The breakdown of comedian Sarah Millican's marriage helped fuel her determination to follow her dream of making other people laugh, she tells Gabrielle Fagan.
COMEDIAN Sarah Millican is speculating on one of the bizarre uses for spare pants which, she’s been told. They can be popped on your head to make sure your rollers don’t fall out of your hair.
There are also other uses for spare pants which it wouldn’t be polite to write about but she humorously checks them out in her successful show, as well as alluding to many of the embarrassing, intimate or humdrum details that we all take for granted in daily life but which she turns into comedy gold.
“I love being funny about everyday life and talking about the things people think but don’t like to talk about in public,” she says.
“Asking people all sorts of questions – it might be anything from spare pants to diets or ‘how do you know it’s love?’ – is one of my favourite parts of the show.
“You never know what you’re going to hear and it’s always unpredictable and funny.”
Her easy audience interaction and quirky perspective on life – liberally sprinkled with expletives and delivered in her sing-song Geordie accent – has seen her profile rocket.
She won the People’s Choice vote for Queen of Comedy at 2011’s British Comedy Awards and her series, The Sarah Millican Television Programme, returned to BBC Two at Christmas, while her latest DVD, Thoroughly Modern Millican Live, was a hit.
She has a long tour planned for this year and next, calling in at Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall in March 2014.
Performing to thousands and snapping up comedy plaudits certainly didn’t seem a likely outcome for the shy, bespectacled girl who was regularly bullied at school in South Shields.
“I was the timid, mousy one in the corner, who wasn’t popular and was swotty, but I did appear on stage at primary school.
“Unfortunately, my acting debut didn’t go well. I was Mary but I refused to hug the doll as it was nasty and had pen scribbled on its face,” she says.
“After that, my acting career was over, so I was chosen as the narrator because I have a clear speaking voice.”
Her father, an electrical engineer for one of the area’s pits, has been her inspiration. He would tackle the bullies who followed his daughter home and constantly encouraged her to work hard.
“I got a lot of my positivity and drive from him. He always used to tell me, ‘There’s no such word as ‘can’t’. The only thing you can’t do is stick your bum out of the window, run downstairs and throw stones at it. Apart from that, you can do anything’,” she says.
“My dad’s a very smart man and he always believes no matter how good you are, you can be better.
“So if I got 97% in an exam, he’d say, ‘What happened to the other 3%?’.”
But it was the end of her seven-year marriage which ultimately resulted in her reinvention from a conscientious but bored civil service employee into a stand-up comedian.
“I was 29 and I had thought my marriage was fine,” she says.
“So it was an odd time because I’d never been properly broken-hearted before and for a while I didn’t want to do anything except cry my eyes out all day. But later I’d get these troughs of feeling terrible and then these incredibly positive peaks where I’d suddenly get this extraordinary feeling that I could do anything.
“During one of those I signed up for this comedy workshop and wrote a monologue about my divorce, which was both sad and funny.
“After I delivered it to the class, I felt amazing, and about six months later I signed up for my first gig.
“I still get that same adrenaline rush before every show – there’s nothing like it, the pleasure of making people laugh.
“It’s a bit ironic but I think my marriage break-up helped give me a boot up the bum, because I suddenly thought, ‘Well, really nothing could be as bad as being rejected by the person you love and having them say they don’t want you any more’.
“After that, it didn’t seem quite so terrible if around 50 people in a room didn’t laugh at a few jokes.”
For the past six years, during which time she’s done successful nationwide tours, appeared on the Royal Variety Show, as well as making appearances on Have I Got News For You and Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow, she’s been dating a fellow comedian on the comedy circuit.
“We get on really well and make each other laugh, which is, I think, essential for a relationship, as it helps you get through things and ride the tough bits.”
“When I’m with him or my family and friends, if anything funny happens to me, I always write it down,” she says.
“Sometimes my boyfriend will even text me a funny exchange we’ve had so I’ve got it on record. My mum will start a sentence saying, ‘This isn’t for the stage, mind...’, but everyone’s very relaxed about it.”
Millican says in between working she lives an ordinary life, battling to diet and never quite succeeding, and coping with the same challenges that her audiences face daily.
“I think that’s why people like me, because they can identify with me.
“I’m not glamorous, I’ve had ups and downs, been unlucky in love, and I can laugh at myself,” she says.
SARAH MILLICAN is at the Philharmonic Hall on March 15, 2014. Tickets are on sale now on 0151 709 3789.