Great LezBritain: Interview with Sandi Toksvig

"Great LezBritian" is a fortnightly stroll through the very best of British lesbo-centric entertainment and culture. Plus there will be some jolly good interviews with the top ladies who are waving the flag for gay UK.

If AfterEllen.com was a British site, it would be called AfterSandi.com. We grew up watching Sandi Toksvig on children’s TV show Number 73 in the 80s, felt her pain as she sailed around Britain with John McCarthy in the 1990s and today we are entertained weekly by her Radio 4 panel show, The News Quiz

She recently flew into Glasgow for the city’s book festival, Aye Write, and we had the privilege of spending a funny, informative and inspiring 40 minutes with her before her performance inside one of Glasgow’s grandest buildings, The Mitchell Library. 

She arrived in the green room, a very short lady, with a massive presence and immediately told us a hilarious story about being seated next to a rather boring woman on the plane who was bemoaning New Zealand (the entire country) for of its lack of shopping opportunities.

The woman, it turns out, was Strictly Come Dancing host Tess Daly, who Sandi had never heard of. “She does a programme called Strictly Come Dancing? Well that’s why I’ve never heard of her. I’m not interested in watching a reality TV programme about dancing. And certainly not one that does it strictly.”   

AfterEllen.com: You have had such a varied career, how much could you of envisaged yourself doing when you first started out and how much has just been a nice surprise? 
Sandi Toksvig: I really planned none of it. I initially trained as a lawyer but I was involved in the Footlights at Cambridge University and a director saw me by chance and asked me to go and work for him and then I got the children’s programme Number 73.

Every job since then has been by chance, people phone me up and I say alright then. It’s maybe hard for you to understand because you are lovely and young but the notion of being a stand-up comic or alternative comedienne or a smart arse on panel shows just didn’t exist, so I couldn’t possibly have planned it. And now I keep thinking I should do something sensible, but I haven’t. 

AE: So did you think throughout your career that one day you would go into law? 
ST: Yes, because I really wanted to be a lawyer and actually this remains one of my great interests and I do what I can to promote the causes of human rights. At the end of this month, for instance, I am going out to do a short film about a charity that’s helping women with microfinance for their businesses in Tanzania. 

I am very interested in the V-Day campaign to stop violence against women, particularly in the Democratic Republic of Congo. So although I am not a lawyer, I am very lucky that people take my calls and therefore I can maybe, hopefully, add to these campaigns and get things done. So this is still my passion oh this is going to be a very boring interview isn’t it? 

AE: No not at all! You mentioned your time at Cambridge Footlights. You actually wrote and performed in their first all-woman show? 
ST:  Yes, we were all a bit tired of saying, “the doctor will see you now” which was mainly what women said in sketches back then.

AE: Who were the other women in the show? 
ST:  Hilary Duguid, who was the only sensible one of us not to go into show business, Jan Ravens who was very successful on Spitting Image and Dead Ringers. The other one was a girl called Emma Thompson and I don’t really know what happened with her a terribly stunted career. (all laugh) 

AE: It must have felt really satisfying and important for you to create that space for women for the first time? 
ST: Yes, mainly because the boys were relentlessly uninterested in us having parts where we would get the laughs. We only ever facilitated them getting laughs and sadly I don’t think that situation has changed much. It’s pretty much how it was 30 years ago. 

AE: So why do you still think that this hasn’t altered? 
ST 
There are lots of reasons. The places you train are the comedy clubs and as far as I know every booker scheduling the evenings are men and they always worry that a women is going to lose them business. Another is that when you start, the slots you are given are often at midnight entertaining 200 drunk men.

So you have to have balls to survive and a lot of women would rather be at home. Many programmes are also slanted towards the type of male humour where they try and top each other all the time and women’s humour doesn’t really work that way. On The News Quiz I try very hard to try to ensure that everyone gets a chance to talk and it’s not just fast gags. 

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