David Nicholls at Bath Literature Festival



Speaking at this week’s Bath Literature Festival, David Nicholls gave an interesting response to a cheeky question about chick lit, commercial vs literary writing and whether some women novelists miss out on critical acclaim. Here’s the transcript of that part of the conversation:


Me: I want to ask you a slightly mean question. It’s a question about your work which really has nothing to do with you. But I’m very interested to know your views on it. And it’s this: There are a lot of women novelists who feel very overlooked and would love to have your success and who think that if you were “Davina Nicholls” you would not have had the success that you’ve had. 


[Awkward pause.]


So I’m not sure how you’re supposed to answer that. But I wonder… Seeing that Us was Booker-longlisted and I was very sorry that it didn’t make the Booker shortlist and I felt strongly that it should have done… There are a lot of women writers who would say that there is no way that if a love story like that had been written by a woman that it would be on the Booker longlist. And it would be called chick lit.


DAVID NICHOLLS: I’m torn. The first thing to say is to say that Karen Joy Fowler was shortlisted for the Booker and that is a family drama. But at the same time I don’t want to disagree that there’s a kind of snobbery about books that are about love and relationships and family. I mean, I think that is absolutely the case. I think there are exceptions like Anne Tyler who writes about family relationships and is absolutely critically acclaimed. And AM Homes or Lorrie Moore. They are all writing books that are about relationships and family…


Me: They are all American…


DN: Yes, that’s true. I suppose the distinction is between literary and popular and where you fall on that scale. I suppose the reason… I mean, I haven’t dodged this issue… But I’m perhaps not the best person to answer this because I’m not the best judge of where I fall on that scale. And I think it’s very unhealthy for writers to try and place themselves on that scale. 


I certainly think there are a lot of great authors. I mean, the writing of Marian Keyes… If you read the books — which I have — they’re absolutely tough. About mental illness and depression and drug abuse. Or someone like Jojo Moyes — a brilliant writer and books that are discreetly but absolutely political. So I would be inclined to agree [that women are overlooked]. 


But for me this gets difficult. Because I have read articles that seem to say that I am fantastically over-rated. [Extensive audience laughter]. Which might be true. But it’s not necessarily something that I want to be told. [More laughter.] 


I just want to say that, yes, they have a point [that women can be overlooked].


Me: I think that’s a very sensible answer.


DN: I don’t think I have answered it. But I wanted to try and answer it because I think there’s a lot to be said. But it involves classifying and rating myself in a way that would be ridiculous.


Me: It’s not your fight.


DN: No. But a lot of the writers we’re talking about are friends of mine so I’m trying to be bold. 


More on this exchange here.





Christmas Shows and 2015



 Now booking for next year: Leicester Comedy Festival (left) — my new show Say Sorry to the Lady — Sunday Feb 15: 

Meanwhile… Just a few shows left to go before Christmas… I’m at Scotch Egg impro with People People on Wed 10 Dec at The Alma in Stoke Newington. On Sun 14 Dec see People People at City Impro at The Water Poet at 5.30pm and at the Free Association at The De Beauvoir Arms in N1 from 8pm. 

The last Dead Parrot Society is on Fri Dec 19 at The Anglers in Teddington from 8pm with a fantastic bill, including Joe Jacobs. He was just in the finals of JW3’s Jewish Comedian of the Year which I was judging last weekend and I like him a lot. 


Edinburgh 2014


Aaaaargh. 33 shows in 12 days. Highlights: Hanging out in the Green Room at the BBC with Arlene Phillips and Pamela Stephenson ahead of Radio 4’s Front Row. MCing for Zoe Lyons (below), Mrs Barbara Nice and a host of amazing acts at Mary Bourke’s brilliant group show Funny for a Grrrl at Stand in the Square. MCing in a packed 300-seater Spiegeltent (below) at the Book Festival. (Everyone flooded straight out of George R R Martin into our show.) Doing battle with the Tattoo every night in Freestival’s Cowgatehead during my show I Laughed, I Cried: about 15 minutes of it was dominated by the deafening sound of fireworks. (Weapons for fightback, dispersed to audience: balloons, party poppers and Hobnobs.) Loved North Berwick on my day off (below). And became obsessed with the moo yang (sticky pork) at Ting Thai Caravan (Teviot Place). 


Latitude 2014



Not the best kind of Festival person (see Glastonbury 2013, where I wore a white (soon-to-be-brown-with-mud) chiffon dress). But I loved the pink Suffolk skies above Latitude. Busy, packed 200-seater Lit Tent for I Laughed, I Cried (reading from the book and bits from the show) on the Sunday night. Even if most people were lying on the floor asleep. Feared mass exodus halfway through as The Black Keys were playing at the same time. But this didn’t happen. Had to hastily rewrite a whole section in my head as I realised there was a seven-year-old sitting in the front row and I was just about to reference the word “orgasm”.


Time to Talk at Rose Theatre: Brian Blessed



After Jennifer Saunders and Brian Cox, this season’s Time to Talk sessions at the Rose Theatre, Kingston – where I’m the new host – closed with… BRIAN BLESSED, a man whose name must always be rendered in capital letters. And who, it turns out, frequently refers to himself in the third person. (“BRIAN WILL NEVER DIE.”)

Apart from declaring himself, aged seventy seven, to be immortal, BRIAN BLESSED spoke at length (and it truly was at length) about qualifying for the mission to Mars (including 800 hours of training, some of it at the Space Station in Moscow), attempting to climb Everest three times, his great love for his father and his Yorkshire roots and his career highlights, which included PETER O’TOOLE, PATRICK STEWART and RICHARD BURTON. 

Like Brian Cox, he mentioned his irritation with Jamaica Inn (the BBC drama which drew hundreds of complaints for its “mumbling”). “It’s not that they don’t have the talent. It’s the diction,” he boomed. I can honestly report that there were no issues with hearing BRIAN BLESSED LOUD AND CLEAR.


Brian Cox = dude: official


Brian Cox in Shetland (with Douglas Henshall). 

Brian Cox (the actor not the physicist — I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again…) was on great form at tonight’s Time to Talk at the Rose Theatre Kingston. Favourite audience question: “Brian, I really enjoyed your performance in BBC 1 crime drama Shetland. But I couldn’t understand a word of it. Please explain why – with reference to Jamaica Inn.” (This is a reference to this week’s debacle about the poor audio quality of BBC 1’s Jamaica Inn, which has had hundreds of complaints about mumbling.)

He had a lot of say about this. There was a “sloppiness to Jamaica Inn, in the structure of the scenes” and “the actors were indistinct.” He seemed quite grumpy about this. In defence of both Jamaica Inn and Shetland, however, he said that he wished the BBC would subtitle programmes so that the dialogue can be authentic: “Look at all these Danish series. Everyone goes cockahoop for these people and their sweaters. Why not use subtitles?” He went on to say that when he was filming Shetland, he tried to get the accent as authentic as possible and would say “aks” instead of “ask” and “shaysed” instead of “chased” — because that is accurate — but the BBC made him change it because it wasn’t clear enough.

This was all fascinating. But most of all I loved what he had to say about his idols Spencer Tracy and Marlon Brando: that they were both utterly brilliant but destroyed by the fact that they didn’t really understand that the business of acting was not about ego — it’s about empathy.

Other best bits: describing being on set with Brad Pitt on Troy and realising that Brad had asked for an afternoon off after long scenes with him (Brian) and Peter O’Toole, implying that Brad was kind of out of his depth… “He is from Ohio,” explained Cox. (He is actually from Oklahoma. But we get Brian’s drift.)

He also talked at length about Hannibal Lector and Manhunter – the role that drew the most questions on Twitter when I was prepping – and how he based his psychopathic performance on the teenage mannerisms of his son, Alan (also now an actor), who was educated at St Paul’s: “Because when I was trying to get the character, the director said to me, ‘Do you know anyone at public school?’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t.’ But then, I thought, oh yes, I do. My son.” He seemed very pleased to know that people care enough about him to ask questions on Twitter. 

Next up on Time to Talk next Friday: BRIAN BLESSED. I don’t think anyone will need subtitles for him. Earplugs maybe.


Previous page, pic credit: Helen Warner for Donmar Warehouse: The Weir



Brian Cox at Rose Theatre, Kingston



Having just seen him in The Weir — currently in its last few days of a sold-out run at Wyndhams, having transferred from the Donmar — I am a bit in love with the Shakespearean legend Brian Cox. Note: “the Shakespearean legend Brian Cox” and not “the swoonsome physicist Brian Cox.”

I am talking about this man:

Rather than this man:


I have nothing against the latter, scientific Brian Cox. Indeed, I hope he may one day join us for the “in Conversation With…” series Time to Talk at the Rose Theatre Kingston. But this time — on Friday April 25 at 5.30pm it is the turn of the thespian, non-scientific Brian Cox to talk. 

I will be asking him what it has been like to go from King Lear to X-Men. How he managed to appear drunk for the best part of three hours in The Weir. And how he feels about being mistaken for the former keyboard player of 1980s “Things Can Only Get Better” pop sensation D:Ream. And other more intelligent things.

Click here for tickets.


Time to Talk: Jennifer Saunders



My first outing as the new host of Time to Talk, the “In Conversation With…” series at the Rose Theatre, Kingston. (Next up: Shakespearean legend (and not physicist) Brian Cox on April 25. And Brian Blessed on May 2.) First victim was Jennifer Saunders, talking about everything I could make her talk about (which genuinely was pretty much everything) and about her best-selling memoir Bonkers. Waterstone’s had a high old time as the (new) paperback was folded into the ticket price and we had an audience of over 600.



High points: Saunders saying that she wanted to present Top Gear: “Move over, Clarkson.” Admitting that she had turned down Strictly Come Dancing but would not mind appearing on Great British Bake-Off. (“I also love the Sewing Bee.”) She talked a lot about the anxiety she has around writing, which has prevented her from tackling the long-overdue script of the movie of Absolutely Fabulous: she’s been seeing a hypnotherapist for procrastination. (“I put off going to him for three months.”)



Low point: Part of the show was a series of slides depicting Saunders’ childhood and career. I was in charge of clicking through them. As we reached the end of our time, I said, “Let’s look at some of your career highlights…” and clicked onto a picture depicting her chemotherapy. Jennifer Saunders laughed. No-one else did.



Thanks to Woman and Home for their shout-out here. Which resulted in this attractive selfie:






Backstage at #bathlitfest


Last word on Bath goes to Red magazine who ran this diary — complete with tales of Hanif Kureishi’s black tea, my 17 pairs of support tights and having to storm the stage while Germaine Greer was in full flow.



The solo show of I Laughed, I Cried which fell between interviewing Dr Rowan Williams (former Archbishop of Canterbury) about Tolstoy – and MCing our Great Big Comedy Night with Mark Watson, Ellie Taylor, Rachel Parris, Bethan Roberts and Mary Bourke.



With Sarah Bailey, editor of Red magazine, who hosted  a literary cocktail party by torchlight at the Roman Baths.



An audience of over 1,000 at The Forum for Jennifer Saunders.


Independent Bath Literature Festival



This diary write-up in the Independent tells you everything you need to know: “memorable… buzzy… a kind of bliss..”

It’s all over! My first year as Artistic Director of the Independent Bath Literature Festival (150+ events, 200+ authors, 10 days, 20,000 audience) has been so enjoyable. This year’s highlights: Jennifer Saunders, Alastair Campbell, Germaine Greer, former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, Lionel Shriver, Hanif Kureishi… We’ve had coverage in the Independent (up to 7 stories a day), the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, Times Higher Education supplement, Huffington Post, Evening Standard, Red magazine and BBC Radio 2 (Claudia Winkleman’s show). Our Hanif Kureishi story made the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 and was reported in El Pais, the Irish Times and The Times Live in South Africa. News of Jennifer Saunder’s revelation about using hypnotherapy to write the screenplay for the Ab Fab movie reached the New Zealand Herald.

So many highlights and high points: Jessica Fellowes’ fantastically intimate glimpse into the world of Downton Abbey (the creation of her uncle Julian); twin lectures on Jane Austen by Joanna Trollope and Val McDermid; extraordinary “Bliss Lecture” contributions from Frieda Hughes (who talked about the burden of her family legacy), Olivia Laing (who talked about the pain of writers dealing with alcoholism) and Philip Hensher (who talked about the pain of loving Wagner). 

And I particularly enjoyed being described as “sparky” in John Walsh’s column.  



Pics by Julian Foxon and Matt Crockett.

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