Strange bedfellows – Helen Lederer and Peter Tatchell at Swindon Festival of Literature

13 May

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As double bills go, it was an unusual one. Comedienne and actress Helen Lederer is the go-to gal if you want a dotty posh woman in your TV show or film. Human rights champion Peter Tatchell is no less a firebrand than he was when he first popped onto our radar as a gay rights activist in the 1980s.

Helen Lederer has a book out – her third attempt, and the first to be published. Peter Tatchell is on his sixth visit to the  Swindon Festival of Literature despite not having a book out. In fact, the last time he had a book published, in 1995, the festival was still in its infancy.

Helen warms us up, by way of introduction, with a short, saucy stand-up routine.

She reads some of her book – a hilarious scene set in a colonic irrigation clinic – then explains, with machine gun-quick delivery, complete facial mannerisms – the widening and rolling of eyes and pursing of lips that will be oh so familiar to those who loved her in Ab Fab, or even back in her Naked Video days – : “IHopePeopleWillReadItOnPublicTransportAndLaughDoYouHaveTheTubeHereNoHmmmBusThenHmmm.”

She narrates the audiobook herself, she tells us. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to listen to anyone else reading this. Her voice is fantastically unique.

Helen’s book, Losing It, is about a middle-aged woman, Millie, trying to lose weight. She tells us of her fat childhood, her own struggles with weight control throughout her life, the colonics – ” IDidAReportageForAMagazineWomanAndHomeAsOpposedToWomanWithoutNoHomeHmmm,” – the diet pills, the amphetamines.

She’s coined a phrase for this form of literature: ‘Mid-Lit’. “LikeChickLitIt’sATermIMadeUpForThoseWithOurOwnVeneersI’mWearingMyMortgageInMyMouth.”

She tells us how she’s been on Graham Norton’s radio show, but not his TV show, because “I don’t pack enough punch.” She recounts the story of being invited to participate on reality TV show Splash: “It’sChristmasI’mFatMyAgentCallsIt’sRealityTVYouHaveToDiveIt’sTenMetersUpYourBodyIsSayingPleaseDontGoUpThereYou’llFall.”

She tells us about her vertigo, about having to hire a hypnotist to get up to the platform, about her relief at being voted off in the first round. She won’t do I’m A Celebrity: “IHopeINeverHaveToDoAnyOfThoseThingsI’mABitMentallyUnstableAndItWouldBeAwful.”

Her novel, she tells us, has been nominated for the PG Wodehouse Prize, the UK’s only literary award for comic writing . I’m A Celebrity doesn’t forward your career, she says. A nomination like this does. This, she agrees, is a new stage in the life of Helen Lederer.

During the past hour, she has laid her soul bare. She’s also had us roaring with laughter.

In thanking the author, Festival director Matt Holland says he doesn’t often invite people back, but he wants Helen back as soon as that second novel is published.

Someone who does keep being invited back is Peter Tatchell.

Matt – who says Peter represents the spirit of this ‘Festival of Ideas’ – has asked him to tell us about his journey from Christianity to secularism.

He recalls his strict religious up-bringing in Australia, and the questions that came to him from the age of 13 that made him doubt his religious convictions, quoting the Greek philosopher Epicurus:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?”

He tells us about his political activism within Christianity – marching against the war in Vietnam – and about his heroes from across the denominations, and indeed from other religions: Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, who have inspired his work in human rights.

“But I believe organised religion has been on the wrong side of human rights, endorsing slavery, colonialism, homophobic persecution. And that still exists in some places in the world today,” he says.

He tells us about Ronald Ryan, the last man to be legally executed in Australia, despite doubts about his guilt. “It made me question the police, the courts, the justice system, and led to me questioning my faith.”

He tells us about his first sexual experience with another man; an experience that forced him to ask: “If the Bible is wrong about this, what else is it wrong about?”

He says the UN Convention on Human Rights is a good example of post-religious ethics. Later, he says the Government’s proposed repeal of the Human Rights Act would be “very damaging.”

And he says important messages in the Bible can be easily transferred to secular life. ‘Do unto others…’ is, he says, common sense and basic decency.

“A different world is possible, and we can make it happen,” he tells the audience.

And, in an evening that began with comedy, this most thoughtful and considered of men leaves us with a chuckle.

Citing the case of Harry Hammond, the evangelical street preacher who was prosecuted under the Public Order Act for calling for criminalisation of homosexuality – a charge Tatchell at the time called “an outrageous assault on civil liberties,” – he said: “I offered to speak up for him at his trial. But he was so homophobic…”.

Words by Peter Davison. Pictures © Calyx Pictures

2 Responses to “Strange bedfellows – Helen Lederer and Peter Tatchell at Swindon Festival of Literature”


  1. Strange bedfellows II – AC Grayling and Rory Bremner at Swindon Festival of Literature | Festival Chronicle - 14th May 2015

    […] couple of nights ago we had our first comedy / thinky mash-up with Helen Lederer and Peter […]

  2. Public Intellectual is not a dirty name – Suzannah Lipscomb at Swindon Festival of Literature | Festival Chronicle - 17th May 2015

    […] Shami Chakrabarti, Alan Johnson, Roman Krznaric, AC Grayling, Daisy Christodoulou, Danny Dorling, Peter Tachell, Henry Marsh, Robert Hewison, Julian Spalding, Jacqueline Rose, Jules Howard – and boxing […]

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