Monday, November 12, 2012

A woman who wobbles but doesn't fall down - Interview with Francesca Martinez

STAND-UP comedian FRANCESCA MARTINEZ is witty, pithy and a little bit “wobbly” - and she’s on a mission to get people asking “What The *** Is Normal?!” She spoke to CATRIONA REEVES about how she uses comedy to get across a serious point - but why it’s still important to have a laugh.

Catriona Reeves: In creating your show, do you think you’ve come to a conclusion about what is “normal”?

Francesca Martinez: The show is pretty personal; being born “wobbly” [Martinez has mild cerebral palsy] I’ve always had a really intense relationship with “normal”. It particularly haunted me during my teenage years, when I desperately wanted to fit in. 

Eventually, I realised that I’ve never met a “normal” person in my life - where are they?  That realisation changed my life. We are all different, and different is normal. I’m interested in challenging the labels we stick on each other. 

There’s so much pressure on people to fit  in; the media encourages paranoia so we go out and buy stuff  we don’t need. If we were happy and fulfilled, we’d realise that a handbag won’t change our lives. Everyone kind of knows that it’s all rubbish, but it’s hard to resist unless you fully question society’s values. My show is an antidote to that way of thinking.

The best thing in my life is my family. They always told me to think for myself, never considered me disabled, and were never disappointed or in mourning for the “normal child” I “could” have been. But despite that, I began to adapt society’s view of me. Eventually, I realised that I had to make my own mind up. I realised that that I’m not wrong, I’m not disabled - I’m just me.

The nature of standup encouraged me to think differently, because strangers are paying to listen to me - I still can’t get over that; it’s a privilege in a way. I want to leave them with something beyond laughter. That’s why I love comedy - you can say really important things that challenge people and allow them to leave with a more open mind.

CR: If you had the choice, would you rather not be “wobbly”?

FM: That’s an impossible question to answer. It’s more than just a physical thing; it’s like asking if I would want to be someone else. Everything in our lives affects us, and a huge part of my personality has been shaped by being wobbly. So, no - I like who I am and what being wobbly has given me. I’m also very happy not to have to do the housework.

I think that developing a degenerative condition or becoming suddenly disabled is more challenging than my wobbliness, because for me it’s predictable and I’ve never not had it. I find people with those other conditions incredible because they so often retain such positivity. Disability brings out the choice in you to appreciate life and get as much out of it as possible, or to lie in a heap on the floor. I certainly had that point in my life where I made that choice, but I can only talk about my own experience.

CR: You’ve made some strong points in the media since the Paralympics about the Government’s approach towards disability. Are you still incensed about the issue?

FM: All this positive talk is a bunch of lies, when at the same time they are dismantling benefits and condemning a lot of disabled people to a life which is harder and scarier. We need to stand up against it, as it’s an issue that could potentially affect everyone - anyone could be hit by a bus tomorrow.

Disabled people can lead useful and productive lives, but they often need help or support to get there. I want to see my taxes funding the NHS and benefits, things that make the world better, not weapons of mass destruction.

It was so galling seeing their attitude during the Paralympics; they didn’t seem to consider that most of the athletes probably needed State help at some point to get where they are.

CR: You appeared ‘on the panel of BBC Radio 4’s The News Quiz recently. How scary was that?

FM: I wasn’t scared at all, actually. Standup is a really good training for giving anything a go, so after years of doing live comedy, anything else isn’t hard in comparison. Getting booked for The News Quiz was a great chance to show that I can be funny when talking about other stuff, not just about disability.

Everyone was really friendly - I’m good friends with Jeremy Hardy, who was on with me, anyway, and he was lovely. It’s not rocket science, having a bit of banter about the news. I found it really fun. What I do isn’t really working for a living; I always try to have that perspective, and that helps with not being nervous.

CR: Would you like to do the television panel shows? You started out as an actress on Grange Hill in the 90s, and have been on television since then in various acting roles and as a serious commentator on disability issues - but you haven’t yet made that breakthrough into TV comedy. Is this a bit of a bugbear?

FM: As the first wobbly woman in comedy, the doors to TV seem to be shut because they haven’t had to be opened before. I can get on serious shows, but producers seem to have a problem with seeing comedy and disability mixing, because they see disability as a “serious” subject. But I’ve spent my whole adult life doing comedy, and I think that the producers are really underestimating the public, who only actually care if you’re funny, and also like it if you’re a bit different.

It’s true that comedy is still very male dominated, but the live circuit is a lot more diverse than TV comedy, which has a very narrow representation of that. There’s still quite a long way to go. The Paralympics showed that people like diversity; emotions were heightened and it was more unpredictable than the mainstream Olympics. People are fascinated and curious - they want to know more. It’s human nature, and TV hasn’t grasped that quite yet, and is still wary.

CR: The theme of your current live show means that the issue of disability runs through it - do you think that you’ll ever write a show that doesn’t mention it?

FM: I always thought that I didn’t talk about disability; I talked about my life experiences and views. I’m always going to be wobbly, and I don’t want not to mention it. Disability covers a huge range of issues, but I don’t so much talk about them as just talk about myself, the same as any comic would do. I’ve never thought that I don’t want to be honest about who I am.

My last show was very political and a lot less personal; more about politics, religion and the media. I enjoyed talking about things that have nothing to do with my life, but I’ll always cherish the element of being personal because that’s where the real power of comedy lies.

In this current show, there’s a lot about me falling in love for the first time, and that’s nothing to do with me being wobbly; it’s just about me.

* Francesca Martinez brings What The **** Is Normal?! to Pegasus Theatre in Oxford on Saturday, November 17.

* First published in the Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, November 8, 2012