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Whenever we meet someone new, we ask two stock questions in order to identify them:
1. What’s your name?
2. What do you do?
If you ever meet me, particularly after a few glasses of wine, let me apologise in advance for the rather long-winded response that may greet you: “I am a comedian, writer, director, producer, casting director, designer, editor, presenter, teacher, entrepreneur, advertiser, publicist…” The list goes on. Don’t believe me? You should see the number of email accounts I possess, and indeed, the number of passwords I don’t. But for simplicity’s sake, just call me a modern-day polymath, and prepare to quake at the mime I attempt for that!
But wait, don’t stop reading yet. Let me assure you, I don’t have an ego quite the same size as that list; I don’t take on all these jobs simply because I want to, but simply because I have to in order to get the job I want. In a day an age where the division of labour entitles the modern man to a far shorter job title, the same can’t be said for the entertainment business – unless, of course, you somehow landed right in the honey pot.
I came upon this industry as a young twenty-something. I had neither financial security nor family connections, but I was determined to navigate the unchartered and haphazard sea of showbiz, even if it meant doing it blindly because of the lack of rules or structure to entry. I thought, I’m the girl who got into Cambridge five times.(*) Surely I can crack this.
I barged into agents’ offices, offering appalling amounts of gifts in the hope of being remembered – a crate of clementines being my greatest offering. Still, the only agent I managed to charm was an 80-year-old who couldn’t even work a phone (which, on hindsight, couldn’t have done anything for my street cred). I was taken in by her copious collection of signed pictures of Judy Garland, only to discover that she was simply an avid fan of the American star and had never actually represented her.
I called in favours when and where I could, cobbled together show reels, photo portfolios and CVs. I produced my own showcase evenings, commissioned writer friends to create scripts with me as the star, and developed a phantom email persona who would stay up till midnight mass emailing casting directors.
And I pretended.
I talked my way into Spotlight, the search engine for professional actors, assuring them that my role as an extra in the 2005 Virgin holiday commercial was far more central than it might first be perceived.
I pretended I lived in Bristol to get my first paid job, and although I nearly jeopardised my first performance (thanks to a delayed train), I managed to maintain the pretense throughout. The directors never knew better.
Still, I was impatient. I wanted success immediately. There was one behemoth I had yet to conquer: Edinburgh Festival, the world’s largest arts festival.
In 2006, I found a willing comedy partner and set about writing a show for us. After numerous rewrites, I produced a sketch called “Magpie”, a title which had nothing to do with what it was about, or meant to be about: “seven lost lives, unravelling on one park bench.” It was a show, I am now proud to say, that absolutely lacked any structure, coherence or narrative – a tautological, poorly written first-timer’s attempt at being funny.
During the four-week festival, my co-star and I were either politely ignored by the critics, or completely panned. The Stage judged the material “weak” but said that I was “a confident, talented and quirky comedian, who could sideline as a Britney Spears lookalike.” While my peers made waves on the comedy circuit (Simon Bird and Joe Thomas were cast in The Inbetweeners off their show, “The Meeting”), I was faced with a lonely audience of four. Still, I buried my pride and braved the Royal Mile with a bountiful supply of flyers, kept going by my father’s dedicated texting service of daily inspirational quotes. One of them said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Then with the words of Thomas Edison ringing in my head, and much to my co-star’s disgust, I threw away the script I had written and started improvising, determined to make the audience laugh. Not surprisingly, our partnership didn’t last. I returned to London, financially far lighter than even Buddha would advise, but also more certain that this was what I wanted to do.
Interestingly, even though my show was, for all intents and purposes, a total box office flop, my peers began to respond to me differently, asking me for favours and even advice!
Someone asked me to fill in for a voiceover opposite Kevin Eldon, the British comedian and star of Brass Eye, and he being a lovely lad, told me to write to his agents, Earache. Luckily, they were looking for a voice like mine and I was signed immediately.
Then there was the friend who left me a frantic, scratchy voicemail, asking me to help out with her “pass the parcel” event at the V&A. Because I never say no to anything, I turned up, anticipating a child’s birthday party. Instead, I was faced with over 500 trendily dressed adults fully expecting a hilarious stand-up to host a giant take on the childhood game. I downed a pack of Haribo (which I’d brought with me as an incentive for five-year-olds) and pretended again that I knew what I was doing. Maybe when you pretend enough, it becomes real.
It all snowballed from there. Suddenly, I was Clementine wade, the “comedy presenter”, a “compère”.
Yes, I tell my share of white lies along the way to curry more work, and the most audacious of them – that I worked for BBC Online (don’t sue me!) – allowed me to roam freely backstage at the 2011 Comedy Awards interviewing A-list celebs. At the same time, there comes a point when you have to stop and just be yourself. I spent far too long looking up to other comedians and trying to be like them, but in my meandering career I’ve learnt that to get anywhere, you have to stick your head above the parapet, create your own work, in your own voice, on the issues that matter to you. The best actors and comedians aren’t the ones who can do the best accents impersonating someone else; they are the ones who can perform and communicate uniquely as themselves.
As Oscar Wilde says, “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” Even though my first attempt at Edinburgh didn’t bring about critical acclaim, it did put me on the map. I’m not sure where exactly, but somewhere!
Well, I started at Homerton College, reading English and Drama alongside Education Studies. Still, I was aware that Homerton wasn’t one of the “classical” colleges (it used to be a teacher training college), and so with the hubris of youth, I deemed it unworthy of my intellectual prowess – I had, after all, just been awarded the highest grade in Sociology in the country. I went undercover, writing, petitioning and begging the admission secretaries to secretly slip me into the new round of Cambridge college interviews. Within a week, I had lined up eleven interviews, and to my delight, received five offers. Of course, my trick was soon discovered and I was left only with Corpus Christi applauding my efforts: they’d kindly decided to regard my actions as “entrepreneurial”. Pembroke just thought it was “disgracefully irreverent” of me.