Jenny Eclair has written Older and Wider, “a survivor’s guide to the menopause”, one part helpful, sisterly advice, four parts jokes and memoir. The thing is, often when she writes about the menopause, and always when she talks about it, she makes it sound quite fun. There’s just something zinging in her delivery. “I’ve done the most terrible thing,” she says as she picks up the phone, a mid-sentence immediacy, as if we’ve already been talking for half an hour. “I sprayed weedkiller on my roses; I feel like killing myself.”
The self-deprecation is mainly shtick, a comic through-line of “Oh God I’m so useless” that connects her early incarnation as a punk poet in the 80s to her recent, resurgent persona as a Grumpy Old Woman (first on the BBC Two show, later writing Grumpy Old Women Live, which has been a stage success all over the world).
When she went through the menopause, she was surprised that her “emotional state was a lot worse than my physical state. I got incandescent rage. It became like a superpower. I’ve always been a very bad-tempered PMT type, but this was something else, a superhuman rage, the ability to move a Victorian wardrobe from one side of the room to the other.”
Her intention with the book is not to scope out the perfect menopause; she’s free with her opinions but doesn’t proselytise. “Some people are given antidepressants rather than HRT [hormone replacement therapy] and I’m slightly against that, but I think everybody should be allowed to treat their menopause how they like.” She didn’t embark on the book as a taboo-breaking enterprise either, observing: “It’s not really a taboo in my life, in my circles. But then, I’ve never had a proper job in my life. I can’t imagine Angela Merkel saying: ‘Sorry, I’ve just got to take my jacket off, I’m fucking boiling.’” (What a perfect litmus test of which glass ceilings are still to be smashed: “Can you imagine Angela Merkel saying it?”) Eclair is driven, as ever, by wanting to make people laugh. If there’s a nobler enterprise besides finding cures for things, I don’t know it.
Eclair’s childhood was very army – constant travelling, Singapore, Malaysia, Germany – until the family settled in Lytham St Annes, Lancashire, following her father’s career as a major. She was actually born in Kuala Lumpur. But if that sounds very establishment, that’s not how she talks about her parents. Rather, she describes them as quintessentially northern: no-nonsense, stoic, unsentimental – and this is something she prizes, a kind of playful scorn for feelings.
Her comedy career started in the late 80s, when she became the first female solo performer to win the Perrier award at the Edinburgh festival. This doesn’t even come close to describing how sexist the comedy world was back then. It was completely routine to see articles wondering whether women could be funny, and – unless you count the Cunning Stunts, the radical acrobats, which I insistently do – there were only really five women on the circuit: Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, Jo Brand, Victoria Wood and Jenny Eclair. Today, you wouldn’t really compare them, since they have such different comic sensibilities, but then it was absolutely routine to constantly rank them, as if they were a mini-league of the very peculiar sport of Lady Jokes, and there could be only one winner. Which, from the sound of things, is more or less how it felt from the inside. “We were all scrabbling for this tiny window of opportunity, and as soon as somebody got through, it was firmly shut again. I really liked all the other women on the circuit, until they got more famous than me, then I hated them. That’s the truth of it.”
Of the next generation – Sarah Millican’s generation of comics, Eclair calls it – she says that they are not just kinder to each other, “they have had a lot more control over their own careers than we did. They’re not having to jump through the same hoops and they’re better comics for it. They’re truer to themselves.” She then modifies that, a bit, having done herself, and her peers, a disservice. “Live, we were brilliant. TV was different. Maybe just for me. Nobody really knew what to do with me on telly. I was my own worst enemy in some ways.” I don’t really agree with that – without wishing to bang on, if the all-male panel had become unacceptable much sooner, Jenny Eclair would have been inundated, since that’s her brand. She’s not a sketch-comedian or a surrealist, she specialises in chat – high-octane, intensely emotionally open, sometimes dark, never cruel. “I like talking to people,” she says. “I really like interviewing people and nattering. One of my favourite jobs ever was having a medium-brow cultural show [on LBC]. But I got sacked. I tend to get sacked from things.”
She was scarcely unoccupied in the 90s, writing her first non-fiction book, The Book of Bad Behaviour, in 1994 (followed by four novels from 2000 on) and continuing in standup. But certainly middle age has been her prime. She was the longest-running staple on Grumpy Old Women, the BBC Two original, from 2004 to 2007. And she was the almost-leftie-they-needed-for-balance on Loose Women, from 2011 to 2012, a job she loved, right down to the commute and the civilised finishing time of noon.
“What I’ve done for the past at least 10 years is perform to an audience of middle-aged women,” she says. “We toured the Grumpy Old Women shows in Australia, they were translated into Finnish, Icelandic. And it became clear to me, wherever you were, that middle-aged women laugh at the same things. There was always a joke about female-pattern balding, whether to shave it off or comb it over and it didn’t matter where you were, the laugh would always come at the same point, you could time it.” She has a poignant account of why this would be, that you reach an age where you have all had the same sorrow, the same loss, or even if you haven’t, you can empathise, and maybe it’s not a laugh so much as a shout of relief to be in a room with people who are all on the same side. “The Venn diagram of what you share as middle-aged women is much bigger than what you share as a young woman, when you’re just fighting for yourself. You’re fighting for your man, you’re fighting for your career, you’re putting yourself first.”
She loved Grumpy Old Women because it didn’t have the same kind of fierceness that came along with Loose Women. On the ITV show, she was the oddball, opinion-wise, but, she says: “I can deal with Daily Mail opinions because I know people have them. I’m a huge fence-sitter. I’m so Lib Dem that it hurts.” (I can imagine it would, in this day and age). “I look back on it quite fondly, but I was a square peg in a round hole. I do remember once trying to talk about modern art, and at the end of the programme I felt really depressed because of the reaction, the kneejerk ‘all modern art is shit’. I felt terribly sad and angry about that.”
Eclair has a trait rarely seen in standup: she’s quite conflict-averse. Even while she’s feminist to her bones, there are faultlines in feminism – the battle over trans rights, for instance – of which she would “steer clear, in case I inadvertently said something inflammatory. Fortunately, I’ve got a 31-year-old very right-on daughter [Phoebe Eclair-Powell, a playwright]. I can always call her up and say: ‘Am I right on this?’ And she could go: ‘No, Mum, I think you’ve got this a bit wrong actually.’” What kind of thing does she typically get wrong, I wonder? “It’s mainly about checking my privilege,” she says ruefully.
The plan at the start of 2020 was another tour of Grumpy Old Women, which of course has been cancelled. She talks about that with equanimity, even though it must be a blow, since “the one thing I know about middle-aged women, they don’t like wasting their money, and they don’t like taking risks. My audience will be the last to come through the door.” She takes a relaxed tone about most things, from pandemics to mortality, observing: “If I died, nobody walking through a cemetery would give my grave a second look. Sixty-year-old woman, it’s neither nor, isn’t it? You don’t look at it and go: ‘How sad’ or: ‘She lived to a great age.’” This looks a bit mournful written down, but when she said it, it sounded more like a comment on the human life cycle, which she returns to often.
“The other thing about middle age, there’s quite a lot of contentment, at knowing there’s a back catalogue. But there’s this incredible confusion about the future, because you genuinely don’t know how much time you’ve got left. It’s really hard to work out when you can afford to die, how long you can afford to live. These thoughts come into your head in a way that they really don’t until you’re in your mid-50s.” And again, on the page, it looks a little stark, but from her voice, it had a reassuring solidarity, that life is full of difficult thoughts, and better lived if you say them out loud.
One thing she’s not at all relaxed about is the creative industries, and the government’s attitude to them. “We’ve got a culture minister who talks about horse racing the whole time. It’s appalling. For some reason, people look no further than football. More people go to the theatre than see Premier League games, and yet all the news is given over to sport. Especially now, why not talk about books? Why not tell us which the bestselling books have been, on the bulletins?” This, in the moment, strikes me as a great idea. “I’m absolutely full of them,” she says, with satisfaction.
Pending the return – or, shudder, not – of the live arts, she’s doing a podcast, also called Older and Wider, with Judith Holder of the original GOW lineup. It was going really well, she says, until “we got a bit bogged down with cysts, and a listener wrote in with the most appalling account of cyst removal … I think we might have lost half our listeners, it was so graphic.”
“I don’t think we have to have the same humour as men,” she segues, “that was never the point. But you’re on the same level when you can have this very unadulterated, unashamed female humour. That doesn’t mean it’s gynaecological, it just means it’s very personal to whoever is writing it.” Which is, tangentially, why the world would need a book about the menopause even if everybody going through it already knew everything there was to know: if you’re not joking about the things that are personal to you, then you’ve been culturally erased, on top of everything else (as the old wimmin’s joke about turning 50 goes: “Shall I use my cape of invisibility to fight crime, or for evil?”). Jenny Eclair, even as she is totally credible and rather unflinching on the cruel passage of time, seems herself only to get more vivid.
Older and Wider is published by Quercus on 2 July. To buy a copy for £14.78 (RRP £16.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com. P&P charges may apply