Her time as a mental health nurse left Jo with a deep love for the NHS — now she is furious at the way nurses are under attack
She’s no longer the foul-mouthed, bovver-booted, man-hating feminist face of alternative comedy, but don’t suggest Jo Brand has gone soft.
“People always ask me if I’ve ‘mellowed’ over the years,” says the 55-year-old.
“I’ve even heard I’m in danger of becoming a ‘national treasure’. Well, I bloody hope not — I’d rather maintain a decent taint of national disgrace.”
Jo’s been back on the road as a stand-up for the past eight months, on and off, trying out new material — “doing theatres too small and too far away from London for the critics to be bothered,” she says.
“It’s going well, starting to build up.”
But is the new material any more, well, mellow, than the jokes her 80s incarnation “The Sea Monster” used to make about tampons, toilets, lady-parts and hitting men in the testicles with a cricket bat to help them understand the pain of childbirth?
“There’s a bit of both in there,” she says in that droll, slightly nasal twang, “to lull the audience into a false sense of security.
“I start off talking about knitting and then I’m straight into Jimmy Savile.”
She laughs at my sharp intake of breath before I ask: “And how does that go down then?”
Jo replies: “Let’s just say there’s an element of ambivalence in the audience, shall we?”
There has always been ambivalence in some quarters about Jo Brand.
When she first hit the comedy circuit in 1982, her aggressive anti-bloke routine led to an assumption — which she did nothing to dispel — that she was a lesbian.
In fact, she is married to psychiatric nurse Bernie Bourke and has two daughters Maisie, 12, and Eliza, 10.
Growing up in Kent, the middle of three children, she always wanted to be a comedian but her social worker mum and structural engineer dad advised her to get a “back-up career”.
So, after taking a social science degree, Jo trained to become a psychiatric nurse.
She spent 10 years helping patients with severe mental health issues. By the time Jo left the profession to try her hand as a stand-up she was a senior charge nurse in a 24-hour emergency psychiatric clinic.
Her time as a mental health nurse left Jo with a deep love for the NHS — which shone through in hospital comedy series Getting On, for which she won the TV comedy actress Bafta in 2011.
Now she is furious at the way hard-pressed nurses are under attack.
She says: “I do think nurses are being blamed for the wider problems of the NHS. We tend to extrapolate from individual incidents and attack the entire population of nurses.
“I think a more measured response is called for.
“There are problems with nursing — such as the issue of nurses all having to do degrees these days. But that doesn’t mean to say the entire infrastructure of nursing is falling about and that it is populated by unfeeling psychopaths, which is, frankly, the implication sometimes.
“I was 20 when I started and for 10 years I soaked up a lot of people’s pain. I don’t think I became hardened to it, I got out before that.
“I have seen nurses who have become hardened to people’s pain and it’s not a very nice thing to see — it is chilling to see nurses who don’t care any more. They exist, but are in the minority,
“But my friends who are still in the profession are more depressed by the problems and changes to the health service.
“They simply don’t believe this demonisation of nurses. Let’s face it, if they are seen to be failing that isn’t going to do any harm to plans to privatise nursing, is it?
“If the Tories get back in, in two years’ time, I think that might be the end of the NHS — which would be a travesty.
“The 2015 election will be about the NHS more than anything else.”
After facing violence frequently as a nurse – she was once chased with a machete – the novice comic was unperturbed by the death threats and abuse from drunken hecklers at her early gigs.
But for several years Jo proved a hate figure in some parts of the media because of her left-wing views.
Her parents met as Young Socialists and she’s a lifelong Labour supporter. Jo has even thought of going into politics herself.
She says: “I would love to, but I don’t think I could stand the emotional pain of it all, even after being a psychiatric nurse.
“To me, a politician’s job is to listen to constituents’ problems and try to sort them out.
“I suspect most politicians feel overwhelmed because people’s lives are a real struggle, full of unhappiness, and you would probably feel powerless to do anything about it.
“So you have to be a particular type of person to cope with that.
“I wonder how members of the present Tory Government can have any idea just how hard it is for most people, given how wealthy they all are. They don’t understand what being poor means.
“To me it smacks of George Orwell’s 1984 — the proles, this sub-class of barely human individuals. I think that is how some Tories see poor people — as subhumans scrabbling round in the dirt with their bingo and their X Factor.
“They see them as foreign beings – and that patronising attitude is a massive issue for me.
“The other problem I have with politics these days is it’s so centrally controlled and there is no room for individual personalities.
“I was a fan of Mo Mowlam — who was a bit of a loose canon, but there are no characters like her around any more.
“I like Ed Miliband very much and think he is a very decent bloke, and I hope the nation is warming to him.”
Her latest TV series, Jo Brand’s Great Wall of Comedy, on Gold, could certainly fool people into thinking she’s mellowed — with Jo settled in a comfy living-room and chatting with famous guests about the classic moments of the nation’s favourite sitcoms.
Comedy veteran Barry Cryer is on hand with a stream of golden anecdotes about the legends he has worked with. And there is Vicki Michelle from ’Allo ’Allo!, Christopher Biggins — Lukewarm in Porridge — and Fawlty Towers’ Manuel, Andrew Sachs.
“This is a laid-back sort of panel show and, although it has a slightly nostalgic feel, it looks at contemporary sitcoms as well as the old ones,” says Jo.
She has never conformed to traditional female funny-girl roles, so why doesn’t she object to the portrayal of women in some old sitcoms being celebrated in the new show?
Jo says: “The shows we feature, like Fawlty Towers, Ab Fab and Birds of a Feather, don’t make women the butt of jokes.
“Occasionally some sitcoms still stereotype women — the old dragon or the dolly bird — but on the whole we’ve moved away from that. We’re in a transition period. There are a lot more sitcoms written by women, like Pulling and Dinner Ladies.
“But there were some horrors in the 70s — like On the Buses. Reg Varney’s character Stan and his mate Jack thought they were a right catch, didn’t they?
“They were supposed to be the good-looking lotharios while Stan’s wife Olive was a joke because she was comedy ugly.”
Jo was famous for mocking her own appearance — doing all the fat gags before the hecklers could.
Her first TV performance featured the classic line: “I read that book Fat is a Feminist Issue. Got a bit desperate halfway through – and ate it.”
But she still hates gags that attack other people’s physical flaws, such as some made by her controversial Mock the Week colleague Frankie Boyle.
She says: “I like Frankie a lot, but I don’t like some of the jokes he does and I’d tell him that if I saw him.
“I didn’t like the stuff he said about Rebecca Adlington, for instance.
“Making jokes about someone else’s appearance is cheap and, in a society where women are on the whole judged by their looks, it’s sad that it comes from an obviously bright guy like him.
“But I suspect there is an element of mischief and he is doing it because people expect it.
“I think there is a point in comedy when you can go too far. The problem is discovering where that line should be drawn.
“Let’s say you joke about someone killing themselves. In theory most people won’t be offended by that.
“But if a member of your family committed suicide last week, it’s going to be a raw, terrible thing for you.
“The problem is, should you never, ever do jokes like that because someone, one day might, understandably, be upset?”