Comedy turn comes to town

One critic says she might be another Victoria Wood. David Blunkett - yes, him - is a fan. Steven Russell met the Naked Civil Servant (naked only in the sense that she frequently bares her soul on stage, you understand)

One critic says she might be another Victoria Wood. David Blunkett - yes, him - is a fan. Steven Russell met the Naked Civil Servant (naked only in the sense that she frequently bares her soul on stage, you understand)

THERE'S precious little to smile about these days at the Home Office, so staff have to find light relief where they can.

But combining a part-time civil service job with comic performance-poetry? You're having a laugh, surely?

Actually, no. And yes. On two days a week Jude Simpson takes the train to London to work in the human resources section. For the rest of the week she's writing, polishing her words, and performing.

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Twice she's taken a solo show of poetry, song and comedy to the Edinburgh Fringe. One reviewer reckoned she combined the charm of Pam Ayres with the audience appeal of Victoria Wood and the polite Englishness of Joyce Grenfell.

Jude has appeared on the BBC Radio 2 show Eddie Izzard's Light Night Cabaret, alongside Jerry Hall and Pete Townsend, and her poem on former BBC political commentator Andrew Marr was featured on Radio 4's The Today Programme during last year's election campaign.

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Now she's coming to Ipswich for the Pulse Festival, with the premiere of a show called Am I Grown Up Yet? There's a good chance it will feature some well-chosen words about Tupperware, big bones and the search for Mr Right.

So how did a civil service high-flier come to be hip-hopping in Crouch End (among other places)?

It's really a story of having faith in yourself and having the guts to go for it.

Judith Simpson was born 33 years ago in Lancaster, the daughter of an engineer and a physiotherapist. When she was three, the family moved to Cambridgeshire, to where she's recently returned after a decade in London.

She joined the Home Office in May, 1996 - then led by Michael Howard, dealing with domestic violence and crime statistics, then immigration. Then she was internally head-hunted to work in David Blunkett's office and was there during 9/11 and worked for him when emergency terrorism legislation was put to Parliament.

But already at this stage she'd decided she wanted to leave and write.

She realised there was a powerful creative urge demanding to be satisfied. Only one problem: she didn't know where to start. She said: “I didn't know anybody who did anything vaguely connected to writing; no-one I could call on and say 'How do I do this?' - no Auntie Jill who works for the Independent.”

Jude opted to take a year off to discover if it was she wanted to do, and if she was any good at it.

So at the start of 2002 she made a clean break, and said: “It was very freeing, although a bit scary.”

Jude experimented with genres in a fitting room-esque does-it-suit-me kind of way. She settled on comic performance-poetry: writing material at home and then going wherever there's a chance to air her observations before an audience; at literature festivals, cabarets clubs, and comedy clubs.

She won the UK Allcomers Slam at Cheltenham Literature Festival in the autumn of 2003 and just a couple of weeks ago took the Swindon Festival of Literature slam trophy.

Now, she realises that while some writers sit alone in their study, “I'm probably a performer first and foremost.”

At the moment she's averaging one or two gigs a week. Unfortunately, the arts being the arts, there's no money in it, so her part-time Home Office job comes in more than handy.

She said: “It would be thrilling to be snapped up as the new Victoria Wood, able to go out on proper long tours and then have time to recharge the batteries and write new material. Until then you just have to keep going, “and it takes a lot of self-belief, a lot of self-discipline, gritted teeth-ness.

“A lot of what I say is 'This is what it's like for me; like it or lump it. I'm not ashamed of it.' But I think I'm still learning to judge that line between being yourself and giving out too much.

“The best bit of a gig is always the last two minutes, because you go “Ah, I've remembered all my words, I've done all my stuff, they've liked it, I haven't got too much more to think about!'

“I'm not a perfectionist in any other way, but I have often spent 45 minutes on just a few words, on one line, just trying to make it right. You think 'I can't take that out. It's like taking your children out when they haven't had their faces washed!'”

David Blunkett might later have been publicly ridiculed, but Jude Simpson says he was great to work for.

He is quite a fan of poetry in general, she said: “So I later sent him a cassette of my stuff and he wrote back, and I said 'Ooh, can you give me a quote?'”

He did: “Her poetry celebrates the oddities of a world we all recognise in a way that is thought-provoking, warm and hilarious.”



Jude Simpson is at the New Wolsey Studio in Ipswich on the evening of Wednesday, June 14.


The Evening Star is sponsoring The Pulse Festival. See The Ticket every Friday for coverage of future events.

Extract from Jude Simpson's poem, I'm a girl, OK

I'm a girl, OK, I need to be told

On a regular basis I don't look as old

As I am, that my eyes shine like jewels within,

That my dress doesn't make me look fat - or too thin.

I need to be told every day once or twice

That there isn't a girl in the world who's as nice

As I am - compared even to Hollywood stars

That my radiant beauty's superior by far...

I'm a girl OK, it's the way I've been raised:

When I ask for opinion, I'm looking for praise

And if you don't comply then I'll wonder why not

And whether your passion's no longer as hot

As it was, so if I should ask you your views

On a new dress I've bought, or some jewellery, or shoes

Then remember this maxim each day, month and year -

Don't say what you think, say what I want to hear...

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