'She thinks she’s in with a chance. It’s tragic and embarrassing' | Brenda Blethyn on playing a club comic © Warner Bros. Entertainment

'She thinks she’s in with a chance. It’s tragic and embarrassing'

Brenda Blethyn on playing a club comic

Comedians always get a raw deal when portrayed in fiction, with that tragic tears-of-a-clown image proving just too irresistible to dramatists.

The latest addition to the list is Jean Dwight, a canteen worker by day, aging star of the fading cabaret circuit by night – and even though she’s not all that miserable by screen standards, she is still something of a monster.

This housewife would-be superstar the focus of the new film Clubland, which is about the crisis she suffers when the son she abandoned her promising career to bring up starts living his own life out of her dominant shadow. That sense of loss, plus the dawning realisation she will never be a star, brings out the manipulative, bullying worst in her.

In one telling scene, Jean drags her reluctant son Tim on to stage for some humiliating audience participation, to the dismay of his embarrassed girlfriend. But what is a spiteful show of aggressive dominance is also seen as the actions of a scared, if over-possessive, mother.

This the sort of complex, mature role at which Brenda Blethyn excels, making more of the character than an intimidating, spotlight-hogging battleaxe. In fact, she has a remarkable sympathy for this overbearing creation.

‘She doesn’t think she’s flawed,’ Blethyn insists – even though the audience might see it differently, as she aims the barbed, nasty put-downs that usually puts hecklers in their place at her son’s new girlfriend, Jill.

‘I suppose she’s a bit controlling. She uses some of that caustic wit on Jill when she meets her – and she thinks she has reason. But she’s a good mother and her sons like her,’ she insists, adding that they quite revel in their mother’s often outrageous behaviour.

The film has several strands: the mother facing up to this major change in her life; the son awkwardly moving into manhood with his first sexual relationship; and a portrayal of the life of a down-at-heel cabaret club comic.

‘Jean thinks she might still have it,’ Blethyn explains. ‘Twenty-five years earlier, she was going great guns, she was doing really well, she was on all the top shows in Britain, about to make it big in television but her heart won over her head and she fell in love and went to Australia.

‘Now her children have grown up she wants to get her career back on track, but comedy’s moved on, and she hasn’t. But she’s still trying.’

The film is set in Australia, in the RSL clubs where old-school entertainment and vast banks of slot machines compete for the attention of the aging customers. It’s reminiscent of a Northern working men’s club, with thin veneer of fading Las Vegas glitz.

Blethyn admits: ‘There’s this image of variety of being a bit tacky. But it’s not, it’s just that the conditions for it are not good.

‘I think variety should come back. I loved variety. There’s something rather wonderful; there’s a vulnerability to it. There’s also a particular expertise that you don’t see any more. The performers are generally excellent. Even if you’re squashed into one dressing room, it’s not to say the ventriloquist isn’t marvellous or that the dancers aren’t spectacular or that Jean Dwyer’s not bad.

‘She’s got an appreciative audience with those elderly people who would have recognised that humour 25 years ago. In that setting she’s all right. It’s when she tries to get in on the younger circuit that she has her humiliation. She thinks she’s in with a chance. It’s tragic and embarrassing – and I just love that embarrassment of it.’

Blethyn visited both an RSL (an ex-service personnel club – it stands for Returned and Services League) and a modern comedy club in Sydney as part of her research for the role – and it’s obvious which she preferred being at.

‘At the RSL, there were some great acts; an extraordinary puppeteer, lots of singers… The compere was in a powder blue velvet suit and he must have been 80 if he was a day. It was heart-warming, actually. They had visiting acts, too. Max Bygraves had just been there and Gerry and the Pacemakers were on another night.

‘Then we went to another place, a younger club, and there was bloke on there, a comic, who was for about half an hour and did not get one single laugh. He didn’t seem at all perturbed by it, mind, he just carried on as if he was going down great guns. And I though Jean Dwight, actually, would get a better reaction with her terrible jokes.’

That Clubland is so sympathetic to the older circuit is perhaps no surprise, as writer Keith Thompson was the son of such a performer. ‘When I was a kid my mother had a dance band in England,’ he says. ‘I used to sit at the side of the piano when she was performing and so I was always around clubs. The working class milieu in those clubs is both interesting and powerful

‘Plus I really love writing about women’s humour. Guys get so many opportunities to be funny, but what makes me laugh is the way women relate to each other with their humour. It’s a kind of domestic humour; they were doing observational comedy 30 years before it became popular with Seinfeld and people like that.’

Recording her club scenes as Jean was rather a surreal experience for Blethyn. After running through her set once in front of the crowd of extras ‘so I knew what sort of reaction I would get - and, fortunately, they fell about laughing’, the scenes were then shot twice. Once when the audience were told not to laugh at all. Secondly with the audience laughing, but at nothing. ‘Otherwise you get the two soundtracks mixed up,’ Blethyn explained. ‘When the camera was on the audience, I had to be quiet, so I had to do it in mime, just acting out what I did to remind them of the act. Very strange.’

Did this stand-up performance (Click here to see a brief clip of it) give Blethyn a taste for being a comic? ‘I’d like to give it a try,’ she says, ‘But I’d need a real good writer. I’d like to have a go with some good material.

‘I take my hat of to all those stand-up comics we know and love; it’s quite hard. I’m such a fan of people like Jo Brand who’s just a naturally funny woman and seems so totally at ease and is wonderfully irreverent.’

In fact, if you stay in the cinema long enough for the lower reaches the credits, you’ll see somewhere between ‘brushhand’ and ‘unit nurse’ the acknowledgement: ‘Additional stand-up comedy material: Jo Brand’.

‘She advised us on the film,’ Blethyn confirms. ‘Just all those things about how to approach the audience and how you shouldn’t look scared even if you are, otherwise they’ll feel ill at ease.’

The tips seem to have worked. During filming one extra was insistent that they had seen Blethlyn performing her stand-up routine at a club in Melbourne. ‘You can’t have done,’ the actress explained, ‘As I’m not actually a stand-up.

‘Ooh, don’t put yourself down, love,’ came the supportive reply.

  • Clubland opens across the UK tomorrow. Click here to watch the trailer.

Interview by: Steve Bennett

Published: 20 Sep 2007

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