‘I was an alley ca delusions of gran T with deur’
JENNY ECLAIR isn’t too happy when I suggest her new TV series, Drawers Off, sounds like Naked Attraction meets Art Attack. “It’s nothing like that at all,” she scolds. “It’s a daytime show on Channel 4 and at the heart of it is the art.” Despite the titillating title, the series – which launches at teatime tomorrow – is “very gentle”, the famously grumpy comedian assures me.
Amateur artists take it in turn to life model. “But there’s no cruelty or bitterness or danger of panic attacks,” Jenny, 60, insists. “It’s a bit of a laugh with some painting and one grand up for grabs. It’s adorable.”
And tasteful, she adds. No unwelcome body parts flash before our eyes.
The series was filmed with strict social distancing. “We were quite lucky, everyone behaved themselves,” she says. “There was a lot of laughter on and off camera, but we couldn’t hang out together. Me and our art expert Diana Ali shared a massive dressing room but had to stay at opposite ends of it.
“I was in a hotel, living off takeaways for three weeks… That was great. I was so glad to get out of my house. I’m bored with our parks, bored with my neighbourhood; it’s become tedious.”
Some of Jenny’s neighbours in Camberwell, south London, were equally delighted by her absence.
“I had to stop going to supermarkets because I kept getting into fights with people who weren’t wearing masks,” the Grumpy Old Women star admits. “I click and collect now.
“My local supermarkets are glad they’ve got rid of me because I was going mental, and at some of the staff too. People in Camberwell who are not wearing masks think they’ve got good reasons not to wear them.”
Did it get heated? “It’s south London, of course it did. One told me to do something with my mother which was physically improbable.”
She pauses and sighs, “I miss being furious about other people’s behaviour.” Born in Kuala Lumpur into an Army family, Jenny Hargreaves grew up in Lytham St Annes, Lancs.
“I did art A level, but I wasn’t very good,” she admits. “So, I went to drama school and wasn’t very good as an actress either.”
At drama school in Manchester, local “business people who were a bit heavy” decided to turn her into a pop star.
“They liked my look,” she explains. “I was an anorexic with a perm. But I knew I couldn’t sing so rather than have them find out that I’m tone deaf in the expensive recording studio they’d booked for me, I ran away.”
She fled to London and became a life model. “And I did full-on nudity on the West End stage,” she says. “I’m not fussed about it. I’m not prudish. I’m not one of those people who need a big tent around them on the beach when they get changed. I don’t think everybody’s looking at me.”
Jenny had begun writing and reciting punk poetry at drama school. In London she saw an advert in The Stage for novelty turns. “I wore a black cocktail dress, fishnets and spiked heels and went and did an act. It went down all right.
“There was no internet then, nobody had a mobile. So I found phone numbers for clubs in Time Out, and set off thinking ‘Where the **** is Earl’s Court?’ I spent all my time with an A-Z trying to find places. Everything was horrific but I did it because I was 22.
“John Cooper Clarke was the king of punk poets,” she adds. “I wasn’t a proper one. I was an actress playing the role of a punk poet. But I knew I wasn’t a good actress because even when I was in Holby or The Bill there was always a voice in head saying, ‘Look at you dressed up… I don’t believe in you’.” Stand-up
comedy came naturally. She adopted the stage name of Jenny Eclair – a name she’d first used in her teens attempting to sound French in a Blackpool disco.
“It was tough back then. I played the Tunnel Club in Greenwich, south London, as well as Jongleurs and the Comedy Store. The audiences could be vicious. I found it quite frightening. I remember listening to Harry Enfield throwing up before he went on stage.
“But I developed an act which was in your face and aggressive. I became madder than the audience were.”
She likens her early stage persona to “an alley cat with delusions of grandeur”.
“It was a relief when I could soften up as audiences got more female and middle-aged and actually wanted to listen. But I had a ball, even if I spent a lot of the time in dressing rooms feeling sick.”
In 1995, she won the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Perrier Award, which brought media interest, TV bookings and a higher profile.
“I started getting mistaken for Su Pollard,” she laughs. “That still happens. We’ve never been seen in the same room, so no one ever knows if we’re different people. But we are – there are big differences; Su has much better legs and can sing. And I write novels.”
TV’S Grumpy Old Women reinvented her. She was in all four series from 2004–7. “It was a brilliant chunk of my life,” she says. “A sisterhood, a religion. We did live tours in big venues – 2,000 women taking the roof off the place. In Australia too.”
THE LAST tour was in 2018, but its legacy lives on in Older & Wider – the podcast Jenny does with Judith Holder (who produced the TV show), and also the title of her guide to surviving the menopause. “We carry on the flame of Grumpy Old Women. It burns forever.” Her next stand-up show, called Sixty! (FFS!), is set to tour in September. “Fingers crossed, vaccines injected,” she says. “Hopefully we’ll be released into the wild again by then. I’m bracing myself for it being delayed until 2022.”
Her longest-running live comedy show was 2017’s How To Be A Middle-aged Woman. “The last 20 years have been much easier than the first 20,” she says.
“And much more enjoyable. I can be more experimental.”
Jenny has written four novels, three of them comic. Which is best? “They’re all brilliant,” she ripostes. “Which is best? That’s like asking me to choose my favourite child. Which is why I only had one child.”
That’s her playwright daughter Phoebe Eclairpowell, 30. Jenny married Phoebe’s father, art dealer Geoff Powell, in 2017.
Is she easy to live with? “I’m fairly stoic, but also hysterical,” she says. “So I stamp my feet and cry, but I keep going. I’m self-obsessed too, I’m only really interested in me.”
Painting keeps her calm. “I was painting every day in the first lockdown but it became a full-time job and I wasn’t get paid for it. I still paint, but once a week.”
Jenny already has her heart set on a celebrity version of Drawers Off starring her hit-list of big names including “Noel Fielding, Anneka Rice, Vic Reeves, lovely Joe Pasquale and Ronnie Wood”.
The first series is, ahem, stripped across March. “The standard is mixed,” she says. “And the experience is mixed. But everyone learned something.
“I think people will like it. It’s warm and it’s fun. It’ll cheer you up.”
Drawers Off begins tomorrow at 5.30pm on Channel 4; running Monday – Friday, for four weeks.
Tickets for Jenny’s new stand-up tour Sixty! (FFS!) are available from jennyclair.com
Older & Wider (Quercus) is out now in paperback.