Black comedy: Interview with Janey Godley
aney Godley’s broad Glaswegian accent has become the unofficial voice of the pandemic in Scotland. Her voiceovers of Nicola Sturgeon’s briefings have provided humour in dark times and gone viral on social media as people tuned in to watch the slightly more informal – though still factual – version.
“From day one the message was boring, boring, boring, cannae go out, might go out, shouldn’t go out, you cannae out, you might, boring,” Godley says. “So I thought if I translate it into ‘two Alsatians apart’ and ‘Frank, get the door’ and ‘you’re allowed six people, six families, your Jeanette out of the caravan,’ if I made it funny, then people would get it better.”
This ability to bring light to grim subjects has become the hallmark of her career. Godley made a name for herself in the 1990s telling jokes about poverty, abuse and having gangsters for in-laws.
She says: “I make a joke of it because it’s my fucking life. It’s my lived experience and it’s my right to take it anywhere I want. Nobody can tell me what my lived experience means to them if I’m not allowed to say what it means to me.”
Godley grew up in the east end of Glasgow. The youngest of four, both her parents struggled with alcoholism and the family were threatened with eviction from their council house regularly. She was sexually abused by her uncle, left school at 16 without any qualifications and married her husband, the son of a prominent local gangster, at 19.
I ask what drives her to divulge the grim reality of her childhood in her stand-up. “I think it’s authenticity. I think it’s honesty. I want an audience to know the truth.
“I hate when I see middle class comics go on stage and go ‘I came from the rough part of the city’. No, you fucking never, don’t lie. So, I like to be honest, I’ll go on stage and go yeah, I used to eat out of bins because I was hungry when I was a kid, because we were fucked up. I want to be authentic.
“I don’t want to be the comedian who lives in a house with four horses and an estate and goes ‘oh it’s difficult being up in the tenements.’ I think it’s a strive to be honest really.”
She is still one of only a handful of working class Scottish women on the comedy circuit – though when I point this out, she quickly corrects me, saying she is no longer working class. But it’s clear her childhood continues to affect her.
“I still see myself as working class, I still have that fear. I still lie in bed at night and think what if I’ve no money and I can’t pay the electricity and can’t feed Ashley and I can’t put socks on her feet and I can’t, what if it all goes? I still have that fear.
“I had to have my agent talk me into stopping taking jobs at £100 just to take £100, because I kept thinking I’m always going to be poor, I’m always going to think I’m always going to be poor. And that’s what poverty leaves you with. It leaves you with a food and financial insecurity for the rest of your life.”
In many ways that still drives her, and she admits to finding it difficult to spend any of the money she works hard for. She donates some of her profits. “That helps me sleep at night, because I still feel guilty about everything. Feel guilty when I make money, so I have to try and give some of it away. I still have that guilt that my mammy was poor, she didn’t have any money.”
I want to be authentic. I don’t want to be the comedian who lives in a house with four horses and an estate and goes ‘oh it’s difficult being up in the tenements.’ I think it’s a strive to be honest really.
Like her comedy, her politics are also shaped by experience. She is unapologetically left-wing and, as she describes it, anti-Tory. “I was always just anti-Tory because, I mean, why the fuck would you be pro-Tory? Why would you go ‘I need to vote for Margaret Thatcher,’ because she’s your queen?”
But it wasn’t until the independence referendum that she became more vocal and, since Brexit, her views have become more entrenched. She says: “They tried a referendum [for independence], they never got it, fair.
“But then when Brexit happened and seeing how that affected our country, Scotland, kids aren’t going to be able to travel abroad and work, all the limitations of Brexit, what it’s doing to the fisheries in Scotland, and the Tories just standing by going, ‘no, no, it’s all fine, it’s all fine.’ I’m like, this is not all fine.
“I just think Scotland would be [better] to have some self-determination and not be dragged every single time Boris or Theresa May or whoever the fuck is in charge of that wonky ship makes a decision. It comes from a personal place, because I remember when I owned a pub my father-in-law still had [control] over us. It’s that, why can we not just make our own decisions? Why do we have to have somebody we never voted in tell us what to do? It’s basically that. It’s just rage against [that].”
And while she has voiced support for the SNP in the past, she emphasises most of all she is pro-independence. “I don’t care if the SNP get us there, I’m not a Nicola Sturgeon acolyte, although everyone is like ‘her and Nicola Sturgeon are best friends’. She’s not my pal. No politicians are my pal. I’m not fucking friends with politicians. I’m for independence.”
She adds: “I support equality [and] I support self-determination. I think that’s just my opinion. Whether Alba or SNP or the Greens, if they bring that to the table then good. I just think we should treat people equally and stop being arseholes. I don’t think that’s hard.”
Godley is also, naturally, a feminist. One of her successes in the last year has been a web series for the National Theatre in which she played a recently widowed woman released from an abusive marriage. It is a role she was able to draw from experience. Her mum, Annie Currie, was in an abusive relationship.
“I suppose Alone was a love letter to Annie in a sense. In a parallel universe she got revenge. There was a lot of parallels about coercive control and my experience with my mammy was brilliant research for that,” she says.
Annie’s death was 39 years ago. She was found drowned in the Clyde. Godley says her boyfriend at the time freely admitted he killed Annie, though never to the police and no one was ever arrested for murder.
I ask Godley if she believes things have got better for women since then. She replies: “Violence towards women is still very prevalent and people just, every time you talk about it, they’ll say it happens to men too. We’re not allowed to talk about it.”
Does she think Annie’s death would be dealt with differently now? “I don’t know. The police said to me she was a wee drunk woman, what do you expect? I don’t know if they’d have said that now. Hopefully it would have been different, hopefully. But a big part of me still thinks no, they’d still have just treated her like a wee, drunk, working class woman, you know?
“I mean you saw how when Kate Middleton went to Clapham [for the Sarah Everard vigil], she had no mask on because she wanted people to see her and she laid the candle or flowers or whatever. Yet if other people do it, they get fucking battered at night. There is just so much hypocrisy surrounding class and women that it’s frightening.”
With the election coming up, I ask Godley about her hopes for Scotland. She points to better mental health services and social housing. “There isn’t enough social housing being built. Young people like my daughter will never be able to buy their own house. We in the 80s, we could buy a house for £10,000. You can’t do that now. We need more social housing.”
She adds: “Young people, families, need to be living in all areas. I want to see poor people and rich people live in the same street.”
The area she lives, Maryhill in Glasgow, is a diverse community and, she says, all the better for it. “I love where I live. We have got a huge Asian community, we get a lot of refugees from Syria and all the kids came and play round the back. It brought light to the place. It brought life.”
Godley treasures a sense of community, especially after the last year. She celebrated her 60th birthday in January and her local deli made a cake. “I can’t thank [the owner] Giovanna enough, she has been great. There’s been days I’ve went down to the deli to get something and I’ve just been so blue, and she’s that woman that’ll slip a wee lasagne under the dog’s pram – because my dog has a pram – and send me a nice inspirational ‘you’re doing great, just keep going’. I’ve found pleasure in the smallest kindness.”
Lockdown has been particularly unusual for her family, because she and her daughter, Ashley Storrie, are normally away for large parts of the year working and touring. This has been an adjustment for her husband.
“This is the longest we’ve been together in a 40-year marriage. This is the longest because for 15 years we ran a pub and one did a shift, one did the baby. Or I was on tour and he was here. I was away living elsewhere; I was in New Zealand or America or on tour. We have been stuck together for a whole year and that’s been difficult, especially given that he has autism and having to deal with his routine his way.”
And while she misses touring, she did manage to write a new book during lockdown – though that didn’t come without its troubles. “That was the biggest struggle I had, was writing that new book, not because it was a hard book to write but trying to fucking focus and not think ‘we’re all gonnae die!’ every five minutes was hard.”
I ask if she has any advice for people who might be struggling with lockdown or other problems.
“I would encourage people who are having mental health stress to speak to people. I know it’s the age-old answer, but you’ll get no fucking answer on your own. You need to share that with somebody.
“You need to speak your darkness, you know, and I think that’s really important. And I think that’s what I do on stage, I speak my darkness.”