. Her sister and brother both became barristers but Jenny’s driving ambition was to be an actress. When the family returned to Britain she studied theatre in Manchester and, after graduating, landed a few roles but rapidly realised she (whisper it) wasn’t very good. ‘I did German at school, so I would occasionally get tiny speaking parts as a maid in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet but the whole time I had this inner voice taking the mickey out of my performance. I’d be trying to stay in character but part of my brain would say things like, “Oooh, we’re carrying a tea tray now, are we?” I felt so ridiculously self-conscious. Although I’d love another go – that sort of role would suit me just fine. I can’t be doing with Shakespeare – I mean, how can anyone be expected to remember all those bloody lines?’
Mercifully for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Jenny turned her hand to comedy and felt it was the perfect fit. ‘I’ve got a punk sensibility – I was coming into my own at a time when rules were there to be broken, so I did. I still have that attitude. I feel quite indignant now that people are talking about finally breaking the taboos around the menopause – hellooo? I’ve being doing that for the past five years!’
Jenny’s own menopause has been helped by HRT, which she swears by. ‘They say the menopause causes mood swings. Mood swings? It causes fury. Absolute fury for no apparent reason; I was blowing up into such volcanic rage that I went straight to the GP before lives were lost.’
Then, as we’re on the subject of taboos, she has no qualms about ploughing ahead and trashing another, even more sensitive one in our post-Weinstein culture. ‘I’m embarrassed to admit that I was never harassed, ever. Not even by a drunk comedian backstage when I was wearing PVC trousers and a beehive and was quite cute.’ Oh dear. That’s the sort of remark guaranteed to give the snowflake generation an aneurysm. Jenny continues: ‘The only sexual oppression I ever came across was when Sean Hughes’s trousers split and everyone asked me if I had a needle and thread – Because I Was A Woman. I didn’t sue for hurt feelings, though; I mended them with gaffer tape. I was quite pleased with my ingenuity.’
Jenny concedes that starting out in the current climate of gender politics wouldn’t have suited her. ‘The women in my audiences have real worries – choosing between saving for retirement or helping their children on to the property ladder, what to do about their elderly parents, lying awake at night wondering if their graduate kids will ever find a real job. Being touched on the knee 20 years ago doesn’t really get a look in on the scale of angst.’
She’s absolutely right, and it’s this unfailing ability to understand what makes us tick that made her seem like a natural when she joined Loose Women back in 2011. But appearances were deceptive and she was ‘let go’ after just one year. At the time it was said she wasn’t considered to be a team player and didn’t bond with the other strong personalities, including Denise Welch and Carol McGiffin. ‘I was a square peg in a round hole,’ she says with the exaggerated brightness of a lousy liar.
When I press her further, she capitulates. ‘To be honest, I was a bit scared of the others. They were all a gang and I’ve always done the gig on my own and gone home. It’s not in my nature to hang about afterwards and I didn’t want to go out drinking with them in case I got plastered and showed off my bum.’ What she did do was mischievously vandalise a publicity poster in the corridor. It was of a major ITV star, wearing a dress with a daringly high split. Jenny took a black marker and, well, gave her the opposite of a wax.
‘They said I defaced Myleene Klass!’ Jenny cries in protest over the newspaper reports about her behind-the-scenes antics. ‘But it wasn’t! I defaced Katherine Jenkins.’ This peculiar defence – is Myleene’s bikini line somehow more sacred than Katherine’s? – makes the whole farrago even funnier. Jenny is typically pragmatic about her sacking. ‘A shame; it was a great gig and really close to my house.’ With that sort of commendation, I doubt the producers will be phoning her again any time soon, which is also a shame. Clearly there’s a limit to how loose a Loose Woman is allowed to be, even in 2018.
But Jenny has other strings to her bow; she has penned seven books and shown herself to be shrewd, dark and compassionate as well as funny. Last year she also wrote Little Lifetimes, a series of six monologues for Radio 4. They were well-received when she submitted them, but then came the blow. ‘I wrote them to show off my talent but was told: “Sorry, you can’t perform them. We can get better actresses than you, such as Lesley Manville.” I couldn’t really disagree, so that was that.’
There have also been reality shows such as I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!, Celebrity Masterchef and Splash! Jenny is quite open about doing them just for the cash, but then you’d expect nothing else from a woman who called one of her own shows the Because I Forgot to Get a Pension tour. Such panache is another advantage of being in one’s middle years and not caring what strangers think; it’s also why she posed in her third-best white bra and black pants for her How to be A Middle Aged Woman (Without Going Insane) poster. London Underground threatened to ban it and Jenny was thrilled. Critics described the show as ‘ruthlessly funny’. The audiences agreed.
‘All ages come to my shows; sometimes I look out and see three generations of the same nose,’ she muses. ‘But mostly it’s groups of female friends having a laugh, letting off steam. And they’re the ones who deserve it most. Men like my husband can compartmentalise things and nod off watching programmes about petty car crime or Nazis. Women hold on to everybody’s stress and empathise far too much, although the good news is that my mother is 88 and has no empathy with anyone, so I’m hoping it eventually wears off.’
I do hope not, because at the core of Jenny’s comedy is her recognition of how women think, feel and react and to do that requires both emotional intelligence and empathy. She has pledged to never stop touring; a decision driven more by bank balance than ego. ‘Ideally I’d like to die on stage of an elegant heart attack during a curtain call of a sellout show in a lovely late Victorian Matcham-designed theatre,’ asserts Jenny. ‘But as I am too superstitious to get paid in advance, someone will have to push their way to the front of the grief-stricken stalls and collect my money.’ She’s not joking. And the fact she’s completely serious is what makes me roar with laughter.
Grumpy Old Women Live’s new show To The Rescue is touring nationwide from 28 March; grumpyoldwomenlive.com