Preview: What The F*** Is Normal?

Comedian Francesca Martinez tells Gary Ryan why she’s game for a laugh but won’t compromise her principles and beliefs for fame

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By her own description, Francesca Martinez is a “wobbly”, because her cerebral palsy makes her shake – but she’s also acclaimed as one of the most sure-footed stand-ups around.

Her comedy is fuelled by the desire to make a bit of a statement – subverting stereotypes regarding disability and puncturing prejudices.

“I think one of the reasons I fell in love with comedy was because it was the first thing I found in my life where I felt my disability was considered a bonus,” she explains.

“Having a unique perspective on life was positive. Obviously there was a tension created by me just walking onstage – you could hear a pin drop. But it was an advantage to know those preconceptions that people were thinking and play with them.”

In her most autobiographical show to date, What The F*** Is Normal? Martinez traces her journey from bullied teenager haunted by the nebulous mirage of normality to self-acceptance. Growing up, her parents fought to have her attend mainstream schools (“they didn’t want me defined by what I couldn’t do”) – which proved to be miserable. At 14, she was cast in Phil Redmond’s Grange Hill as Rachel Burns, a popular character whose storylines never dwelt on her disability.

“Even though it was 20 years ago, I still get recognised today in places as far as Australia,” she laughs. “I think: ‘Wow, do I still look like a gawky teenager?’”

When the acting roles dried up and unemployment beckoned, her father Alex Martinez, a novelist and screenwriter, offered to write her a film script that involved the lead character performing a stand-up routine. “I went all Robert De Niro for the part and joined a comedy workshop in London. After my first routine, I said: ‘Sod the research, this is what I want to do.’ Unconsciously I’d always been trying to make people laugh my whole life – because I feared being pitied.”

2012 has emerged as an important year for disability awareness, with Martinez becoming a lightning rod for media debate, protesting against coalition cuts. She views it as “hypocritical” for David Cameron to praise the inspirational athletes who took part in August’s Paralympics while “the government erodes the welfare system that helped those athletes achieve their dreams”.

“The Paralympics were great because it showed that the media have the power to normalise difference,” she says. “But politically, we’re up against it and we all need to stand together and fight these cuts. If you think ‘that doesn’t affect me’, you could get knocked over by a bus tomorrow and find yourself at the mercy of the government.”

Sometimes Martinez doesn’t so much bite the hand that feeds as hack it off, cook it and serve it on a bed of sautéed mushrooms. Although memorably cast opposite Kate Winslet in Ricky Gervais’ sitcom Extras, she nonetheless challenged him publicly over his use of the word “mong” (“It was insensitive,” she maintains). Similarly, in 2008, she was the first Olympic torch bearer to withdraw from the relay due to China’s treatment of Tibet.

“I’m sure that action meant I wasn’t involved in the Paralympics ceremonies in any way,” she says.
“I was overwhelmed by the response. In the first hour, I received 500 emails from around the world. If we don’t have principles, what do we have?”

Despite lobbying from fellow comedians, Martinez has yet to appear on a TV panel show. “I’ve had Jimmy Carr fight to get me on Eight Out Of Ten Cats, but the production company are very against it. I think they just imagine me as a lump of cerebral palsy lowering the tone.” After five years of BBC development, her sitcom (“Sex And The City with a wobbly”) was deemed “too risky” to greenlight. “Short of taking a gun into their offices, I haven’t worked out how to get it shown. Knowing my co-ordination though, I’d end up shooting myself.

“But that’s why I love live comedy. It doesn’t underestimate the public and nobody can stop me going onstage.”

What The F*** Is Normal? Theatre Studio, Harrogate, 17 Oct, City Hall, Sheffield, 18 Oct

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