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Doon Mackichan

actress, comedian, author

What inspired you to write your memoir, My Lady Parts: A Life Fighting Stereotypes?
I moved house in the pandemic and found a stack of diaries. I realised I’d lived in 24 houses over my life, and it seemed to me some of the stories should be shared.

My Lady Parts also works as a feminist manifesto, was that your intention?
It was never meant to be a call to arms, but I was surprised by the vehemence of some of my experiences and how I felt. That took over from the anecdotal funny stories. It just seemed to find its tone.

You say writing is “about putting food on the table without selling out”. What do you mean by that?
Not just taking jobs for money. There was a De Beers diamond ad I turned down, which would have paid me enough to write my feminist, left-wing screenplay,

When did you first think: hell yes, I’m a feminist!
When I went to Manchester University. It was a very political time in the 1980s, we were encouraged to go on marches and visit Greenham Common. I was reading Brecht, had Marxist tutors and was politicised very quickly. It was just marvellous.

Which of your early performances had an impact on you?
I once had to symbolise syphilis in dance form. Later, I was in Women of Troy and Tim Piggott-Smith said I had a rare charisma. That made me feel like I was an actor.

How was your first stand-up gig?
Tough. I performed three monologues for an all-women audience in the basement disco of Manchester’s student union. I was the only performer and nervous but their response at the end was brilliant; it lifted me up and made me determined to keep going.

When did you first experience sexism?
I was asked to shave my legs in my first TV appearance, as Cinderella in The Hale and Pace Christmas Special. I politely declined and was then shamed by cameramen filming my legs and beaming them around the studio while singing, “Gillette, the best you can get”. I was 23, but I didn’t buckle.

How did the three-woman Channel 4 sketch show Smack the Pony change your career?
It gave us freedom to play the lead, the clown, the doctor, the empowered person, rather than feeding lines to male comedians as stereotyped women. Our manifesto was: no punchlines, no repeat characters and nothing about women’s issues. We were allowed to be silly, messy and mischievous. That show really rewrote the comedy rule book.

Is it true Ricky Gervais offered his services to “improve” Smack the Pony?
Gervais showed up at a rehearsal after pestering us for several weeks to look at his material – which made him the central character, while we were the feeds. He just thought the show would be vastly improved by his presence.

What has been the response to My Lady Parts from male readers?
Predominantly a sense of shock at the level of sexism in the business. I’ve been stopped by two different men who loved it and have passed it to other men. But women readers are – yes! – punching the air.

Your book says female clowns aren’t allowed to be funny and sexy. Why?
It’s too challenging for UK men (not for women, they love it). Instead of a European tradition of women who are in touch with their sexuality, we Brits have funny-nympho, funny-stupid and funny-dirty.

You swam the English Channel. Why is ice-cold swimming so popular with women?
Remember the grotesquery of electric shocks for hysterical women? Cold water treatment is nature’s way of resetting those of us women who have more challenges than we should on our shoulders – and putting us back on our feet.

How hard was it to carry on acting once you became a mother?
Extremely hard – there was a general sense of “please don’t bring your baby to set”. A lot of actresses still struggle with making their babies part of the package.

What’s the most audacious protest you’ve ever staged?
I used to climb up precarious ladders in Vauxhall to spray-paint over sexist ads. I also used graffiti to protest about female writers being side-lined on a theatre project – on the show’s posters.

How did your wild childhood in Fife form you?
It allowed me to take my problems out into nature and have them solved there, as well as fostering my love of anarchy and rule-breaking.

How hard was it to write the chapter about your son Louis having myeloid leukaemia, aged nine?
I’m very glad I kept a journal in the hospital. But turning those agonised notes into a one-woman show was so painful I needed a dramaturge to help me.

You’ve chosen not to have any cosmetic enhancements. Why?
The pressure on women to look young has caused a terrible epidemic of them going under the knife, or needle. That’s a disaster because every face is unique; we have to relearn to love ourselves. There are now aesthetic clinics on every corner, where there used to be cafes. I take my Sharpie pen and write on their windows: “I’m beautiful as I am, thanks.”

What makes you optimistic about feminism?
The fact we’re always in a state of flux. I also have faith in the younger generation. They are the gatekeepers and are talking a lot of sense. They just need to stand away from the mobile phones and the Botox.

What’s your motto?
Don’t be good, don’t be quiet. Or: make yourself one small republic of unconquered spirit. That second one is Rebecca Solnit.

“My Lady Parts: A Life Fighting Stereotypes” (Canongate) by Doon Mackichan, £16.99

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March 2024, Q&A

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