Divorce, desire, diets, desperation - Helen tackles all in debut novel

Comic writer and actress Helen Lederer
Comic writer and actress Helen Lederer

She joined the hilarity on Absolutely Fabulous, blazed a trail in the 1980s male-dominated world of stand-up and is now promoting her debut novel. JOANNE SAVAGE chats to comic, actress and writer Helen Lederer ahead of her appearance at the Belfast Book Festival

Helen Lederer, best known for her role as dippy Catriona in Absolutely Fabulous, as well as creating the Girl at the Bar in Naked Video, has published her debut comedy novel Losing It, a witty Bridget Jones-esque tale of middle-aged, post-divorce, calorie-battling desperation.

But, talking to the News Letter, she begins by laughing about the various mad moments she has enjoyed in a showbusiness career that has taken her from Ab Fab to stand-up and finally to Splash! in 2013, that quite questionable celeb reality show about diving which involved Helen publicly parading in a swimsuit - something every woman who is not Kate Moss must - according to some apparently unalterable laws of the feminine psyche - fret about.

“There I was doing this mad dive on Splash!,” she laughs, “I still have to grin and bear that one because it’s still there on YouTube and there I am, very middle-aged and very large, diving off a massive diving board. Nevermind 28 years of work in the entertainment business, those three minutes of embarrassing diving seemed to have been the key to momentary notoreity at least. Look what three minutes of bad dive work can do!”

Helen was voted off in the first round.

But Lederer has done so much more than fling herself from a great height into chlorine-filled waters, of course, first starting to gig in the stand-up scene in the 1980s when it was even more male dominated than it is today. A talented comedy writer, a fearless performer and always excellent in her Ab Fab appearances as Joanna Lumley’s dippy journalist mate.

The inside word, by the way, is that Saunders has been putting feelers out to check Helen’s availability for a new series.

“I can only deduce that there is something of a green light about us going ahead and it would indeed be such fun for us to reprise our roles, only now we’re all so much older, and there’ll probably be some botox involved.”

Obviously a writer’s biography can often be a huge inspiration for their fiction - the best and most authentic narratives arguably stem from first-hand experience - and Lederer, now a very sprightly 60 with incredibly intense azure-blue eyes, tackles many themes in her debut that speak to the middle-age female struggling to ‘have it all’.

“Losing It is a comedy novel in which the protagonist is in debt, divorced and desperate. She is told she will be given £20,000 if she can lose weight using this herbal diet pill in three months.

“This did happen to me in real life,” confides Lederer. “I was under all this pressure to lose the weight in such a crazy amount of time and it was just a crazy situation.

“When you get to a certain age as I have you are constantly meeting women who are struggling with their weight, in debt, divorced and wanting to find love again.

“Everything in this book, I have done. Weight, debt, divorce, desire, lack of desire, the desire to have desire - these are themes I think most women of my age can relate to.”

Rather than being accused of veering into well-worn Bridget Jones territory, Lederer feels she is rather justified in claiming to have brought the figure of the beleaguered female with “half a brain, talking about the trials of being single and possessing a working filofax” to the cultural consciousness.

“I think I did that way before Bridget Jones came along,” she affirms.

“I adore Helen Fielding’s work but I was doing those kind of monologues for ages before that.”

When Lederer started out gigging she found herself having to blaze a trail in a very much male-dominated comedy world (and even today, the male to female ratio is disappointingly imbalanced in the comedy world).

“It was a bit solitary in those days,” she recalls. “I was a solo act then and there I was driving myself from gig to gig up and down the country. I just had this war mentality of ‘I’m just going to do this’ and didn’t think too self-consciously about it.

“Now when I look back I do wonder how on earth I could have humiliated myself in all these various pubs without ever feeling too fazed by it.”

Surely incredible mettle, wit and self-confidence were involved?

“Not really,” she assures me. “I just thought I would crack on with it and it all kind of landed in a funny old way.

“I never really stopped with stand-up, except for a while when I got my own radio show which I think was called In One Ear. Stand-up can be brilliant but there’s a lot of misery and solitude to that kind of 
lifestyle as well.”

Lederer was struggling in middle-aged singledom, looking after her daughter Hannah following the end of her first marriage, when she turned up at a party one evening to meet her now husband Chris, a handsome and affable GP who swept her off her feet just when she was beginning to lose faith in love altogether.

“Yes,” she gushes. “A friend of ours wrote in the acknowledgements part of her book: ‘Thank-you Helen and Chris for restoring our faith in love.’

“So the novel is optimistic too, but as you might guess, the heroine does once again open the fridge and start eating. All comedians are full of despair, mostly, but I like to keep hope in there, because good things can and do happen and it’s never all bad!

“I think it’s important not to put a despairing message out there.”

Helen Lederer will be at the Courtyard Theatre, Newtownabbey on June 12 (call 02890 340202) and at the Crescent Arts Centre as part of the Belfast Book Festival on June 13 (call 0290 242338 or visit www.belfastbookfestival.com/.)