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Jenny: 'Middle-aged women aren't invisible, they're just ignored'

Comedian Jenny Eclair talks to Hannah Stephenson about about her new book on the menopause, television work and why she still loves the buzz of live gigs

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Jenny Eclair

Jenny Eclair

Press Association Images

Jenny Eclair

Jenny Eclair

Press Association Images

Jenny Eclair

At the beginning of our interview Jenny Eclair declares: "I've had a lapse back into the menopause today. I had some technical difficulties and immediately started swearing and sweating. You know when your internet goes down and you just think, 'For f**** sake!'"

Her dry humour is well-known, having been a comedian for most of her adult life -and as time has moved on so have the rants, the reflections on menopause and middle age, demonstrated in her sell-out How To Be A Middle Aged Woman (Without Going Insane) and Grumpy Old Women tours.

In a second, she calms down from her techy frustrations. "I've gone clammy and cold now," she observes wryly. "It's cooling."

Today, we're talking about Eclair's latest book, Older And Wider, an A-Z compendium of the menopause - part practical guide, part memoir - which links in with the eponymous podcast she does with her friend, comedy writer and TV producer Judith Holder, in which they discuss all manner of middle-age conundrums.

Parts of the book are very funny, others offer advice, but anyone who is menopausal will be nodding their head when reading it.

It was the emotional element which knocked Eclair for six, the mood swings and uncontrollable rage, she recalls.

"I still get very hot and bothered and always have. My temperature is very quick to rise but I wasn't prepared for the emotional kick in the gut, the mood swings ranging from irrational mental rage, to snivelling, neurotic fear and anxiety."

Her partner of 38 years, Geof Powell (they married three years ago and have a daughter, Phoebe), could deal with the rage but not the weeping, she reveals. "He didn't know what to do with me when I turned into this feeble bundle. I've always been a very confident woman, but seeing me lacking confidence and being very frightened and the anxiety spinning out of control freaked him out a bit."

For a while, her family walked on eggshells, she recalls.

"In amongst the depression and anxiety were sudden bursts of absolute uncontrollable rage," she writes.

For Eclair, HRT was the answer; she's been on it for around eight years.

"It's not a magic wand. The physical and emotional sides of the menopause aren't the only things going on in a middle-aged woman's life. It's just part of a perfect storm. All the other s*** that lands on your head - ageing parents, empty nest - it's just a build-up of stuff. The menopause is the last straw for a lot of people."

She and Powell live in London, a few miles from Phoebe, and have a garden, which has been a saviour these past few months. Eclair says she found lockdown easier before restrictions were eased.

"I'm finding the woolliness of semi-lockdown very difficult indeed, combined with being petrified about the future of performing arts."

At 60, though beyond the menopause, which for her started at 52, anger still fuels her comedy.

"I'm p***** off with this pandemic now," Eclair states. "The government's attitude to theatre, the creative arts and the live performing industry is disgraceful (she says this before the government announced a £1.57bn support package).

"The situation for young people at the moment is unbearable. My daughter's a playwright and had just won a big award and was meant to be currently in Los Angeles on a writing placement. It's all been pulled from under her feet."

Another gripe is invisibility - how middle-aged women become invisible in many walks of life.

"Middle-aged women aren't invisible, they are just ignored," she bristles.

She cites scenarios such as trying to get served in a bar full of younger people, being left in the changing room by an assistant who forgot she'd asked for a bigger size, and generally being ignored when whatever cougar potential a woman had wears off.

"The media don't really like ageing women. We are not attractive. There's a lot of deep-rooted misogyny that hovers around like a bad smell. It is not as public as it used to be but it still lingers. We are dismissed."

Eclair was 35 and had been performing stand-up for 10 years when she became the first woman to win the prestigious Perrier Comedy Award at Edinburgh nearly 25 years ago. She was among the first female stand-ups, coming up just after French and Saunders burst onto the scene and were picked up for television.

Looking back, she reflects: "I quite admire myself as a young woman because I never gave up. There was a hell of a lot of grim determination that kept me going. I didn't get much work that I didn't generate myself."

She admits she was competitive.

"I remember seeing Jo Brand for the first time and coming out in a cold sweat at how good she was. I realise that the people who did better than me were actually borderline genius. I think Victoria Wood was extraordinary. I think French and Saunders are extraordinary."

Eclair has been writing novels and other books for 20 years and is also a keen artist. Theatre tours have always featured high on her agenda, while TV work's been sporadic - although she has done her share of reality TV, including I'm A Celebrity... and Celebrity Bake Off as well as a year on Loose Women.

"TV has always bubbled under but it's never been the be-all and end-all," she reflects. "I've never earned as much from television as I do from my writing or my performing. I never quite stumbled across the right vehicle.

"There would always be someone with a clipboard saying, 'Do you mind not saying that?' In the early days, I was too over-the-top for most normal tastes. But if I hadn't done that then, I probably wouldn't be doing this now."

She says now that in retrospect, she's glad she was dropped from Loose Women after a year.

"Television could have made me very lazy. I was very glad, looking back, that I was 'let go' from Loose Women because I could have just coasted. At the time I was furious, because I thought: 'You're letting go of one of the most interesting people you've had on the panel, you t***!'"

Today, she seems less worried about the next job.

"Only now, at 60, do I feel that there's enough work for me to relax a bit. Female comedy has always been great, it just wasn't very well listened to, which is a shame because a lot of people fell by the wayside that shouldn't have done.

"More attention should have been given to female comics back in the Eighties and Nineties, and that didn't happen. Opportunities are better now. Women feel more deserving of their place. It seems extraordinary how long people got away with all-male panel shows."

She hopes to write a new stand-up show, perhaps focusing on life beyond menopause, and has a deal for two more books.

"I'm missing performing very much," she laments. "I miss being backstage, walking to the wings, my tour manager."

She writes in the book about a few years ago, being jealous of all the new funny, younger women who were being discovered and promoted above her.

But not any more. She follows new comedy, particularly female comedy, including Jess Fostekew and Luisa Omielan, who she thinks are great talents.

"The book made me realise that I am a changed person," says Eclair. "In some respects I've become fully adult, I've grown up."

Older And Wider: A Survivor's Guide To The Menopause by Jenny Eclair is published by Quercus, priced £16. 99

Belfast Telegraph