Mel Giedroyc is just finishing a photoshoot in a studio in south-west London, and rushes up to greet me, apologising that she has to get changed before we talk, because she’s in ridiculous clothes. So she goes off in an I [heart] New York T-shirt, and then comes back in her own clothes: dungarees.
She has always given an impression of a rare lack of vanity, a person who sees her appearance as just another tool in her clowning toolbox, like juggling balls. And that’s partly true, she says, but only up to a point. “Sue [Perkins, her long-term comic partner] and I have always said, when it comes to it, we’ll do what needs to be done.” We’re talking about Botox, fillers, that kind of stuff. “I’m 54, she’s 52, she’s weirdly perfect. I keep saying: ‘Have you gone behind my back?’ We’ve always said to each other: if we do it, we’ll do it together. And we’ll go to Armenia slash Latvia.’”
I suggest that they could sell it as a format: Mel and Sue go to Latvia and come back with new teeth and different faces. “Maybe we should swap faces, to confuse people?” she suggests. But back to the point. “I keep thinking: ‘If she goes and does anything without telling me, I’m going to be so cross with her.’” It’s as if she’s sending a comedy-mafia signal through the pages of the Guardian: together, or not at all, at least in so far as minor aesthetic treatments are concerned.
We are not here to talk about the almost 35-year-old comedy dyad at all, but Unforgivable, the chaotic panel show on Dave which is just about to enter its third season. On it, Giedroyc is paired with Lou Sanders (“Twenty years younger. Actually I don’t know how old she is, she told me once but I’m a bit deaf”), and they invite a panel of three comedians to disclose the worst things they’ve ever done. Then some regular people come on and admit random bad acts.
It is heavily scatological, the links are clunky and the puns are laboured so hard they should unionise. The new season is so funny I was at one point shouting with laughter at a story told by the comedian Joel Dommett, which involved his mattress, his bed base and his penis, and which even he looked quite surprised to be telling.
“Often, somebody will spill something that we didn’t know they were going to spill,” she says. “But Joel … he does The Masked Singer, he’s really Mr ITV, Saturday night. He’s not Mr One-in-the-Morning.” That’s sort of Unforgivable’s USP: it takes nice, mainstream, even daytime TV people and turns them into Mr or Mrs-One-in-the-Morning. “When you have three people, they start to get competitive with each other,” she says, “and that’s when it gets really fun. Especially with comics. They don’t want to be outdone.
“Unforgivable is a naughty show,” Giedroyc concludes. “It’s just a massive midlife crisis, basically me saying: ‘I want to go back to when I felt my naughtiest, which was in the 90s. I want to be 25 again, or 23.’”
In fact, I remember that. Although I didn’t know her in the naughty years, I did grunt work a few years in a row at the Edinburgh venue where she and Perkins perfected their standup routine. They had met in 1988, both at Cambridge, doing Footlights, but by this time they’d left “with really weak degrees. Really weak. Low 2:2. Sue as well; people assume she must have got a first but she didn’t. And we weren’t trained to do anything. What do you do with a French and Italian degree?”
Mel “didn’t have the nous to go to clown school” (although clowning about was her passion) and had tried and failed to get into drama school, a combination of not preparing properly for the audition and not being pretty enough. She says this quite obliquely, recalling a day at Bristol Old Vic, when “all the other girls had sort of long corkscrew curls, like Helena Bonham Carter. And that’s something that’s really changed.”
Finally, high on failure and aimlessness, she wrote to Perkins, who she usually calls “Perks”, a letter Perkins still has. “Basically saying: ‘Dear Susan, would you like to form a double act?’ So that’s what we did for seven years.” She describes their shtick as totally shambolic, on-the-hoof material that they were practically still writing as they performed it, often to an audience of one. It didn’t look like that from the outside; they seemed almost unique for being able to pull in a crowd and had an air of seriousness about them, like they might actually make a living from this. They were the kind of people that other performers pointed out, like: “There’s Mel and Sue – Mel smiled at me the other day.”
She puts any success down to luck, chance and a journalist “who wanted to do a piece about a really, really struggling double act at the fringe. Then suddenly, we had sellout shows because all these Times readers showed up.”
Underneath this haze of self-deprecation, there is a through line of an absolutely solid determination to be up there on stage, showing off. When she was a kid, growing up in Leatherhead with a Polish father and English mother (her dad was an engineer and, for his second act, a Latvian medievalist), her pattern was that she’d try for the school play, not get a part, “and I’d say: ‘Maybe I could write a little prologue?’ And I’d write something really long, and end up with quite a big part. Such a showoff.”
Such grit, which Perkins reputedly also has in spades, didn’t exactly put them on a fast track. By 1997, after years of standup, making money by cleaning, working in the bar in Jongleurs (at the time, an incredibly original and vibey comedy club), Giedroyc was defeated. “I remember it so clearly, going round to Perks’s gaff, sitting down on the bed and just saying: ‘I can’t do this any more. I’ve got no money. You’re the same. We’re in debt, we’ve borrowed from our siblings, our agent had to lend us a grand.’ I was desperate.”
This was when the call came through for Light Lunch, a fizzingly daft Channel 4 daytime show, full of random interviews and sandwich reviews and, in a harbinger of things to come, cake, which they initially rejected out of hand. “We were, like: ‘Sorry, excuse me, a daytime show? We are cutting-edge Edinburgh comedians.’” It is pretty extraordinary to think of it now, that a major broadcaster would give a daily hour of TV to two unknown comics, and Channel 4 thought so, too, initially putting them on a rolling two-week contract. But the show soon had a committed following, and not in that feckless, post-ironic stoner way that shows like Neighbours and Teletubbies did. “It was students, breastfeeding mums and prisoners. I was getting a lot of letters from Gwent remand centre.”
It is hard to get to the true centre of Mel and Sue, as a partnership. There’s definitely something about them, when they come together, that is more than the sum of their parts: energy, sure, but also notes of surrealism and unpredictability. But this career-long lockstep hasn’t had the effect of making them rivalrous or resentful, Giedroyc says. “You have to do things, especially as you get older, separately. Otherwise it gets, I imagine, incredibly claustrophobic. I don’t know how Ant and Dec do it. Full respect, they’re amazing.”
And again, things were different when they were starting out. If acting was sexist in the sense that only beautiful women could do it, comedy was worse: it was really not unusual to read 1,000 words of a man asking: “Why aren’t women funny?” When female comedians were invited on panel shows, they were treated with a kind of benign but quietly exasperated condescension, like your mate had had to bring his wife to a boys’ night in the pub, because there was a mouse in the house.
“Perks and I always had that safe haven with each other, which I think got us through,” Giedroyc says, “and I think French and Saunders would say the same thing. It doesn’t matter what arseholes are saying outside your haven, because you’ve got each other. But I remember doing torturous things in the 90s like Never Mind the Buzzcocks, as it was then [now one of the captains is Daisy May Cooper]and coming away feeling shattered. Just thinking that was one of the worst things I’ve ever had to go through.” Giedroyc is particularly proud of one episode in this Unforgivable season in which all five participants are women, “all of them hilarious, and I didn’t even plan it. It almost made me cry.” I wonder if that’s the first time that’s happened on TV?
One of the double act hiatuses was when Giedroyc had children – two daughters, born in 2002 and 2004, with the director Ben Morris. Apart from the joy of motherhood and all that, this was mainly impactful for almost bankrupting the family and they lost their house, a riches-to-rags experience she drew on for her first novel, The Best Things, published last year. When the chance to present Bake Off hoved into view in 2010, she was still skint and did it mainly for the money, and the chance to work with Perks again. They did not immediately fall in love with the idea. “Cake is so backward-looking, isn’t it?” she says, speculatively. I know what she means. Bake Off has always had a remain heart and a leave aesthetic.
Filming the first season didn’t exactly allay their reservations, although they did love Mary Berry from the start. “I remember phoning Perks saying: ‘Don’t worry, mate – no one’s ever going to see this.’ Because we were really scared. We were thinking: ‘Well, that’s the end of our careers. That was the flattest, tweest, most boring thing we’ve ever done. Who wants to look at cakes?’” If you’re thinking this sounds unusually frank for showbiz, it’s probably because the pair left the show a bit before they would have chosen, under not as great circumstances as they would have wished. Obviously, it went really well for a bit. “It was just mad. No one could have predicted that it would explode in that way – we certainly couldn’t have. What a joy to have that mad thing happen to you in your 40s. It just doesn’t happen to two old birds.”
After seven series, they got wind of something afoot but didn’t know until it was publicly announced that the production company, Love Productions, had sold the show to Channel 4. “I was getting messages from the head of C4 saying: ‘We hope that you’ll be on board.’ I think it took us under 20 seconds to work out that we weren’t going to go with it. We felt that the show had been nurtured by the BBC. And effectively, the makers of the show were just going ‘See ya’, and going for the money. And that didn’t sit well with us.” They never thought it was going to crash and burn without them, since they were only ever “bookends”. In the end, there would always be more bakers, other cakes.
Giedroyc would like one more throw of the dice doing a standup show with Perkins, but has questions over whether they’d ever sit down and write it. She is writing a novel, adjacent to her first, with a couple of recurring characters, which she hopes to eventually turn into a Leatherhead trilogy. She enjoys not being a “bright young thing” any more, saying “it’s actually quite a relief when people aren’t that interested”. She mildly fears getting cancelled, but not in a Laurence Fox/GB News “you can’t say anything any more” way, more by her children. “I’m walking on eggshells, honestly.” (Hard relate. My kid called me racist the other day when I said I preferred boxers to spaniels.) She is as she started out, all drive and no plan, the way I think maybe comedians have to be, if they want to be funny.
Mel Giedroyc: Unforgivable returns to Dave on 20 September