Fern Brady has gone from being a barmaid at the Pleasance to her first Fringe solo show, writes Jay Richardson
A former mental health worker and patient, Fern Brady isn’t hesitant in describing comedy as an industry for “ambitious psychos”.
The forthright 29-year-old is especially ambivalent about the Edinburgh Fringe. As a barmaid at the Pleasance she hated the festival “because I was from Bathgate, I just thought it was full of wankers. At the time, I didn’t know what stand-up was and couldn’t understand why people were so impressed by these comedians when I didn’t know who they were.”
Studying in Edinburgh, she became conscious of “how much disappointment there was” among these performers bringing their first shows, desperate to be discovered and almost bankrupting themselves.
But then, as a “terrible” reviewer for Fest magazine – “I used to go to shows drunk” – she tried stand-up herself for a 2009 feature and discovered she’d found her calling. When she started performing regularly around Manchester, her fellow comics became her best friends. “We’ll slag each other off a lot and they’re nothing like me on stage, but it was instant.”
In 2013, while working as a support worker at a hostel for ex-convicts, she became the newest act to appear on The Alternative Comedy Experience, curated by Stewart Lee for Comedy Central and shot at the Edinburgh Stand. Equipped with a distinctively gravelly voice, Brady has a reputation for aloofness and aggression. But she maintains it’s borne from originally being “so nervous, to the point where I was physically sick before gigs, that I would walk on stage just shouting”.
After moving to London, and against her own expectations, getting recruited to panel shows like 8 Out of 10 Cats, she’s now back at the Stand with her first Fringe solo show.
“Embarrassingly” though with “good timing” People Are Idiots has become about how she went “a bit mad” shooting her BBC Three pilot, Radges, a loosely autobiographical sitcom about a teenage mental health facility, currently available on the iPlayer service. Indeed, since revisiting the experience through counselling and Brahmin meditation classes, she’s “ended up getting half a show out of it”.
Inspired by a brief stay in a Scottish Camh (Child and adolescent mental health) unit, when she was diagnosed with OCD and depression as a troubled 16-year-old, these little-known, “kind of hidden” facilities “aren’t like private school where you can get your kids on a waiting list; you’re just taken out of school and disappear into them”.
Unsentimentally, she claims that she wrote the pilot “so people would know about them, even if for me, the whole thing was just a pointless two months of having a laugh with a load of mad people.” Eschewing the “po-faced” attitude of Channel 4’s teen drama My Mad Fat Diary, she sought to avoid euphemism and reflect her own experience that “a lot of people that work in that field have been mentally ill themselves. Well, me for one”.
Unfortunately, though not for her stand-up, Radges was to prove a destabilising return. “I couldn’t believe how close they’d got the set to real life” she marvels. Starring Lois Chimimba and Miranda’s Sarah Hadland as the unit’s therapist, the show features Brady in a cameo as a mutely glowering patient. She struggled to relinquish control on the shoot, striving “to be involved in every single aspect of it” and didn’t appreciate how stressed she was becoming. Tellingly, she went from not wanting to be in the pilot, to wanting to play the therapist, to fury at not being cast, to having to explain the incident to her anger management counsellor, to trying to tell the story on stage.
She worries that friends from home will think her “pretentious”. But she stresses that she’s “terrible at making stuff up” and everything in her stand-up is true. Similarly, the crew on Radges assumed that Chimimba’s voluble, arrogant character Mab was based directly on her. But notwithstanding expulsion from a child genius class at five after literally “shitting” herself, Brady was a quiet, straight-A student until her OCD became unmanageable, her volatility culminating in an assault conviction eight years ago.
Certainly it seems that people are forever trying to stick her in a box. Unscrupulous comedy insiders advise her to claim she’s 26, or even 22, to get more work, and she rails against the industry’s patronising attitudes towards younger comics. A passionate voice on social issues, she jokingly paraphrases comments on her national newspaper columns as “thank you little girl, did mummy make you write that to get into Oxford or Cambridge?” Meanwhile, her boyfriend chides her for “letting English people think she’s working-class”. Though for some, admittedly, Scottish and opinionated will always be synonymous with chippy proletarian. “Oh my God, the accent thing,” she despairs. “I’d never even thought about being Scottish, then I moved down here and it becomes this huge thing that defines you.” Critics condemn her for not having any jokes about the SNP but “why is that my cross to bear?”
After talking about independence on Newsnight and Channel 4 News, “which I only went on because my agent made me”, she appeared on the throwaway talking heads show The 50 Funniest Moments of 2014, thinking “I can’t wait to talk about celebrities, which is my true interest”.
“And then they gave me a list of topics and it was all Scottish stuff, the Commonwealth Games ceremony and so on. And I was like ‘I have a personality! Being Scottish isn’t a personality!’”
Still, if Radges is given a series, Brady reckons she’ll move back to Scotland, to Glasgow. And if People Are Idiots is successful, so that more people know her and are specifically coming out to see her, she optimistically ventures “I might just be able to slow down and drop this whole ‘being aggressive’ thing.”
Fern Brady: People are Idiots is at The Stand Comedy Club, until 31 August, 12:10pm / listings
Published in The Scotsman on 11 August 2015
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