Reviewed by Annabel
‘Tis the season of the celebrity memoir. Most are totally disposable; ghost-written catalogues of sporting achievements, reality TV stars, young things who’ve barely even lived, and worse still – second helpings from any of them! However, weeding through the dross, which’ll all end up weighing down the charity shops’ shelves come New Year, you can usually find a couple that are a cut above the rest, written by celebrities who can actually write and who’ve had a life/career/angle to write about…
One such is Sue Perkins. She writes just as if she’s talking to you, in her trademark slightly bonkers and self-deprecating but enthusiastic way but, with pauses for reflection, dealing with life’s irritations and some serious bits. You’ve just got to love that cover too, haven’t you?
Our first meeting with Sue in this book is a photograph of a haiku called ‘Heron’ for which she got a B- grade. Instantly, we hope for more –and yes, there will be other examples of Sue’s schoolwork dotted throughout the book. Then, before she gets on to telling us about her life and her decision to write a memoir that’s, “Mid-range. Comfy,” it’s time to meet her family as she pitches the book to them – there’s older sister Michelle who says, “Can’t you say you’ve only got one sibling?” and younger brother David who says, “Can I be incredibly handsome and not a Lego nerd?”, and her Dad who’d like to be taller and her Mum who’d like the book to be clean.
…and I thought, This is ridiculous. Honestly. Let’s just say it as it is. Dad, you’re a little bit squat. David, you still like Lego and you’re a forty-two-year-old father of two, and, Michelle, sorry, but you do exist and you’re a part of this mental, mental family. Deal with it. Oh, and people swear, so – and I mean this in the nicest possible way, Mum – fuck you. I’m doing this book my way.
After her birth in 1969, the first section is about her childhood in Croydon which was cosy and uneventful and really echoed my own ten years previously (I’m a Croydon girl too). We read about a variety of family pets and early boyfriends, abortive holidays in Wales. But it was the family days out to Brighton that tickled me. They would leave early to beat the traffic – get to the seaside and have a paddle or whatnot, then come home well in time for tea, or even lunch. This is so, utterly a suburban-Croydonite thing to do – in fact, I bet inhabitants of my home county still do it.
It was at Cambridge where Sue read English at New Hall, that she met Mel Giedroyc, her best friend and comedy partner. They didn’t start working together until after graduation though. They set about honing their funny muscles with a largely improvised show at the Edinburgh festival, which proved they had potential, but a long way to go. Their big break came after script-writing for French and Saunders and making occasional appearances too. This led to them presenting Light Lunch on Channel 4 in 1997, a comedy chat show in which celebrity chefs cooked lunch for the guests.
Sue had always wanted a dog and Pickle, her Beagle, was one of her greatest loves. Pickle was a naughty dog, prone to getting into (expensive vet) trouble. When Pickle died a few years ago, Sue wrote a letter which she shared on twitter. It’s included in the book and will melt the hardest of hearts and raise a chuckle too, charting the pain of losing a loved one and the joy that they brought through laughter and tears.
My darling girl,
First, a confession: I had you killed. I planned it and everything; asked the vet round and a nurse in a green uniform with white piping- all with the express intention of ending your life. Yes, I know. I know you had no idea, because I had been practicing for weeks how to keep it from you, and how
– when that time came – I could stop my chest from bursting with the fear and horror and unbearable, unbearable pain of it all. […]
When I discovered I couldn’t have children, you let me use your neck as a hankie. You were my longest relationship, although I think any decent psychologist would have deemed us irredeemably co-dependent.
The reason Sue can’t have children is due to having a non-cancerous tumour of her pituitary gland, which she’s suffered from for eight years. The news of this broke this summer as the new series of The Great British Bake Off reached our screens. This tumour had been discovered when she underwent medical tests for the Supersizers series about historical eating she did with Giles Coren, (which I and my daughter adored).
Talking of GBBO, I loved reading about the early days of the programme and how Sue gets into character for the show:
I arrive around 8 a.m., impeccably dressed and elegantly coiffured. I then remove these perfect clothes and change into a jam-smeared jacket, ill-fitting low-crotch trousers and muddy brogues while tousling my hair into a wonky cockerel spike – all in an effort to get to the role of ‘Sue Perkins’. I have opted to play ‘Sue Perkins’ as a care-worn scruffy little sugar hog who speaks only in double entendres (see baps, plums, tarts etc.).
The real Sue is, as we learn through reading her memoir, a more serious and private individual. Although she does mention some relationships, and a hilarious running joke with her Mum about things from her childhood and teens that may have made her gay, we get no details nor need them. There is no mention at all of one prominent relationship that went wrong – this book doesn’t air grudges.
She’s also selective about her work. She doesn’t mention her stint on Celebrity Big Brother 2, or her self-penned sitcom for BBC 2 for instance, and her radio work gets scant mention. Intead, we get some commentary on her two road trips for the series The World’s Most Dangerous Roads which she milks for comedy. In the first episode she was paired with Charlie Boorman to drive the Dalton Highway in Alaska…
We’d been travelling for hours before the constant bump of hard core have way to the smooth icy surface of the Dalton Highway. I’d been droning on about early contrapuntal music and Charlie had been telling me what his watch could do at two hundred metres below sea level when we felt the change. Suddenly we were no longer buffeted by loose chippings. We were gliding.
Mid-range? Yes. Comfy? Yes. Sue Perkins achieves her aims with this memoir. It’s huge fun, but it also gives us a glimpse of the real Sue, even if you have to mostly read between the lines to find her.
Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
Sue Perkins, Spectacles (Michael Joseph, 2015). 978-1405918541, 374 pp., hardback.
BUY Spectacles from the Book Depository.