Comic Suzi Ruffell on how her Portsmouth upbringing shaped her career
PUBLISHED: 06:47 11 December 2019
As she embarks on her biggest tour to date, Portsmouth’s Suzi Ruffell is happy – and proud of her home town
Suzi Ruffell admits she had some misgivings about the concept for her 2019 Edinburgh Fringe show. "The point of the show was whether you could be a happy comic," she says. "It was a bit scary going to Edinburgh when the tagline for the press was: 'I'm the happiest I have ever been - am I still funny?' My fear was the critics would just say: 'No!'."
The fears proved to be unfounded. Dance Like Everyone's Watching earned Suzi some of her best reviews to date. She is planning to spend most of next year touring it - having already more than doubled the number of dates on her last tour, from 20 to 45. "At the moment the world seems relentlessly bleak," she says. "I did The News Quiz on Radio 4 and it was tricky to find some funny stuff going on. No matter what your political beliefs are no-one has what they want. But in my personal life I'm the happiest I've ever been."
In the show she talks about her plans to wed her partner, adopt a child and possibly even move out of London. And Suzi's professional career has recently turned a corner, with appearances on Mock the Week, Hypothetical and the career-making Live At The Apollo joined by an award from comedy website Chortle as the best club comic of 2019.
Suzi's last tour show of 2019 will see her return to Hampshire, with a performance at The Lights in Andover. But she's hoping to come back to the county again in the New Year with a special show. "Pompey is in my heart," she says. "It would be nice to get a big theatre in Portsmouth and sell it out - I'm looking at different venues like the New Theatre Royal. I'm hoping to film it too - a lot of US stand-ups tend to put out filmed shows themselves now."
It was a big show at another Portsmouth venue which sowed the seeds for Suzi's future career. "I went to see Lee Evans play the Guildhall in Portsmouth," she says. "It was the cleverest thing I'd ever seen - this small man, sweating profusely, making 2,000 people laugh at the same time."
Previously Suzi had never darkened the doors of a comedy club - although she had found humour a useful release to get through her school days. "It's clichéd but it was the truth for me," she says. "I was always trying to make people laugh at school. I realised from quite a young age that people like being around funny people. My dad and uncles are really funny - I remember being at family parties and seeing my dad holding court and making everybody laugh."
Her parents still feature in her comedy - on stage she has performed routines about her "Pompey geezer" dad and her "Pompey bird" mum: "The only woman I've met who will wear two types of animal print at the same time." She still has a genuine love for her home city. "I'm very proud of my heritage," she says. "I've been in London for quite a long time, but I consider myself to be a Pompey girl. Portsmouth is where I grew up. My dad didn't have a great education, but he created a nice life for himself from working very hard. I'm from that kind of people."
She started watching more comedy, both live and on DVD, when she moved to London before having a go herself in an open spot. "I didn't know there were all these clubs which sat 100 or 200 people, I never went to those rooms before I played them," she says. "I always wanted to be funny, but it was never a careerist thing. It was more that it was really fun - I made some new friends. We would all pitch up to a comedy club every Sunday to try out things. I discovered there were people who did it who weren't famous. I got to know everyone and would go to the clubs to watch their shows. I was lucky enough to be spotted by an agent who signed me. I made more money from comedy than waitressing so it became my job."
She admits to becoming obsessed by comedy in those years, discovering the likes of Daniel Kitson and Alexei Sayle and spending time watching comics "smash a room". Several of her friends became famous, including Nish Kumar, James Acaster and Josh Widdicombe, who she has since supported on tour. "It was incredible watching them rise from playing to 30 people in a basement bar in London to Live At The Apollo," she says. "And it was inspiring. It's amazing that comedy can jump like that - everyone starts from the same place."
Although physicality plays a part in her comedy, and she did take contemporary dance at A Level, the title of her latest show is really a malapropism from her mother who misread a sign encouraging people to dance like nobody's watching. "I thought it was funny - I thought: 'I can do a routine out of that'," says Suzi. "It's how my brain is constantly working."
Other inspiration comes from a long-running podcast she does with fellow LGBT comedian and "one of her absolute best friends in the world" Tom Allen. Like Minded Friends has now tallied up almost 140 episodes. "We started doing the podcast when we didn't have much on, which is laughable now," she says. "We decided to put something out that was joyful and funny, you're overhearing two friends having a chat. It's not meant to teach you anything."
She is particularly proud that it is being picked up by listeners in countries where homosexuality has yet to be decriminalised, earning more than a million downloads in total. "For three years we put one out every week," she says. "Then it was every two weeks, then one a month, and now it's whenever we get the chance. We don't make any money out of it, so it has to be a work around our other jobs - we've got a mortgage and rent to pay! The brilliant thing about podcasting is that it is self-publishing - it's the thing that's closest to pure stand-up. When you're on telly you have to send out a script and get it vetted. When you do Live At The Apollo you might do a 20-minute set and eight minutes goes out on the half-hour show and 14 for the hour-long show. We've both ended up having routines which have come from the podcast."
As for the future she is preparing for Harry Hill's latest Channel Four show ClubNite - having received instructions to bring her tap shoes - and is also featuring on Alan Carr's latest project and Richard Osman's House of Games. "There's lots of chat about TV stuff, but I'm going to keep touring this show," she says, adding she's not planning to go to Edinburgh in 2020.
For now she's looking forward to spending Christmas in Pompey. "I like being down by the sea, going to the penny arcades on the pier," she says. "I feel like I'm ten again. It's so nice going to Canoe Lake, the Hot Walls and Old Portsmouth, going to see mum and dad who live down there and taking the dog for a walk. I always spend my Christmas in Portsmouth - there's something lovely about getting out of London and going to the seaside."