5 minutes with... Sandi Toksvig

2 Mar 2016

Sandi Toksvig - comedian, novelist, actor, broadcaster, university chancellor, and (inter)national treasure joins us for our International Women's Day celebrations. Read on to find out more about her new show Sandi Toksvig Live! Politically Incorrect 

Tell us about your new show?

I’m going out on tour to raise money for the Women’s Equality Party, nevertheless the show is called Politically Incorrect because although I think the world needs changing I’m very glad I’m not in charge. The first half is silly and fun, and the second half is a little more about history and how we are where we are in terms of the world, and why I’ve started a political party. You don’t have to want to support the party in order to have a jolly good evening! Plus there’s a quiz - I always like to do a quiz and it always goes down very well.

Is it all scripted or do you ad-lib too?

I plan the show then forget what I’ve planned. That’s pretty much what happens. There’s a lot of slides and PowerPoint so it has a structure, but then I wander away from that. There’s only me on stage and I’m quite small so it’s good to have some other entertainment I think.

Are you quite tech savvy?

I am, yes, and I love technology and what it can do. I also think it’s fun.

What about if you see someone in the audience filming it on their phone?

Morecambe and Wise did live shows for years and years that they never allowed to be filmed because it was like a gift for those people in the audience. What’s upsetting is when people think it’s OK to record a show and upload it because then you’ve spoilt the live experience for somebody else. It’s theft, plus you should pay attention and be in the moment. Put your phone down and be in the moment.

You’re raising funds for the Women’s Equality Party. Can you tell us a little bit about the party’s aims?

We would like within ten years for there to be gender equality and it’s perfectly doable. It’s fully costed, all our proposals are pragmatic and it certainly needs doing. In London, for example, a woman is beaten up every seven minutes; domestic violence cases are horrific and shelters are closing at a frightening rate. In London the gender pay gap is currently 23% but if that extra money was earned, and national insurance and taxes paid, think how many hospitals we could fund. Think how many fantastic resources it would provide. It doesn’t make financial sense in this country to not fully employ women and pay them properly. We are people from the Tory party, the Labour party, Liberal Democrats, Ukip members… We honestly have people from every political walk of life saying ‘Shall we stop messing about and get on with it?’ The World Economic Forum estimates that at the current rate of change women will have achieved equality in 118 years from today. I’m not going to be alive then and I would like to see it happen much sooner. The WEP is about me not wanting to shout at the television anymore, but deciding to get up and do something about it. I’m very serious about the party and every penny from the tour is going to their coffers because it’s really expensive to run. I’m not making tuppence myself.

How do you strike the balance between highlighting the party’s issues and keeping the audience entertained?

I’m adept at making them think, so that’s not a worry. Jokes are a great way to open the door. What you do is you say ‘This is funny and this is funny and this is funny’ then you go ‘Do you understand why, when you think about it, it’s maybe not as funny as you thought?’

What are your pre and post show rituals?

I don’t really have any. When I toured with Bonnie Langford she’d be stretching and warming up and I’d be sitting in the corner going ‘Have you seen what they’ve said in The New Statesman?’ I knit a lot on tour because that’s an easy thing to take with you. These days because I’m slightly obsessed with eating well my wonderful stage manager Ali Day and I have usually been to one of the more reputable supermarkets and purchased a salad or something and after the show we’ll sit together and have that. I never eat before a show. Adrenaline is a horrible thing for your digestion. I still get nervous but appropriately. I get a little hyper more than nervous but it’s gone the second you step out on stage because it’s just a conversation between me and 1,000 people.

Do you ever make any big gaffes on stage?

[Laughs] All the time. When you do a Q&A you never know what people are going to ask you. I remember one woman in Bradford wanted to know what my bra size was and I couldn’t remember so she had to come up and have a look. But it’s just a laugh and you can’t prepare for what people are going to ask you, plus actually it’s my favourite part of the show because it’s a chance to tell a story you’d forgotten about or a chance to talk about something that hadn’t occurred to you. The unexpected is always the best bit.

Do you have any dressing room riders?

I’m really undemanding. I like a cup of tea but I’m not bothered if there isn’t one. I usually bring a bottle of water myself. I’m quite low maintenance. It’s a very Danish notion to believe you’re no better than anybody else and you’re no better than you should be. I just turn up and do my job. I often think one of the reasons I went into showbusiness is that I love the theatre but I’m claustrophobic and don’t like sitting in the audience. On stage you get loads of space.

What’s the one thing you couldn’t be without when you’re on the road?

I need to have a book with me and a real book because I don’t like reading on electronic devices; I don’t like the light. I’ve been trying to read the classics that I’d overlooked and hadn’t got around to so I’m reading The Mill On The Floss at the moment. It takes forever to get going. I read all the Dickens books I hadn’t read on the last tour. So it’s a book and some knitting – whatever goes in my rucksack.

How do you get from venue to venue?

I usually take the train and have a sleep. This particular tour is being fitted in and around a fantastically heavy filming schedule so all the days I’m not on tour I’m filming. Touring is surprisingly tiring so I sleep a lot and the best way to do that is on the train.

What’s the biggest public misconception about you?

That I’m posh, but I’m not. It’s my accent, which is fake [laughs], but when I’m tired I have an American accent. I had an American accent all through my childhood. I think people think I’m from money but I’m not at all.

Do the general public expect you to be funny when they meet you?

I have a very nice thing, which is a bit odd sometimes, where the most common reaction is that most people want to hug me – which is nice but I’m very small and very claustrophobic so I always prefer it if they ask first. When they suddenly grab me at the wet fish counter in Sainsbury’s is sometimes a bit startling. It’s nice that people want to do that and I like it, I just always prefer it if people say ‘Do you mind?’ first.

Are you active on social media?

No, I’m too busy. I think we need to find a way to regulate it; we need to find a way to stop women being so maligned on social media. It’s very small-minded voices speaking as loudly as they can and I think that’s a great shame. It’s a wonderful tool for communication but it’s so much the Wild West at the moment. I think at some point it will be regulated but it mostly doesn’t interest me very much. I’d much rather meet people for real. I’d much rather talk to you than for us to have a text exchange. I don’t need to keep telling people what I’m having for dinner and posting photographs of my lunch.

What kind of fan mail do you get?

I get nice letters and I write quite a lot of children’s books so my favourites are when a whole class has read my book. For example I wrote a book called Hitler’s Canary set during the Second World War about the Danish escape of the Jews to Sweden, and a whole class will study that book and write to me about it – and that’s wonderful because you don’t want that to be a story anybody ever forgets. I always try and write back to each child and say ‘Thank you so much and keep reading’. Those are my favourite letters.

What’s your idea of a great day off, on the rare occasion you get one?

We have a house in Kent by the sea, right on the beach, and I particularly like it in the winter because it’s deserted. I walk with my wonderful wife or my fabulous kids and sometimes there’s a leg of lamb slow-cooking in the AGA. Knowing that’s going to be ready when we get in and it’s a bit cold and windy is about as good as life gets. The British seaside is wonderful.

Your tour stops off at Brighton Dome. Does it have a special significance for you?

It’s always a great crack in Brighton. They’re kind of my people and I’ve played there many times. It’s a really lovely, warm, fantastic crowd. You always get a fantastic crowd in Brighton. I’m performing on International Women’s Day and it’s so important because it’s all we’ve got. Some male MP said we should have an International Men’s Day but you’ve got 364 of those. We need to remember it’s a global movement. There is not now, nor has there ever been, a single country in the world where we have gender equality and it’s really important that we remember it’s a global fight.