Book Review: Not That I'm Bitter - A Truly, Madly, Funny Memoir by Helen Lederer

Book Review: Not That I'm Bitter - A Truly, Madly, Funny Memoir by Helen Lederer

Why aren't we tuning in to BBC One on a Saturday night tio watch The Paul Tonkinson Comedy Roadshow? Why isn't Adam Bloom the host of The 1% Club? It has always been a mystery why some acts hit the dizzy heights of comedy superstardom while others have the respect of their peers but not a lot of primetime TV appearances on their CV even though many would say they are just as funny as the household names. Helen Lederer is another case. While many know her face, why is her name not up there with French, Saunders and Brand?

This is just one of the issues she tackles in her candid, compelling autobiography which largely charts her professional life from being in at the start of the alternative comedy boom in the early 1980s to appearing on reality shows and panto in recent years. Lederer has always worked, and when the work was not coming in she was going out and creating it, writing shows and books, and yet she kept missing out on that crucial breakthrough.

As she takes stock of her life, she can't quite explain it, but puts a lot down to the fact that despite wanting to be a people pleaser she tended to put her foot in it and self-sabotage her career. One example is that having been invited to the prestigious BBC Christmas party, the ultimate networking event, she said the wrong thing to the wrong producer and scuppered her prospects. 

To work out why she had a habit of being inappropriate one inevitably has to go back to her childhood. Her Czech refugee father's sudden death clearly had a traumatic effect on her emotional development. At one point she seems to suggest that in her relationships she was looking for a father-figure replacement – she became particularly aroused by the sight of men with briefcases.

Not only did she work with many of the movers and shakers of 1980s and 1990s comedy, having decent-sized roles in shows including Bottom to Absolutely Fabulous, she also had relationships with numerous stars, such as Harry Enfield. She talks openly about these relationships, even the illicit ones, and also about the trials of juggling a career and being a post-divorce single parent. It was hard enough being a woman in a male-dominated industry but trying to compete with a young daughter in tow made things even more challenging.

Lederer has said in interviews that when she wrote the book she decided to put everything in and that certainly feels true. There's a story of her brief accidental foray into the world of sex work when young and naive and a #metoo incident that came to a sticky end. Gossip and name-dropping peppers the pages. She speaks very highly of those that have been supportive, such as Jenny Eclair and Rik Mayall. While the fast-moving narrative skitters around a little (and occasionally gets names wrong – Faulty Towers?) one of the themes is Lederer's insecurity about her weight and her repeated extreme attempts at dieting. 

The title of the book manages to have it both ways. Lederer has every reason to be bitter, but despite her understandable frustrations she does not actually seem so bitter that others have had more fame doing what she did earlier – breaking the fourth wall like Fleabag, doing a series about being a single mum like Katherine Ryan, for example. Instead Lederer just carries on and does her own thing, appearing as Ken Barlow's love interest in Coronation Street or or launching the Comedy Women In Print Prize.

This book is a great insight into the comedy world of the 1980s, when women really had to battle for equal status. There are plenty of memoirs by the stars, it's just as important to have a book from someone with Lederer's perspective. And, it hardly needs saying for anyone who knows Lederer's work, this is a very funny book. Moving and touching, but also not short on burst-out-giggling passages. 

Comedy is a – no pun intended – funny career. Do plumbers get jealous of more successful plumbers? Do taxi drivers resent busier taxi drivers? Yet with showbusiness the success of others is constantly in your face unless you go and live in a cave with no wifi. It's no surprise then that Lederer might have felt sidelined at times. But actually she doesn't need to be bittter. She has had an absolutely fabulous career – and is still having one.

Buy Not That I'm Bitter - A Truly, Madly, Funny Memoir by Helen Lederer here.


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