Article by Maggy Whitehouse
Maggy regularly responds to posts on the Fab after Fifty page, but was her post in response to a discussion about new careers over 50 that piqued everyones interest. Maggy became a stand up comic, taking to the stage at the age of 56. Here Maggy shares her story
I’m an independent Catholic priest – which means I’m ordained into an aspect of the Church which isn’t recognised by Anglicans or Roman Catholics. We work mostly with folk who have been hurt by traditional religion.
Apart from that, I’m a 59-year-old writer who lives on Dartmoor in Devon with my much-loved third husband, Lion and two beagles. My first husband died and I haven’t worked out what to do with the second one yet… Henry died a year after our wedding in 1990 and the hospital chaplain told me that, as an atheist, he couldn’t go to heaven. That made me throw my Armchair Christianity out of the window and I went headlong into the New Age and then married a Jewish guy who was also at the end of his religious rope. We studied Judaic mysticism together which really turned my life around – Christianity does tend to forget that Jesus was a Jew.
Damn … you asked for a quick intro… Er. I’m a former BBC radio presenter and journalist. Last ever shift was at the BBC World Service on the night of 9/11 which was a fairly emphatic night to bow out of broadcasting. I was also a producer on the fabled Pebble Mill at One and I’m starting work again as a part-time presenter for BBC Radio Devon in February 2016.
And I’ve written 17 books – factual and fiction – about the Bible, spirituality and money and Judaic mysticism.
What led you to take up a career as a stand up comedienne in your 50s?
People kept telling me I was funny when I was teaching or speaking and sometimes even said, ‘have you ever thought of doing stand-up?’ That seemed ridiculous to me — being amusing during a talk is one thing but stand-up is a very different kettle of fish — but when three people in one week suggested it, I realised I had to look into the idea. In my line of business, three in a row means that God is trying to get your attention and if you ignore the third hint, the next is likely to have a brick attached to it.
Had you ever done anything similar before?
I’d done live TV and radio presentation which might seem to be similar (and is certainly scary) but that’s speaking to one person in a studio. ‘In my day’ (as old farts like me often say) broadcasting wasn’t as open or light-hearted as it is now. I got an official warning at the Beeb for accidentally saying ‘I’m wared shitless’ instead of ‘I’m scared witless’ live on air. Nowadays people would laugh at something like that.
I’ve done loads of talks on my books and certainly made them amusing but comedy means you have to get a laugh-a-minute so that was a brand new concept.
What skills could you bring to your work in comedy from previous roles?
The ability to deal with hecklers! As a would-be mystic and heretic I often challenge people’s views so at talks and workshops there can be people who speak out. I’ve learnt to deal with them with good humour and sympathy but not let to go of the point. And, of course, I can damn a heckler to hell if they are really obstreperous! J
Doing live radio means that you have to learn to think on your feet and deal with the unexpected. But that’s child’s play compared with doing funerals. There is nothing scarier than doing funerals because they have to be exactly right for the family and that can be a nightmare in world of ex-partners and step-families. No one, after a comedy, gig is going to come up to you in tears and tell you that you’ve ruined their day because you got their mother’s name wrong or you forgot to mention them in the eulogy. No one at a comedy gig is going to dive into the grave sobbing (yes that does occasionally happen); no one at a comedy gig is going to set fire to the crematorium curtains with a tea light; no one at a comedy gig (so far) is actually dead.
How did you get started in comedy?
When the three people in one week suggested it, I went on the Internet to see if such a thing as a comedy course existed. It turned out that there was one half a mile from where I lived, starting the very next week for just £50 so I was out of excuses.
When I turned up, I was the oldest by at least 35 years. One bright spark of about 20 said, ‘what are you doing here. You’re, like, old.’ She added thoughtfully, ‘I don’t like old people.’
I suggested she might change her view in about 40 years’ time and everyone else laughed. So I didn’t feel quite such a prat after that.
To my great surprise, I did really well on the course, but comedy truly is the reverse face of tragedy and I had half a century of mistakes and failures to draw on whereas the others had barely started falling flat on their faces.
How did you feel during your first performance?
Before the performance, it was agony. Sheer terror. But, oddly, there’s something about walking out onto a stage in front of a hundred people who want to be entertained and who believe that you can make them laugh that is very energising. Apart from the ever-present ‘can I remember the next bit?’ it was delightful. And it remains so. Except for the nights when you die on stage, of course, which are hell but those happen to everyone. It’s part of the learning curve.
What have been the highlights?
Appearing on Britain’s Got Talent in 2014 was both a highlight and a lowlight. It was such fun to do. A comedy agent who knows me was asked to scout for comedians for them and he sent in 90 tapes and they picked ten, including mine, so I was through the first round automatically and on to the TV shows.
On the night, the producers made a suggestion for a change of opening joke. Foolishly I agreed and it didn’t work … and I wasn’t experienced enough back then to get the audience back on board in just two minutes. That was tough and I even got booed. I have no idea how it would have gone if I’d stuck to my original set but I didn’t get through (which was probably a mercy really, anyway). But … but … but Simon Cowell said yes!
I had a fabulous summer in 2014, doing a one-hour one-woman show for the whole run at the Edinburgh Fringe. It was called The Maggy Whitehouse Experience as an homage to The Mary Whitehouse Experience and compared my life as a minister to my years of being asked if I was any relation to the original Mary Whitehouse who, in my youth, was thought to be pretty much what most people think God is, nowadays: out of touch, judgemental and a total spoil-sport.
But the best gig ever, so far, was being a finalist in the 2015 UK Funny Women Awards last September. That’s a really prestigious competition with a fantastic final in London with people like BBC Radio and Channel 4 heads of comedy as the judges. It was particularly wonderful because I’d had to take nine months out from everything as I had been ill and had to have chemo and the Funny Women first heat, in London, was only my second gig back on the circuit. It was fabulous to get all the way through to the final – where I was at least twice as old as all the other contestants and felt like everyone’s grandmother, but in a good way.
What have been the biggest obstacles?
Christians! Orthodox Christians generally don’t like me much; I kneecap too many sacred cows for them. Mind you, they generally only actually complain if I swear. But there have been some stony faces in one or two rows which can be rather disconcerting and a few objections to the promoter. Atheists too are often a bit suspicious about having the mickey taken out of them but usually they come round.
All the long-distance travel and the fact that you’re expected to ‘pay your dues’ as in doing the circuit for at least two years without pay are daunting as you can end up exhausted and broke. I pace myself very carefully and I usually gig about two or three times a month. But there have been weeks when I’ve taken a train to London from Devon, done a ten minute gig and had to stay over with a friend because there’s no late train back to Exeter — and then gone back to the Smoke again for another ten-minute gig four days later. I’m lucky that I’ve got mates in London with sofa beds! And I suppose it’s not much more expensive a hobby than something like golf…
Fortunately, I’ve now turned professional and although the pay can be haphazard, it is, at least, giving my accountant something to work with instead of sighing over.
And dying on stage hurts; it really does and if it happens a couple of times in a row, I can and do think ‘why am I doing this? I’m rubbish.’ Usually it’s my fault not the audience’s; my timing was out, my new material wasn’t honed enough or I really shouldn’t have taken that gig because it wasn’t one that would suit my brand of comedy. If the audience is drunk, for example, I’m often going to hit a problem as I need them to be on their toes to get a lot of my references. Most comedians can swing into a sweary/sex routine if the audience is several beverages over its best but I can’t do that with my act – I tried it just once as an experiment and it was a disaster. So I will pick gigs where I’m an Opener rather than a Closer. And I thank God for the Sarah Millican 11am Rule which means you can only wince over a failed night (or congratulate yourself on a wild success) until 11 o’clock the following morning. Then you have to put it down and move on.
How do your friends and family feel about what you’re doing now?
My rather traditional family had barely recovered from my ordination into an heretical church (even though that’s nine years ago now) so they were very politely and sceptically reserved about it. However, they’ve come round. The most terrifying thing was showing my regular church-going mother my debut on YouTube. I had to leave the room. But then I heard her laughing out loud and I knew it was okay. My brother actually sent me a ‘We are proud of you’ card when I got to the Funny Women finals and I was dead chuffed.
My husband, Lion, was and is truly supportive. He always thought I was a good broadcaster and public speaker so, to him, it was just a logical extension. He’s amazing. When I was recovering and starting to perform again he drove me to every gig so I wouldn’t be too tired. Even now, he’ll check if I’m okay to drive to any gig over an hour away and take me there if I want him to.
All my friends have been 100% behind me from day one, bless them. Lion and they are the ones who get to hear the new material first and they let me know if it works either by snorting with laughter or politely changing the subject.
The scariest person to tell was my Bishop. I thought he might be shocked and angry. But he was delighted and said it was about time I got paid for opening my big mouth! J He’s been one of my strongest supporters and always tells me that the angel of mirth stands closest to the Throne of God.
What advice or tips would you give to other women looking to follow their dream career?
They say ‘60 is the new 40’ and there’s a lot of truth in that. Fifty is the new 30. Age is no excuse for not following your dream nowadays. I’ve been seriously ill and I know that life can be short and painful and it is so important that we live every day as fully and happily as we can and that we plan a happy and fulfilling future. I worked as an hospice chaplain for a year and I heard so many people express ‘I wish I had…’ regrets what wrung my heart. I know that Yoda said, ‘there is only do or not do, there is no try.’ But I would suggest that the only real failure is not to try.
If you try and fail, you’ll still be a heroine to other women who never even gave stepping up a thought. I’ve been widowed, divorced, had a failed emigration where I lost all my money and my house and I ended up peeling potatoes in a pub to make the rent in a dismal basement. But every failure taught me something new and led to something better and now I have a fabulous life with a wonderful husband. You can have no idea how many women have said to me, ‘I wish I could have done what you’ve done.’ They could do it now and I know they would be happier for giving it a go.
What’s next for you?
Getting the right agent. I’ve got a history in broadcasting and I’m a successful author – and I’m the right age and gender for the BBC now they are looking for more older women. So I’ll admit to being unashamedly ambitious and I want to get on QI with the fabulous Sandi Toksvig and Have I Got News for You and on any other show that will have an heretical vicar funny woman who has given up taking prisoners.
To find out more about Maggy you can visit her website. Maggy will also be contributing her thoughts and anecdotes here at fab after Fifty on a regular basis….watch this space….!