Sarah Millican: how divorce turned a shy girl into this funny woman
After the end of her marriage, Sarah Millican left her job and found a talent for bawdy jokes that has led to her own TV show, says Mark Monahan .
'I used to see all these kids in the local newspaper who’d been tap-dancing since the age of three,” says Sarah Millican. “They had red lipstick and blue eyeshadow on and 14 trophies, and I remember saying to me mam, 'I’m not good at anything yet!’ I was horrified by the thought that I didn’t have any trophies, and I was, like, seven.”
Millican’s anonymity continued for quite some time. In fact, it is safe to say that until August 2008, by which time she was 33, no one had heard of her, bar her friends, family and a handful of Geordie jobseekers (more of which later). Then, at the tiny, sweaty Pleasance Hut, she made her debut on the Edinburgh Fringe, with her solo stand-up show Sarah Millican’s Not Nice. And that, as they say, was that.
Punters, critics and awards panellists were instantly beguiled by her unique brand of sweet-natured, razor-sharp, potty-mouthed wit and breezy audience interaction, all delivered in her distinctively mumsy manner and bell-like Tyneside tones. She was voted best newcomer in 2008, won a nomination for the main prize in 2010, and last year repeatedly sold out one of the biggest venues in the Scottish capital. As she says, “It’s nice. I’ve finally started getting trophies in my thirties – hooray!”
Now, at 36, with several live tours and plenty of telly quiz-show appearances under her belt – 8 out of 10 Cats, Have I Got News For You, Mock The Week et al – Millican has her own television series on BBC Two. Its title? The Sarah Millican Television Programme.
Beginning tonight , at the comfortably post-watershed time of 10pm, it’s a little more cannily named than you might at first think. For television is not only its medium – it’s the subject, too. A self-confessed telly addict (and inveterate tweeter, too, as it happens), Millican will, over its six episodes, be scrutinising the genres that most appeal to her, with plenty of audience involvement and extra help from a line-up of carefully chosen guests, from actor Simon Callow to Springwatch’s Chris Packham and fashion designer Julien Macdonald. And, true to form, she’s doing it all in an unusual and wilfully mischievous manner. As she says, “We’ve mashed things together.”
And so, one episode covers the traditionally unrelated topics of Wildlife and Dating. “They’re both basically eating followed by shagging,” Millican explains in the show, rather brilliantly adding: “The main difference is whether or not Bill Oddie is watching.”
In Crime and Medical, Rav Wilding from Crimewatch teaches her how to use different things in her handbag as weapons, “which was brilliant,” she tells me, “because while it was funny it was also useful. If you’ve got experts on, you might as well get a bit of useful information out of them – as well as taking the mick.”
She also puts in a special mention for Food and Survival, explaining, “I just like the idea of how you survive in a worst-case scenario, but also thought we’d put that in with cake.”
Particularly striking, as ever with Millican, is how marvellously relaxed she appears in front of the studio audience. Can she explain why she finds it so natural to be on stage?
“I think it’s just the place I feel most at home,” she says, “and I understand that’s a really odd thing to say. It’s still nerve-racking, still terrifying for the first few minutes until I get a few big laughs under my belt, but then, I’m much more relaxed than I am off-stage. I love talking to the audience, because those are the bits that make me feel alive, like a proper comedian as opposed to a funny writer.”
This is all the more remarkable given that the young Millican appears, in many ways, to have been as different from those lipstick-wearing, tap-dancing munchkins as it is possible to be. True, the first hints of a performer were there when she was in the bosom of her family (“I was a bit of a show-off at home”), but she admits that at school she was “incredibly shy”. “Up until 16 or 17,” she says, “I barely said a word to anybody. People who I haven’t seen for years can’t understand how I’ve become this stand-up comic.”
So, how did it happen? What first made this studious, meek girl from South Shields decide to get up and do one of the scariest things there is?
“It was entirely the divorce,” she explains. “I got divorced at 29. There were days when I felt like I could do nothing, but there were also days when I felt like I could do anything, and I’d never had those days before. I think I’d been coasting along in the middle, feeling like I had potential but didn’t really know where it was.”
On a whim, she signed up for “this little workshop” for aspiring performance poets. And, half a year after completing it, she rang the woman who’d run the course – now a good friend – and told her, “I think I might want to do stand-up comedy.” Her response, says Millican, was, “?'I know!’, like she’d been waiting for six months for this phone-call.” And the same pal got her a first gig.
What job, I wonder, did Millican eventually quit to become a full-time comedian? She laughs. “There were some phone calls, there were some forms to fill in, but I don’t really know what it was.” When pushed, she admits that it was the civil service, but that she “hadn’t paid attention for three months, so was still training – ridiculously”.
On paper, it is almost comically hard to imagine Millican (currently in a happy relationship, though living alone) as a civil servant. And yet, not only did the flexible timetable allow her to start regular gigging, the specific mechanics of the job proved invaluable.
“I worked with them for a long time,” she says, “at the Jobcentre, taking people’s claims, loads of things like that. I always liked dealing with the public, and I guess that’s why, when I talk to the audience in my shows, it’s that bit that’s a transferable skill. I was good at customer service, always enjoyed that, because it makes each day totally different.”
She remains grateful, too, to her colleagues from the service. “They were very good to me,” she says. “They said I was a breath of fresh air – that’s what they put on my leaving card, which was really nice. I think because I was quite entertaining round the office they just went, 'It doesn’t matter that she’s not very good’. My focus was entirely somewhere else.”
'The Sarah Millican Television Programme’ begins tonight on BBC Two