Meeting Isy’s mad mother and Dom’s one-eyed cat

6 May

Comedy night at Swindon Festival of Literature – the evening that gives your brain cells a chance to recover after events featuring deep thinkers and political heavyweights.

Isy Suttie is the first onstage in this double bill. The Arts Centre is packed, mainly with couples in the fifty-plus demographic.

Seems a bit strange, for the star of Peep Show, I think, not realising that Isy Suttie is on Radio 4. A lot.

(One day, I might write a book about listening to Radio 1, and knowing I should be listening to Radio 4 because it’s what grown-ups do, but not being able to bring myself to do it although there’s actually quite a lot on it I’d enjoy, and eventually finding happiness in the arms of 6 Music. Isy Suttie has basically written this book, but replaced radio stations with boyfriends, which has far, far wider appeal.)

The Actual One is about that period in your late 20s when couples are pairing off; the changing dynamic of friendships as pals swap drunken nights for farmers markets and nappies; and the frustration of long-term relationships that fizzle out “where one of you tries to initiate sex and the other pats them until they stop”.

It’s also about her personal checklist of the attributes required by Mr Right. “Rarely confuses Your with You’re” elicits a small cheer from the Literature Festival crowd.

On stage, Isy is everything we expect her to be: warm, funny, and engaging. Her Derbyshire lilt disarms the audience as she tells tales of love, loss and hopelessness in such a natural and personal way that you forget this is a carefully-honed stand-up routine, and not a chat with an over-sharer at the pub.

As the homely, nerdy, vulnerable heroine of the piece, she can’t also be the exuberant one. That’s a role she gives to her mum who, if the book is to be believed, is a cross between Jane Austen’s Mrs Bennet and Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter; a woman who is happy to shout Man! Man! Man! Man! on a train to get the conductor’s attention.

There’s a lovely scene in the book, recounted by Isy, in which her mother persuades her to create an online dating profile. They go to the Computer Room – a room named when computers were a novelty – where mum types into the browser bar, then proceeds to enter the exact domain name of the dating website into the search bar.

(This is particularly funny if you have parents with a Computer Room who type exact domain names into a search bar – Isy is not alone in this respect, and I suspect she knows it, because this is the key to good observational comedy).

Isy’s book ends before her own happy ending: meeting fellow comedian Elis James, having a baby, and getting engaged at the launch party for The Actual One.

But she does finish with a wryly-delivered tip for those hoping to finding lasting love: “Meet someone you get on quite well with, then compromise.”

From mums who are unafraid of shouting on trains, to a man who made a career of it, Dom Joly headlines the night’s proceedings, but to a slightly smaller audience than Isy’s.

This, I decide, is because he is not on Radio 4.

He was on Radio 5 Live once, but he called Swindon ‘the Bronx of the Cotswolds’ and suggested he used his sat-nav to avoid the town. I’m not sure Swindonians have taken his comments to heart, though, unlike the residents of Weston-Super-Mare, who christened every slug in their annual slug race ‘Dom Joly’.

Dom’s appearance is an hour of anecdotes, charting his life in entertainment from ITN reporter – he was fired for pranks like arranging a clown fight behind a political interview with Paddy Ashdown on House of Commons Green – to meeting his heroes, upsetting music execs at the Brit Awards, being banned for life from the GQ Awards, and traveling with a film crew to the frozen tundra of Newfoundland just to crash a pair of cymbals behind an unsuspecting fishing Eskimo.

His new book, Here Comes The Clown, is the 48-year-old’s first “proper” autobiography, or, as he would have it, “a guide to stumbling through show business”.

“After Trigger Happy I was annoyed that people write autobiographies when they are young. I thought it should be illegal to write an autobiography until you’re 60. Martine McCutcheon was on her third. Then Bloomsbury asked me to write an autobiography, and showed me the advance…”

And so the man who crawled on his belly across a zebra crossing in a snail outfit for Trigger Happy TV wrote Look At ME, Look at ME!, a spoof autobiography in which Dom murders his Armenian nanny and inspires Kurt Cobain to write Smells like Teen Spirit.

In the preceding years, Dom has written travel books including The Dark Tourist, in which he goes ski-ing in Iran, takes a weekend break in Chernobyl, becomes one of the few Westerners to be granted entry into North Korea, and revisits his childhood haunts in Beirut only to discover he was at the same Quaker school as Osama Bin Laden.

His travel bug has seen him go ‘into the jungle’ on I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!, and very recently to Panama for Celebrity The Island with Bear Grylls or, as Dom calls him, Barely There Grylls, because he dropped the contestants off on The Island and left them to starve for 14 days.

Here Comes The Clown starts on the day he realised he was famous – three days after the first episode of Trigger Happy TV aired in 2000. “I was on a train and that (Nokia) ringtone went off, and three people shouted ‘Hello? I’m on a train’.”

Success bought him a house in the Cotswolds – he moved into Anne Robinson’s old gaff in Quenington and is now one of the more disappointing stops on the Cotswold Celebrity Houses tour which includes Liz Hurley’s mansion and Kate Moss’ pad – where he lives with a menagerie including Wilbur the pig, “who, like me, doesn’t like being told to do and just wants food” and a cat, Captain Kangaroo, who lost the use of a leg after being shot in “The Hood” in Cheltenham, and has since lost an eye.

But has it brought him happiness? Some of the funniest, most creative people I know are certifiably mad, and in the book he talks about his own battles with mental illness. “Trust me, there is nothing guaranteed to depress you more than being diagnosed as having clinical depression,” he writes.

So he takes the pills, and continues to stumble through the world of show business as one of our most underrated comedy geniuses. He has just finished filming a new series of Trigger Happy TV, including a sketch he’s wanted to do for years: a line of terraced houses, with an indentical wheely bin outside each door. On Dom’s command, actors dressed as Jack-in-the-Boxes pop up from the bins.

I, for one, cannot wait.

Isy Suttie and Dom Joly were on stage 5 May 2016.

Written by Peter Davison.

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