"I remember my first stand-up gig in the 80s was a gong show," recalls Sally Phillips – I think we can guess where this is going. "The judges would ring a bell and light up a picture of George Michael or Andrew Ridgeley, and if it was Andrew Ridgeley you had to leave. I came out on stage and said 'good evening' and the bell went off with Andrew lit up. So I had to leave without doing my set. You weren't really given a chance, back then."
It’s no exaggeration to call Phillips a pioneer of female-fronted comedy. Her seminal series Smack the Pony began airing 20 years ago, when women who’d escaped the kitchen and persisted in comedy long enough to earn a proverbial George Michael in the UK were Victoria Wood, Jo Brand, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley. In Ireland The Nualas had just taken off. For the majority of women, their role in comedy was that of the foil: the arms folded, toe-tapping wife or the overbearing mother to set up the antics that follow.
“I look back now and I find it odd that I didn’t see it as frustrating,” Phillips says. “It seemed so impossible that you could earn a living doing comedy that I just didn’t notice if we had to let men be funny. Aisling Bea, who’s a good friend of mine and who I adore, said to me that even now, I don’t notice the sexism now because it was so much worse when we started. It’s just that it’s a different form – it might be in the edit when they now cut more time for the bloke’s face, for example.”
In 1999 Smack the Pony did its part in updating attitudes towards female comics. Co-founded by Doon Mackichan and Fiona Allen, the sketch series showed women being refreshingly silly and surreal – hiding in fridges, recording bizarre dating agency videos, and generally lampooning the pervading ideas of women as docile mothers, girlfriends and wives.
It was relatively easy to get commissioned. Goodness Gracious Me, the Indian studio sketch show that made household names of Meera Syal and Rajeev Bhaskar, had successfully transitioned from BBC Radio 4 to television. And Channel 4 commissioner Caroline Leddy, formerly of a female comedy troupe, waned to harness this turning tide by inviting the trio to create their own version.
“At the beginning they thought it would be like Goodness Gracious Me, and would have multi-cameras in a studio,” explains Phillips. “We ended up doing it single camera on location, which changes the performance level quite a lot, and also changes the need for a punchline. And actually, because we came after French and Saunders, we self-defined ourselves in opposition to them – not because we didn’t think they were great, but because we didn’t want to be the same.”
Not quite earning the same support in Britain as internationally (it won two Emmys in the States), the series lasted for three seasons and a Comic Relief special in 2017. It has endured the test of time and will no doubt be a focus of conversation when she joins the Adam Hills Chat Show at the Kilkenny Laughs Festival with other comedy writers Róisín Conaty and Jena Friedman.
‘A fantastic lilt’
There will also be interest in Phillips’s wider work, as she’s a regular face in some of the best-loved comedies around – you’ll recognise her as the odd-humoured Finnish prime minister in Veep, Miranda’s frenemy Tilly in the eponymous series, the smirking receptionist in I’m Alan Partridge, and Bridget’s good pal Sharon in the Bridget Jones’s Diary trilogy.
“People have been going on about the Kilkenny Cats Laugh for years but because I’m not a stand-up, this one is my first ever. I finally made it!” she laughs. “I’m frankly jealous of the Irish stand-up comedians. They have a great vocabulary and a fantastic lilt that makes them sound so funny. There’s a self-confidence in the women too. I think women are ashamed to do their own thing in England. You have stronger mothers in Ireland, more Catholic. Maybe that’s got something to do with it,” says Phillips, a devout Christian.
The visit comes in the middle of a busy year for her. There's a second series of The Tourist Trap, the mockumentary about Wales' tourism agency, in which she takes the role of slightly inept boss Elaine. She'll also be starring in new film Off the Rails, about a ladies' interrailing trip, alongside Judi Dench and Kelly Preston. In any spare time, she'll continue writing The Wedding, a Swedish-English romcom about two people with Down syndrome, with High Fidelity author Nick Hornby chipping in by script-editing "because he's nice like that".
Of late, part of Phillips’ work has involved advocating for people with Down syndrome. Her eldest son is affected, prompting her to front a documentary on the subject, A World Without Down’s Syndrome? You might also recognise her as the narrator of Channel 4’s The Undateables, which follows the dating lives of people with various conditions.
“We are now at 92 per cent termination for pregnancies with Down syndrome, but life opportunities have never been better,” she explains. “In the majority of cases, to have Down syndrome is not what it was in the past. The only way we will show that is to have people with Down syndrome included in culture.”
She raises her son Olly and her two other children in an unconventional household in southeast London, since moving on from her 14-year marriage.
“We also have one of their godmothers living with us,” she explains. “She’s an intensive care nurse and also a world jujitsu champion. And I have the world’s best nanny, I literally have Nanny McPhee. We recently also had another friend who was between households, so for a while we had four women, three children, two dogs and a hamster. My husband moved out a couple of years ago, and that was obviously extremely difficult, but women are brilliant. I have some really great mates, and now we have a lady house.”
It must sit a little oddly, then, that in this renewed moment of female solidarity in her personal life, in her work sphere, she’s finding little interest from programme makers for a reunion between herself, Allen and Mackichan.
“Commissioners are really nervous about getting it wrong, and if they’re going to get it wrong it has to be for a really cool thing,” she explains. “Older women are not cool, and it is very high risk.
“But just as there were all these untold funny moments for women in their twenties, there are also untold funny moments for women in their forties and fifties. There are so many things we haven’t been asked about that we have to say.”
Aside from ageism, there’s that bias against women, and Phillips is becoming wise to its new forms.
“For example, commissioners move jobs every year and a half, so a lot of people need to read the script before a lasting decision gets made,” she explains. “This really impacts women because they hardly ever take things on trust from women. There’s probably two women they’ll take things on trust from – more than there’s ever been before – and that’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Sharon Horgan. Both are fantastic courageous outliers, but for most people it’s a tough old job.”
Sally Phillips is on the panel of The Adam Hills Chat Show at Langton’s Set Theatre, Kilkenny, on Saturday, June 1st. See thecatlaughs.com
Highlights from the Kilkenny Cat Laughs Festival
As the current winner of the Edinburgh Comedy Award (the Perrier Award to those of a certain age), Rose Matafeo is the must-see ticket this year. Can't make it? Check out Funny Girls, the New Zealand sketch show in which she found fame – definitely one for Smack the Pony fans.
Karl Spain’s Hilarious Walking Tour
A custom-made tour for blow-ins keen to discover the medieval city of Kilkenny while continuing the comedy-themed weekend. The hour-long wander begins at the tourist office, and takes in the city's sights, sounds and history with not-so-serious commentary from funnyman Karl Spain.
Working in the field of social care before becoming a major player on the stand-up circuit and panel shows, the brilliant and perceptive Angela Barnes finds humour in the everyday. Expect to hear new takes on modern woes like online dating and the pomp of English politics.
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It's admirable – and a relief – that despite becoming a big-name chat show host and an acclaimed actor on Derry Girls in recent years, Tommy Tiernan isn't about to ditch his stand-up career anytime soon.