What am I doing? I should’ve stayed a lawyer. This is a ridiculous job!’
With her first UK tour heading to Chorley Little Theatre next weekend, petite Glaswegian and mad cat lady Susan Calman talks comedy with MALCOLM WYATT
Barely half-way into a mammoth 100-date tour - from a month of Edinburgh Fringe summer dates through to May – Susan Calman should be getting a little jaded by now.
But this lawyer-turned-comic remains her characteristic bubbly self as her tour moves closer to a short Christmas break.
You’ll know Susan, this wee Scot a regular on radio and TV panel and stand-up shows.
And now, for the first time at venues around the UK, we get to see her in person, sharing those formative life experiences.
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Her Lady Like show involves a 90-minute set that Susan promises will reassure us about our own lives, delivered by a 40-year-old known as ‘The Mad CatLady’ to her neighbours.
Such anecdotal and observational honesty has become her trademark, Susan’s audiences on board for a journey of self-awareness, self-discovery and self-indulgence, with a heart-warming optimistic message.
Susan, whose father is former England, Scotland and Wales chief medical officer Sir Kenneth Calman, studied law at Glasgow University, her resultant work in the field including a stint with death row inmates in North Carolina.
But she turned her back on law for comedy, since appearing on QI, Would I Lie To You?, Rab C. Nesbitt, among other shows.
Accolades en route have included the Best New Scottish Comedian at the Scottish Variety Awards in 2009 and Best MC at the Chortle Awards in 2012.
This summer, Susan presented the BBC’s Don’t Drop the Baton for the Commonwealth Games, and Radio 4’s Susan Calman Is Convicted.
And there’s also a brand new Radio 2 panel show Listomania and a newly-commissioned Radio 4 sitcom, both set for broadcast in 2015.
But right now the focus is her live schedule, a current batch of 35 dates from the end of September to mid-December followed by another 40 or so in the new year.
So is it a case of Woman with a Suitcase at the moment?
“Absolutely, I only finish in May, and did the Fringe as well, which was 29 dates, so it’ll be over a hundred by the time we finish.
“I’ve never toured before, so for the first one we’re really going for it! It’s good fun doing the show in lots of places though. I’m enjoying it.”
You see yourself as a story-teller rather than a stand-up, but I guess that doesn’t really matter as long as you can engage an audience.
“Well, Billy Connolly’s a story-teller. So I’m a stand-up, but differentiate myself from someone like Jimmy Carr, who tells hundreds of jokes. I’m more an observational comic.”
I read that you always take your own optional extras on the road with you.
“I stay a lot in Premier Inns, and they’re very nice but they’re all the same. It’s good to have something from home. It makes things slightly more bearable.
“I have my own posh shower gel and shampoo, and a nice cup of coffee.”
Is this why bands and comics often shout out the name of the town they’re in – to remind themselves where they are?
“Sometimes it’s difficult to remember, particularly if you just get on a train and go to the next place.
“I genuinely don’t know how many places I’ve stayed. Sometimes you wake up and wonder where you are. But sometimes I’m glad I’m staying at a Premier Inn.”
In the old days it was more likely to have been a dodgy boarding house with a candlewick bedspread.
“I’ve stayed in some awful places, and on a couple of dates I’ve tried bed and breakfasts, which is quite weird.
“It’s like staying in someone’s house. I’m a teenager in my bedroom again. I didn’t really enjoy that much.”
Are you still doing radio and TV panel shows and other media work between dates?
“It’s very difficult because most record on a Thursday night, so I’ve had to take a bit of a break.
“I’m still doing Radio 4 shows, like The News Quiz, but I’m concentrating on this tour. And it’s been absolutely fantastic.
“Tickets have been selling incredibly well, and the audiences have been really brilliant. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I’ve been having a blast!”
Do you still get nervous before a show, or when you’re out there?
“I’m nervous before any show, and think nerves are important because it means you’re excited about the show.
“You have to keep a handle on it, because if you’re very nervous you’ll never eat anything. If you don’t eat but travel and do shows, you’ll fall over.
“It’s exciting, and I’ve done some beautiful venues and fantastic places. Very rarely do I get to see any of the places, sadly.
“But hopefully if I’m touring again in a couple of years, I’ll make sure I spend a bit more time there.”
My excuse for speaking to Susan was her Chorley Little Theatre visit next weekend, an intimate venue that has attracted many leading comics in recent times. Does she tend to listen to other artists’ thoughts on such venues?
“If you start doing that, you’ll never go anywhere! Someone has always had a bad gig somewhere.
“It’s best I go and see what it’s like. I don’t want to hear nightmare stories.”
Did the Lady Like show have its roots in your Edinburgh Fringe set?
“My Fringe show is the bulk of the second half, and I wrote the second half around that. And when this tour’s over, I’ll start writing a show for 2016.”
Are you honing the act as you go?
“No, the show’s bang on now. I’ve done it for so long. If it wasn’t good by now, I’d be in trouble!
“It’s what I wanted it to be, and audiences seem to be enjoying it.”
You recently said, “All of us have mental health issues, it’s just that for some of us, our issues make us go more mental that others.” Does that sum you up?
“This show is about being positive in life. I sometimes don’t have a lot of confidence in myself, with people sometimes surprised at that as I stand on a stage and all that.
“If you let people in on that, saying, ‘Actually, I’ve had the same lapses in confidence you have’, they can associate with that.
“Life is a very strange, pressured thing these days, and very occasionally it’s possible you just fall down a bit and learn to pick yourself up with the help of others.
“That’s what I did. When you’re performing, you’re a character, and have to be to get up on stage and perform.
“I’ve been doing this a long time, so I’m confident in what I’m doing. But there’s always that frisson of nerves, thinking, ‘What am I doing? I should have stayed being a lawyer. This is a ridiculous job!’ But it’s also great fun.”
According to her latest press release, Susan’s ‘petite, Glaswegian, likes cats and – if she is to be believed – at one time collected thimbles’.
In fact, I’ve seen a few varying descriptions. So which sits best with her – feisty Scot? Mad cat lady? Petite Glaswegian? Or diminutive lesbian?
“Erm... mad cat lady. That’s the one.”
Are you a bit too honest in your live show sometimes?
“I only share how much I want to share. The people who know what I’m really like are my family and friends. I share a little of myself – again, like Billy Connolly does.
“Then you go home, and those closest to you know exactly who you are. I’ve never shared anything I’m not happy with.
“And I find it easier to write about something rather than about nothing.”
What does Sir Kenneth Calman make of his daughter’s public profile?
“I think he’s very proud, and listens to my shows on Radio 4.
“It was obviously a bit of a change from what I was going to do, but my parents are very supportive, and I’m glad to have that support.”
You’ve just turned 40. Was that a game-changer?
“It was odd, but I had a big party and it’s done and gone, so I’ll just carry on as if nothing happened. I’m 39 as far as I’m concerned.”
What’s all this about you collecting thimbles?
“I genuinely did collect thimbles as a child, but stopped. There wasn’t enough space.”
Did anything replace that in your life?
“I have a few hobbies I’m trying to develop. Nothing quite as twee as collecting thimbles though.”
There have been a lot of awards over the years. Which do you covet most?
“I think the Writers Guild award, for my radio show. Writing is something I love doing, and I really treasure being acknowledged for that, as it was writers who voted.”
The TV voiceover and presenting work is coming in too, with BBC3’s Sexy Beasts and CBBC’s Disaster Chefs and Extreme School.
There’s also an STV quiz show, Radio 2’s Listomania and Radio 4’s Susan Calman is Convicted. Never a dull moment, really.
“No, and I’m looking forward to going home in June for some time off. But you can never complain about being busy. It’s the best thing for me.”
Where is home when you get the chance?
“I still live in Glasgow and I’m loving it, although it’s a bit difficult commuting these days. My partner and my family are still there, so that’s where I go home to.”
Is there a hangover from the Commonwealth Games there at present?
“The Games was absolutely terrific, the best times I can remember in my home city. It was just extraordinary, and the weather was fantastic for the first part.
“We watched some of the events, and I’m just so proud of my home city. The hangover from that is perhaps from people perceiving the city as a slightly better place than they did before.”
It has a reputation to live up to now.
“Well, d’you know – it will! It’s remarkable place, and that’s why I stay there.”
Do you think you might have persevered with the law as the day job?
“I enjoyed being a lawyer, but I’m glad I’m not one anymore. It’s lovely to have the experience, but I think I made the right choice.”
Did your time on death row in the States help you focus on what you wanted to do with your life?
“Yes, but it was more of a personal development experience. I was only around 20, going around these high-security prisons, so far removed from my safe life in Glasgow and at university. And it’s something that’s stayed with me for 20 years.”
You’re coming up for a decade as a stand-up now. Where was your first gig?
“It was at The Stand comedy club in Glasgow, a Tuesday night open mic event, Red Raw. I did five minutes, and it was terrifying and wonderful at the same time.
“The Stand was at the centre of everything I’ve done. That’s where I learned my trade, and they’re incredibly supportive of new comics.”
Do you remember your set that night?
“I have it written down somewhere. I keep all my flyers, brochures and everything else. I suspect it’s awful, but it’s there somewhere.”
Have you made a lot of good friends on the circuit?
“A huge amount of people I started with are now incredibly good friends, like Sarah Millican, Holly Walsh and Zoe Lyons. That makes the job even nicer.”
Away from it all, Susan – who came out at the age of 19 - has been in a civil partnership since 2012. Was that public commitment to her relationship important to her?
“I felt it was, personally. I wanted to stand in front of friends and family and make a public commitment to my better half.
“We’ve been together 13 years and it was the best day of my life ... at least until we hopefully get married at some point!”
Finally, we mentioned the writing before. Is that where your future lies?
“Well, I’ve just had my first sitcom commissioned by Radio 4. That’s what I’m writing just now, so I very much hope so.
“It’s a six-part series based on myself and my sister. I’m writing it now, we record it in May, ready for around June next year.
“I’ll never stop doing live gigs, because those are so enjoyable, but I really love sitting down and writing as well. So hopefully that will develop.”
Susan Calman plays Chorley Little Theatre on Friday, November 28 (8pm). For ticket details call 01257 264362 or got to www.chorleylittletheatre.com