Branching Out

Bridget Christie carried a suitcase full of props from one empty venue to another for a decade before she realised she could be herself on stage. The feminist comedian tells Antonia Charlesworth what made her drop the props

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Read the opening pages of Bridget Christie’s A Book For Her and you may think she’s taken your money and given you nothing but farts in return. But bear with her. 

The fart in question was a pivotal moment in Christie’s career, so she gives credit where it’s due. Two years earlier, after 10 years in the bowels of the circuit mostly doing character bits as historical men, insects and plants Christie had been close to giving up on a career in stand-up.

“I was going on tour on my own and I found that quite hard, travelling with props and costumes, and it seemed to be getting quite messy,” recalls the comedian, who was born and grew up in Gloucester.

Not many people came to see her shows and she wasn’t making any money but even then Christie was tackling big subjects. In her A Ant show she would talk about how difficult it is to be an ant comedian – addressing attitudes towards women and the tired stereotype that female comedians aren’t funny, while trying not to alienate her audience.

“It’s hard for us, okay?” she’d tell her audience. “Even before an ant has got to the microphone, you’ve already made assumptions. I saw you two looking at each other when I came out. ‘Oh no, not another ant, talking about jam and the division of labour.’ We don’t do that stuff any more. We’ve moved on.”

“At the time I didn’t feel like I was hiding behind characters,” she tells Big Issue North. “I didn’t know that’s what I was doing – it was just what I found really funny.” When Christie, now 44, finally dropped the props she says it was liberating. And what liberated her was a fart.

A man serving her in a bookshop had been distinctly unhelpful when she was buying feminist literature, pressing her to spell out the names of authors and titles as her children got bored and the queue behind her longer. Eventually she asked for directions to the women’s studies section. By the time she got there he was lurking sheepishly by the books in a corner “heavily cloaked in the familiar yet objectionable odour of sulphur… he had obviously decided that the women’s studies section was the least-populated area of the bookshop and that this was the safest place for him to expel his daily flatus”, she writes in A Book For Her.

“The fart was funny but it was political – it had duality and so can everything else.”

Through the fug Christie had a moment of clarity. “I’ve always been a feminist, naturally. I have five older sisters, my mother [who passed away when Christie was in her mid-twenties] was really strong and my dad did loads for my independence. I’m one of nine children so we all had to chip in.

“The fart wasn’t the moment I became feminist; the fart was the moment that I pieced everything together and I realised that I could talk about it in a fun way, because the fart was funny but it was political – it had duality and so can everything else.”

Christie realised that she could apply the same absurdity of the fart to the absurdity of FGM, the absurdity of domestic violence, the absurdity of rape. “This is ludicrous – you want power so you’re going to do that? It seems so Neanderthal, and you can apply it to bigotry across the board.”

In her 2012 Edinburgh show people eventually starting showing up as she tackled Tory feminism, labia reduction surgery and maternal health in developing countries, as well as the fart in the bookshop. She did this dressed as a donkey. Her confidence was growing and Radio 4 producers commissioned her to write a four-part comedy series on feminism. She had to drop the props.

Bridget Christie on stageBridget Christie Minds The Gap was commissioned for two series, then in 2013 she wrote A Bic For Her – so called after the gendered Bic biros that hit shelves that year.

“Until 2013 there were quite a lot of us already talking about feminism on stage,” says Christie, acknowledging the likes of Josie Long, Nadia Kamil and Danielle Ward. “There were loads of us doing stuff that you would now think was feminist but you wouldn’t really flag it up as being so – although we would use certain language that made it clear – and it didn’t go down particularly well. I remember a lot of us getting reviews saying ‘It’s a shame she feels she needs to because she’s obviously funny’ – that kind of snidey thing.

“Then for some reason, a lot of things happened. There were loads of people coming out at the same time and the media really picked up on it. Tina Fey, Amy Pohler, Amy Schumer – there were loads of women who seemed to collectively, without realising others were doing it at the same time, get to this point where they thought: ‘Hang on a second – is all this shit still going on?’”

She describes the time as a “perfect storm”. “A Bic For Her didn’t come out of nowhere. It was a progression of stuff I’d done for a few years but something just clicked and I thought: ‘I’m not going to make it any easier for anybody – I’m going to make it much harder and become this sort of extreme version of myself who’s really annoyed about stuff and not worry about what people thought of it.’”

Her understanding of feminism is not academic – she left school at 14 and has had no formal education. But Christie did her research, working with the co-founder of FGM charity Daughters Of Eve, Leyla Hussain, who encouraged her to talk about the subject as an important part of breaking down its taboo.

“FGM is very culturally specific and there’s no danger of me being affected by it, other than emotionally, so I had to be really clever about it. I can’t look like a white European woman trying to be funny about something that doesn’t affect me.

“You can’t pussyfoot around it. If you don’t own that subject matter then the audience is not going to trust you. You’ve got to be in front of them with this in your mind: ‘I have every right to talk about this. You might not like it but I’m going to talk about it.’”

A Bic For Her was unapologetic and uncensored and critics called it Christie’s finest hour. The show won the Foster’s Edinburgh Comedy Award for Best Show, the 2014 South Bank Sky Arts Award for Best Comedy, the 2014 Chortle Award for Best Show and a 2014 Hospital 100 Club Award for Performance and Theatre. It was a sell-out in Edinburgh and became the top-selling comedy show ever at Soho Theatre, selling out every night of its 54-night run. Her only prop was a microphone. She was no longer A Ant, but A Woman.

Success hasn’t come without its price however. For every good review and award there is a barrage of abuse from what Christie calls the “online nob community”.

“I’m a sitting duck,” she says. “I’m a female comedian, first thing. I’m a feminist, second thing. And I’m in a relationship with a semi-famous man [she’s married to fellow stand-up Stewart Lee]. There’s three reasons to have a go at me. I’m sort of used to it.”

By 2014, Christie writes in her book, women’s rights’ moment of cool was over. One journalist asked her what was next now she’d “done” feminism. “As if gender politics, and all that that entails, couldn’t possibly generate enough material to sustain a second hour of comedy.”

Her 2014 show An Ungrateful Woman tackled British sexism, lad’s mags, anti-rape pants and feminist icons. She closed the show with a routine dedicated to Malala Yousafzai after a woman’s magazine, which had asked her to write 400 words on her feminist hero, asked her to write about Lena Dunham instead.

There is a barrage of abuse from what she calls the “online nob community”

“I don’t think: ‘I’d like to talk about this now.’ My material comes quite organically. With every show that I do, I’ll have read something or something will have happened to me personally,” explains Christie. “Recently we had Rachel Dolezal and there was Caitlin Jenner. These things interest me – the things that people are slightly confused about or don’t know about. I have people saying to me ‘I didn’t know that’ or ‘I didn’t realise that’ and that is encouraging because I don’t want to alienate audiences but I don’t want to patronise them either.”

This week Christie will join Sarah Millican, Katherine Ryan and Susie Calman to launch Harrogate Comedy Festival with a panel discussion about feminism, women and comedy. Christie says it will be a “bit of a jolly” for her because she doesn’t get to work with her peers much.

“I feel really proud to be a female comic at the moment because it’s such a great time. There’s some brilliant women who are really exciting now – Kath, Sarah and Susan are really at the top of their game.

“Sarah Millican arrived on stage, completely finished. She was, in her first gig, completely fully formed and that is extraordinary to me – it took me about 10 years to find my voice and where I was coming from… I don’t mean to sound self-deprecating – I don’t think I’m rubbish, but I think that I’ve got a lot to learn.

“I’d like to think the audience I’ve cultivated in the last couple of years are coming to see me because they like the way I do comedy, not just for what I’m talking about.

“Hopefully even if my next show is about trees, I’ve got them now and they’ll keep coming back.”

A Book For Her (Century, £14.99) is out now. The audiobook is available from Her live show A Book For Her, is at Leicester Square Theatre, London, 16 Nov-2 Dec

Bridget Christie on…

Loose Women’s poll, which asked if rape is ever a woman’s fault, following Chrissie Hynde’s admission that she takes full responsibility for a sexual assault on her.

“I’m not going to comment on Chrissie Hynde because we’re all entitled to our opinions and sometimes feminism can become a witchhunt, where someone says something and the whole of feminism calls them out on it. Chrissie Hynde has every right to say it, whether I agree or disagree. With Loose Women, well, it’s Loose Women, isn’t it? It’s not possible for me to be disappointed by them. “

Jeremy Corbyn 

“Everything he says is completely being taken out of context as people try to smear him, even down to the company he keeps. I saw that clip of him and his jumper and I thought: ‘I’ve had that so many times in my life. I’ve been patronised and sneered at.’ And I could relate to him more than any politician in the past 15 years. He seems so not Westminster and that’s exciting and new and hopeful for me – I don’t want to start smashing the telly in with a hammer when he talks.”

Main Photo: Idil Sukan

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