Sticking Point

Peep Show star Isy Suttie talks about her bloody-minded determination – and paper mâché penguins

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Diving into Isy Suttie’s hilarious memoir of her twenties, The Actual One, it’s tempting, at first, to think she’s really quite normal – a down to earth everywoman with a penchant for The Crystal Maze, Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine and Cadbury’s Chomps. Then you get to the bit where she takes a five-foot penguin, made out of chicken wire and paper mâché, on the bus to her boyfriend’s birthday party.

The difference, it seems, between your average person and Isy Suttie is the latter’s bloody-minded determination to see an idea through to its conclusion, no matter how bonkers. Whether it’s crafting that giant penguin for her (very soon to be ex) boyfriend, writing and recording a love song for a schoolgirl crush, attempting a notorious black run with at best mediocre skiing skills or trapping a cat in a bedroom to seduce a reluctant gentleman, when Suttie decides to do something, she really, really commits.

“I’ve just always been like that,” Suttie says. “I never regard myself as quirky, and of course as I’ve got older I do those things slightly less. But I do just have it in me to stick to something if I want to do it, and not give up.”

“I didn’t want it to have a rom-com ending. It’s about me realising I’m happy to be here.”

Such ability, Suttie says, probably comes from her parents – a scientist father and a mother who loves coming up with inventions to solve everyday problems. “I’m just used to her going, ‘I wish that this wouldn’t happen. I know, I’ll try and solve it.’ And maybe the combination of that with my dad’s science background meant that I applied myself. They definitely always brought us up to work hard,” she says. “I don’t know if they assumed that would be working hard at making a papier mâché penguin.”

Of course, this is just the sort of tenacious optimism required to succeed in the performer’s chosen field. Suttie trained at the Guilford School of Acting, and is probably best known for her role as IT geek Dobby in Peep Show, but she’s also a writer, songwriter, stand-up comedian and radio presenter. She has been nominated three times for a British Comedy Award, and the BBC Radio 4 version of her solo show Pearl and Dave won a Gold Sony Radio Academy Award.

This year we’ve seen Suttie on our screens in madcap Greg Davies’s sitcom Man Down, and in the autumn she’ll return in a new six-part Channel 4 comedy, Damned, written by and starring Jo Brand and Morwenna Banks, and also featuring Alan Davies and Kevin Eldon.

“It’s a series about children’s services and it was really fun to do,” she says. “I play Nat, a receptionist who is really not great at her job and kind of away with the fairies, but in a very different way from Dobby in Peep Show. Actually I don’t think Dobby was away with the fairies at all, I think she knew what she wanted, so this felt like a really different thing to do.”

With the publication of her memoir, Suttie has added yet another string to her bow. Bookended by the termination of two unsuccessful relationships, the book describes Suttie’s attempts to cling to her spontaneous twenties while everyone around her is settling down. Interspersed with hilarious anecdotes from childhood and beyond, it’s a gently astute, wickedly funny, life affirming piece of work.

Suttie’s gift is her ability to find the treasure in the small but silly details: the best mate’s boyfriend who over-uses the word ‘munch’; the Wicker Man-esque holiday pub; the Dalston party with the man who speaks in rhyme; the fate of the pet name once a couple are no more. When Suttie pokes fun, it’s done with a warm and unpretentious honesty that feels in keeping with an adolescence spent in Matlock, Derbyshire, which features frequently in the book.

“I’ll always love Matlock,” she says, with feeling, of her hometown. “My family don’t live there anymore but I still go because my best friends have moved back. I love it so much.” Speaking before she announced “with a heavy heart” the cancellation of her Actual Book Tour this autumn due to an ongoing health problem, Suttie spoke excitedly about finishing up in Buxton and doing a book signing in Cromford. “I’ll always want to move back there, really. But now I’ve got a Welsh partner so I’d need to persuade him.”

The partner in question is fellow comedian Elis James, with whom Suttie has a daughter. Refreshingly, James doesn’t even make an appearance in the book because, despite its title, The Actual One isn’t really a search for ‘Mr Right’, but rather a joyful tribute to life – single and coupled up – in all its messy glory.

“I didn’t know that it would end up so much as a celebration of being alive, but I was really pleased,” says the now 38-year-old. “I made the decision not to put in the fact that I’d met my partner now, and had a baby, because I didn’t want it to have a kind of rom-com ending. The book isn’t about that. It’s about me coming to that realisation about how I’m just happy to be here.”

That being said, Suttie has such a talent for good-naturedly mining the absurdities of life, does she fancy having a crack at writing about motherhood next? “I definitely want to write another book,” she says. “I just don’t know how I’d do it. I couldn’t really write about the situations as easily as I could in The Actual One, because that all happened so long ago.

“With a book about motherhood, I’d want to be completely honest, but then I’d know everyone in it and it might hurt people. I need to work out whether it would be better to write a novel, so I can use all my experiences without slagging anyone off who is real.”

It’s a thorny problem. Your average person might even just give up on the idea. But this is Isy Suttie – if she commits, she’ll find a way.

The Actual One is out now (W&N, £8.99/Audible, £19.99)

A short guide to Isy Suttie

Suttie went to see Take That perform at Matlock Bath Illuminations, back when the band were just five hard-working anonymous semi-naked guys in black leather. She was picked out of the crowd and Howard sang a song just to her. Keen to express her gratitude, she chucked a pound coin onstage and it hit him in the face. “He didn’t look happy.”

The performer was a huge fan of the band Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine and, as a teenager, once got to meet Jim Bob from the band. She was struck mute with awe in his presence but still managed to give him one of her tapes. Jim Bob subsequently sent her a letter saying he liked her songs. Many years later, in 2010, Suttie supported him on tour.

Suttie is known for being an enthusiast of 1980s television programme Knightmare, and in 2013 she appeared in a one-off revival episode as Treguard’s assistant. The episode was shown as part of YouTube’s Geek Week.

The performer’s radio documentary Brain Tingles (available on iPlayer) explores the weird phenomenon of ASMR, in which odd sounds or sights (a video of someone folding towels, or whispering while wrapping presents) give people a kind of goosebumps of the head (which Suttie experiences). “After that programme I got lots of tweets saying, ‘Oh my God, that’s what it’s called!’, and then others from people who don’t get it, saying, ‘What are you on about?’”

Early in her stand-up career, Suttie was bombing on stage and an audience member offered her £20 to get off. “I was working in a call centre and £20 was a hell of a lot of money to me. I thought, in a way, this would be earning money from stand-up, wouldn’t it?” She took the money and, once off stage, burst into tears. Then she spent the lot on whiskey. “I’m sure that’s what Bill Hicks would have wanted.”

Photo: Idil Sukan

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