Smack The Pony star recounts the hazards of a career in show biz
Doon Mackichan has had a long and varied career in show business. She was one of the geniuses behind Smack The Pony and was outstanding in the TV sitcom Two Doors Down. She also appeared in Brass Eye, Alan Partridge, Plebs and stage shows such as Boeing-Boeing and David Mamet’s Bitter Wheat with John Malkovich. She will shortly be joining Kristen Scott Thomas and Lily James in Lyonesse.
However, if you’re expecting My Lady Parts to be the typical show biz autobiography with amusing anecdotes about working with famous names, you will be disappointed. And while I’m telling you what this book is not, perhaps I should say that, for someone who started her career as a stand-up comedian and who has written and appeared in so much great comedy, there aren’t many laughs.
What it is, is an almost continuous indictment of the misogyny that she and other women have experienced in show business. The catalogue of men undermining her and discriminating against her over her 40 year career is shocking. I hope (in vain) that the men she describes in this book, and others who have behaved in similar ways, read it and feel ashamed.
The title is clearly meant to grab attention but what it refers to is the kind of parts she was offered at each stage of her career or simply how she has been pigeonholed at various points in her life. So, each chapter begins with the kind of description given at casting calls to indicate the character one is auditioning for. When young she is expected to be a typical bimbo, when older a ‘desperate cougar’ and when older still a ‘hag’.
She doesn’t name many names. Perhaps she fears libel actions, perhaps she has signed Non Disclosure Agreements, or perhaps the incidents have been rearranged a little to tell a good story. I don’t know but the effect of that anonymity is that some powerful punches don’t land quite as heavily as they should.
Some are named, or near as dammit. Not surprisingly Jim Davidson doesn’t emerge well but more disappointingly we learn (if we didn’t already know) that some of our favourite alternative comedians are not alternative enough to allow women to be more than stereotypes and feeds for their egotistical humour.
Ricky Gervais (from ‘Planet Ego’) thought Smack The Pony’s women should build the show around him. A famous artist who dresses in women’s clothes (I wonder who that could be?) tells her: I had a very filthy dream about you. Many men have been brought up to think of women purely in sexual terms: it is sobering to see the debilitating effect of this quotidian sexism from a female perspective.
On TV through the 80s and 90s, the world of comedy was dominated by men. Her ideas for series are turned down, apparently because French & Saunders already fill the quota for female comedy.
As Ms Mackichan points out, while we may have moved on a little, the position of women in the workplace and society in general has not improved as much as we might hope.
Since this book was written earlier in 2023, we have read descriptions of the behaviour of some of today’s male comedians, triggered by the accusations made against Russell Brand, and witnessed the appalling attitude towards women expressed by Laurence Fox and broadcast by GB News.
It’s not until about half way through the book, when we get to Smack The Pony, that Ms Mackichan gives us the kind of behind-the-scenes insight that I personally find fascinating. This look at the mechanics of making a TV comedy show- the clashes, the fear, the panic, the pressures, the exhilaration- is an illustration of just how good a storyteller she is.
Another vivid description is of the time she swam the English Channel as part of a relay team. You feel you could have been there as she describes the fear and exhaustion of being in an unreadable sea in the middle of nowhere with a seeming infinity of water below, yet she resolutely ploughs on.
There are a couple of other electric chapters in the book when she describes in detail her emotional turmoil. One is when her child becomes seriously ill. Her pain is palpable. The other is during the run of Boeing-Boeing in which she has agreed to appear because she desperately needs the money. (This book is a reminder that the life of a freelance actor is extremely precarious.) Her description of the heroic way she pulled herself through those four months while having a breakdown is gut-wrenching.
I don’t doubt a lot of people she’s worked with will have labelled her awkward over the years. She has strong ideas about what she should be required to do in auditions, and there are many things she refuses to do when rehearsing and performing. In particular, she acknowledges that she might be put down as an ‘awkward prude’, because she steadfastly refuses to appear naked. She is only too aware that such scenes, even if the nudity is justified (and often it’s purely for titillation), can be taken out of context on porn websites and even tabloid newspapers. Neddless to say, over the years, male nudity has tended to be far less revealing than female.
The difficulties she has experienced when pregnant or needing childcare remind us that so much of the legislation that goes some way to support women in the workplace is hard to enforce in the world of jobbing actors.
There are interesting passages on her experience of directors, good and bad. She believes that directors should work with her, guiding her and trusting her skills, rather than tell her exactly what to do and how to say her lines. Or enforcing so many takes that all life is squeezed out of a scene.
Undoubtedly, she has lost work because of her principles. She records numerous occasions when she herself has turned down jobs. She does understand that other women may bite their tongue when they experience bad behaviour, because they need the money or they fear speaking out might affect their career. She admits to doing it herself occasionally but she is greatly to be admired, in my opinion, for largely sticking to her guns.
In this book, Ms Mackichan makes an impassioned plea not only for more female comedy writers and performers to be given a chance on TV, film and in theatre, but for more stories by and about women; and for women to choose to be themselves, not conform to a certain male fantasy. She is such a good role model for young women entering show business that, I suggest, reading My Lady Parts should be included in courses at drama schools.
This is an angry, at times polemic book, and justifiably so. I would still argue that it could have been leavened with a bit more humour, but her description of her fight against a toxic male industry and her personal triumphs in adversity make My Lady Parts an inspiring read.
My Lady Parts is published by Canongate and is out now.