Bury comedian Kate Smurthwaite comes home to the Apex

Kate Smurthwaite

Kate Smurthwaite - Credit: Archant

I heard her on Radio Five Live first. She was talking animatedly about a feminist issue and I agreed with every word. Then they said her name and I thought “That’s strange...”

Kate and Lynda Smurthwaite

Kate and Lynda Smurthwaite - Credit: Archant

After that she kept popping up everywhere. BBC Breakfast. The Big Questions on a Sunday. Recently she was on Question Time. And each time I thought, I know her from somewhere...

If you’ve ever seen a famous person, though, you’ll know that this is a common reaction. You go to say hello, thinking they’re a friend of yours, then realise, in a moment of face-slapping humiliation, that you only recognise them because they are famous and they DON’T KNOW YOU!

I assumed it must be that.

But then, last week, the Apex in Bury emailed to say the comedian Kate Smurthwaite was coming to give a comedy workshop and show on November 16.

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I thought, she sounds like someone EA Life should feature. And I admit I also thought: this is my chance to find out if I really do know this woman!

I emailed to request an interview, adding that I had “a strange feeling we know each other”. Then I felt instant regret, imagining Kate’s PR person, Claire, filing me under, “obsessive fan”.

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However, to my surprise, an email pinged back almost immediately, from Kate herself.

“Liz! What a coincidence. Claire said the EADT might do an interview and then saw the name!! Great to hear from you – hope you’re well...”

Now, my brain was working overtime. I started searching for Kate online and discovered that, like me, she is from Bury. And I looked at her face, really looked at it, and a light bulb pinged...

When I grew up in Bury, your late teens and early 20s mainly involved nights out drinking at the Dog and Partridge. During this time, you’d get caught up with various groups and Kate was in one of those. Bearing in mind that I was very recently introduced to alcohol back then, it is perhaps understandable that my memory of that time is a little hazy!

The wonders of Little Whelnetham

“We moved to Bury when I was two and I grew up in Little Whelnetham,” Kate recalls when I ring her. “It was a tiny place, not even a village really. I did the paper round and it used to take me ages, going up and down the little lanes. I’ve done leaflet drops for my shows in London and it’s taken me far less time to do 100 letter boxes than it used to take me to do 20 in Little Whelnetham.

“I remember the big story in our village was that we wanted a speed limit but we couldn’t have one because you had to have three amenities and we only had two. This went on for quite a few years until we built a bus stop I think, even though no buses ever stopped there! But it was important as people kept running over people’s cats!”

Kate’s political activism is a big part of her public persona: she recently appeared on Question Time after fans started a petition to get her on. Perhaps it all started with a Little Whelnetham Save the Cat campaign? I would like to think so anyway.

Kate lived in the village until she went to Oxford at 18 to study maths, a subject she enjoyed “because you can’t argue with it. With English, if you do a brilliant essay, you might get 90% but with maths you can get 100% so it’s a fantastic answer to parents and teachers saying, ‘must try harder’. I think that’s what I liked the most!”

Kate, who has a younger sister Lynda, went to Guildhall Feoffment primary, then St James and finally Thurston.

Her parents, who are retired, still live in Little Whelnetham. Her dad, Richard, was a maths teacher at St James and her mum, Heather, worked at the deaf unit at County Upper.

“I’ve never lived in a village (since then),” Kate says. “I’ve lived in Oxford, Tokyo and London and I’ve always liked to be within two minutes of a shop.”

But she hasn’t ruled out returning to nearby Bury some day. “A lot of friends have moved away and then gone back and I can see why because when I come back to Bury now I realise what a lovely town it is. I just didn’t really appreciate it at the time.” This maybe because she mainly “hung around outside the back of Boots” in the days before the glamorous Arc shopping centre or impressive Apex venue.

“Whenever I come back, I love going for a drink in The Angel or a wander round the Abbey Gardens. I was married for a while to an American and I used to bring his family and they were blown away by all the history. But all I used to think about back then was which shop could I go to for cigarettes!”

Kate says Bury is an unusual place to come back to because “it just keeps getting better. A lot of people go back to their home town and can’t help feeling it has gone downhill but in Bury it’s the opposite. I love that it’s bringing back cobbles! That someone said, ‘you know what we need – we need to be more 18th century! We need more cobbles!’”

Getting into comedy

Kate got into comedy by accident. After leaving Oxford, she worked in banking in London, then Tokyo. She loved Tokyo, but when her job there ended and she returned to London she decided “banking wasn’t really for me.” A friend suggested a comedy course. “I knew a few comedians then, not famous ones, and at the end of the course, we had to do a five-minute gig and one friend, a comic called Stan Stanley, came to watch and then rang the organisers of his next gig to ask if I could have five minutes of his 25-minute slot. They said yes! And Stan was supporting (the well-known comedian) Stewart Lee. So, my second gig was supporting someone who was supporting Stewart Lee!

That was 10 years ago. One gig led to another until, after combining her job with comedy in the evenings, Kate was eventually able to commit to comedy full-time. She has become known as a “feminist” and is often booked to talk about women’s issues.

“There’s this thing that women’s comedy is a genre,” she says. “People will send me a link to Sarah Millican as though we’re the same, just because we both have vaginas, when actually I have far more in common with someone like (the political comedian) Mark Thomas. Don’t get me wrong – I like Sarah! – but we’re not the same.”

We discuss that the media can often be harsh on women who express strident views. “People will say ‘You really lost that’ (argument) when you got angry, but no-one seems to mind if a male comic gets angry. Bill Hicks (the late American comedian) was angry and people loved it! But with a woman it’s often, ‘Can’t you just be a bit more smiley and adorable!’”

It strikes me that Kate must have to be pretty thick skinned. The Daily Mail called her “too intellectual to brush her hair”. And her latest show is named after a bizarre insult she received after her recent Edinburgh show: “Leftie Cockwomble.”

“I just thought I had to use that,” Kate laughs. “It’s just so... I mean, what does it even mean?!”

Kate’s self confidence is impressive.

“You can’t always win with comedy,” she admits. “If they say, ‘free pizza for everyone, but you have to listen to the comic first’ you lose because you’re the only thing that stands between the audience and free pizza! But generally, if a gig goes badly, I just think of all the times when it’s gone well, and then I look at the audience and think, ‘What’s wrong with you!’” I only wish I could be more like that!

The women of Bury

I tell Kate that our interview inspired me to look up some other Bury women I knew years ago and quite a few have done rather well. One has published a novel. Another is running a charity. “I know lots of people from Bury who have gone on to achieve amazing things,” she says, “and funnily enough they are all women. Bury seems to breed nice guys and ambitious women. Look at the Bury Fawcett Society. They’re all about empowering local women. It must be something in the water!”

I haven’t asked Kate about her personal life yet and it feels awkward to ask. Despite our shared past (she mentions people I knew a long time ago), I DON’T KNOW HER! Nonetheless, she happily tells me that she’s been with her partner James for three years and adores his son, Dan, who’ll be coming to the gig she’s doing at his university soon, “even though it must be so embarrassing to have your dad’s girlfriend doing that!” She also has two nephews, whom she dotes on.

As we’re saying goodbye, she tells me she sometimes gets letters from people asking for life advice and some heartbreaking correspondence from people responding to her activism; a young gay person living in America and facing prejudice who thanked her for giving them courage for example. It’s inspiring to think that someone from Bury, someone I once knew, has done so much with her life. Although I realise I do remember talking to her, liking her, thinking how bright she was, I can also see it would be easy to wish you knew her, even if you didn’t!

“I’m very open in my comedy, so people often think they know me,” she told me. Funny that.

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