Features

Charmian Hughes: Bra Trek Interview

Charmian Hughes is returning to the Edinburgh Fringe with a: “rallying cry to younger women especially, and all people of the world, to throw off the shackles imposed on us by cultural mis-messaging, find our role in life that is true to us, and a bra that fits.” Welcome to Bra Trek, directed by Jessica Fostekew, a new storytelling stand-up show about fitting in, standing out and becoming ourselves. The dynamic Charmian began performing comedy in 1987 and has played all kinds of venues from Glastonbury to the Houses of Parliament, our editor Kate Stone managed to catch up with Charmian to talk about her new show and why she is not to be confused with Miriam Margolyes… 

Kate Stone: Tell us about your show Bra Trek

Charmian Hughes: When I look at a photograph of me taken on my first ever day of primary school in 1961, I  look so much like my daughter, caught on her first day in 2001 – proudly framed and displayed on the mantelpiece – but there’s a shadow of a difference in our expressions. Hers is confident, eager, curious; mine is scared, anxious, slightly ashamed. We’ll have totally different experiences of school, and yet we seem to start from the same default.

It makes me wonder, what if success or failure is just dictated by the messages – true or false – we get about ourselves at an early age? Who actually teaches us to be us anyway, and are they even on our side?  You think you learn to be you from kind parents and wise teachers but I learnt from bitter nuns, school frenemies and an older sister who told me boys hated big bosoms. So, for me the search for the meaning of life and for the perfect bra will always be entwined.

Bra Trek is a trek through those mixed messages, from Cinderella to Sex, death and tortoises.

KS: Do you feel younger women, in particular, need a rallying cry to throw off ‘the shackles of cultural mis-messaging’? 

CH: We all need a mirror to get a sense of ourselves, psychologically, emotionally and physically, hopefully, these reflections are bounced back to us in honesty and love. Girls have always been vulnerable to having their self-esteem hijacked. Nowadays it’s twitter and social media. In my day it was my convent boarding school friend Anastasia (not her real name, as Antonia would be upset) telling me I had a huge nose and then compassionately finding me a boy penfriend who was prepared to overlook my affliction and exchange letters. I was so grateful. I poured out my heart and ‘other feelings’ to ‘Tom Courtney’ only for him to turn out to be Anastasia all along!

But why do they do that? Controlling friends, enemies, boyfriends, parents, Cinderella myths are all at it. The less you think of yourself, the more power they have over you. My message, eked from my paranoid war-survivor parents is ‘Trust no-one’ and ‘Always believe yourself!’

KS: In a previous show of yours (Soixante Mirth) you made contact with your younger self, do you think life is any different now for younger women? 

CH: Younger women have the benefit of years of feminism and they are surrounded by strong successful female role models in politics, rock music, science, and comedy! But the onslaught on their self-confidence is more insidious through the reach and potential anonymity of social media, and to Bulimia and Anorexia, you can add cosmetic surgery as the sanctuary of the vulnerable and self-blaming. It’s not just girls either; pornography is telling both girls and boys they are inadequate and ugly.

But luckily young people – and old people – nowadays have shows like Charmian Hughes: Bra Trek to lead them back onto the path of sanity!

KS: You were one of two women to make it to the Petworth Comedian of the Year Grand Final (congratulations), a review of the final focused more on your age than your performance. Why do you think this is? 

CH: I’m at that age when men are allowed to grow into a state of gravitas and grey foxy-tude, revered for their very individuality, more potent than ever (they like to think) with Churchillian/Gary Oldman inner statesmanship, or Clint Eastwood laconafunkability. But for women, it’s an age where we struggle for visibility.

I was thrilled to reach Petworth Comedian of the Year final but annoyed that my achievement was reduced by a reviewer to a random old lady novelty persona. This ‘old lady persona’ is the real middle-aged me and my material is about me, my real life, my real concerns, a 62-year-old Catholic, heterosexual stand-up comic child of a narcissistic family – not a 77 year old Jewish, lesbian actor Miriam Margolyes who he managed to pull out of his comparison bag after a bit of a rummage! A few years ago, the same reviewer described me as: “like Josie Long’s Mum”, you can’t help but feel that one is insulting two women at once without knowing anything about one of them. The trouble with stereotyping is you are not really hearing.  I’d like reviewers to put the pen down and actually listen. Not act like a driving test examiner, making notes before the joke is even finished, glasses a-glinting in row three, but enjoy the ride and analyse why, or why not, after.

KS: Who are your favourite funny women?

CH: Kit Hollerbach, who was a groundbreaker in women’s modern stand-up comedy in 1980’s London, together with Jenny Eclair and Jenny Lecoat. I remember her holding the reins of a rowdy bolting comedy store in its Leicester Square location, as scary football hooligans sang ‘here we go’ and she just stood there like an amazing cowgirl and said ‘You ain’t going nowhere’ and took control of the room. I wish there was some film of her. There must be! She was a founder of the comedy store players and I went to her classes every Saturday afternoon in the Old Store, the room still ashtray full from the night before. In those days comedy was rough, really rough and it took guts and skill to do your thing.

I love mesmerizing storyteller Sarah Kendall. Plus loads more including Jessica Fostekew who directed Bra Trek.

Charmian Hughes: Bra Trek is at Laughing Horse @ The Counting House at 15:35, 2nd – 26th (not 13th) August. For tickets click here!