Tim Clark19 April 2007
With a sitcom in the pipeline and an Edinburgh show to plan, young writer Danielle Ward told Georgie Hobbs how she turned a broken heart into a BBC career
After ordering a "bog-standard tea" from a choice of over 30 in an Islington cafe, self-confessedly dark comic Danielle Ward settles down to talk about light entertainment.
As well as hosting two of her own nights (the surreal Freakshow in Piccadilly and the Alternative Women's Institute in King's Cross), the 28-year old now "writes for all BBC light ents across the board". Light ents? "Or comedy shows, as they're generally known," she smiles, self-consciously. After winning one of two places on the BBC New Writers bursary scheme only last September, it seems she's already entrenched in the lingo.
Ward is enthusiastically stepping into the shoes of former bursary recipients, Stewart Lee, Richard Herring, Doug Naylor, Rory McGrath, Jon Homes and Peter Baynham. Every day at work she walks past a board listing all the winners' names since it's inception in 1979. She tells me she "cannot wait for [her] name to go up there".
Until then, Ward spends her four-day week writing for topical programmes like The Now Show and The News Quiz, reading new scripts and working on her own radio sitcom pilot, to be unveiled when the nine-month contract ends in July. Then she's off to Edinburgh for her fourth Fringe show. At the moment she's in talks with her agent about how she should look on her new show's flyers.
Though she knows her profile as a comedy writer is rising enviably fast, Ward says her stand-up career is merely "pootling along". She is a reluctant performer, one much happier writing for others than for herself, she says. But then, she's only been performing for three years.
Before that, she studied philosophy at Cardiff, where she wrote a screenplay for BBC Talent themed around "a boy in a mental hospital and someone with their eyes inside out, oh and the government as well". It was, by her admission "ridiculous; the most convoluted thing I've ever written. Then again, I was only 19".
Moscow, Broken Hearts & Russell Brand
After a three-month trip to Moscow, where she taught English, vomited violently on the Metro and was kicked by the police, she returned to England and unexpectedly found employment as an economic researcher for the South Korean embassy.
"They thought; 'oh you can talk to foreign people, we'll hire you'. But I don't speak any Korean and only know a bit about finance. Oh, the things I could tell you about the South Korean embassy." She drifts off, before adding: "Well, no, I couldn't - they'd probably shoot me."
Then a boy broke her heart. Sick of her own misery and her housemates' unsympathetic reactions to her noisy wallowing (she's a door-slammer), she paid £70 to join a City Lit comedy course in Holborn.
"Well, it was either that or macramé," she explains. "And if you're going to make people hate you, give them a good reason, that's what I say." She sighs ruefully; "That's why I do jokes about people having their heads cut off." (Presumably she's referring to The News Quiz's task of turning Saddam Hussein's death into a series of Radio 4 quips, but given that she hosts a night called Freakshow, you never know.)
The adult education course gently coaxed back her confidence and after 10 weeks, she excelled at the end of term gig. Bolstered by this performance, she practised in front of friends before booking her first open spot at The King's Head, Crouch End a few weeks later.
The venue organised a compère; an up-and-coming comedian named Russell Brand. "This was when he used to look like a bloke, not a Victorian werewolf, you know, before he got the Big Brother gig," she says. She remembers Brand as being supportive and when she battled past his female entourage to see him at Edinburgh last year, he was still "really ace". She's kept his phone number, but worries he's too famous for her to "bother him".
Getting serious; Rapey footballers and apoliticsm
Ward is hardly a nobody herself. As well as the bursary, she won Time Out's Best Newcomer award last year. In 2004, she wrote her own show (with Roisin Conaty and Isy Suttie) on Radio 1's late-night comedy programme The Milk Run. She then moved on to write for Radio 2's Saturday show The Day The Music Died on a freelance basis. But, despite her reluctance to perform, she owes it all to her stand-up; she was spotted by The Milk Run producers when performing an open spot in a pub on Great Portland Street. Now she tells all aspiring comics to head to The Albany. It is right next to the BBC's offices; in fact, it's their local.
Although The Albany isn't bad for starting out, she says nothing beats airing your show at the Fringe. It was there that the panel from the BBC bursary scheme saw her first play three years ago and, taking into account her previous radio work and some trial periods writing for The Now Show, awarded her the prize.
"Now I'm doing the job that loads of really famous comics have done, which is brilliant," she says. But does she think that actively opting to write political comedy makes her unusual? "In some ways, political comedy is seen as not a cool thing to do," she replies. "And that's a shame. But if you think: 'who's the current hero of the comedy circuit?' It's Josie [Long], and she obviously doesn't do political material. Once you've got a figurehead like that it's quite easy for everyone to say, 'oh, I want to be like that', which is no bad thing either."
Outside of the BBC though, Ward says she "never touches the [political] stuff" in her own sets. Then I remind her that a few topical jokes about "rapey" footballers made a prominent appearance at February's Alternative Women's Institute. "Oh well, yeah I suppose. I cover the politics of life maybe, but that's probably a hangover from working at The Now Show."
Trying to marry serious subjects with light humour is difficult, she says - after all you can't just shout at a crowd for 20 minutes. And she's been having trouble striking the balance herself of late; "The first two jokes I wrote for The Now Show this week were about the 'lotto' rapist [Iorworth Hoare] and Harold Shipman, and I thought, they're not going to get used. You know: Radio 4, 6.30 in the evening, there's got to be some compliance."
Indeed, it seems compliance is required no matter how successful you get. "I'm always guilt-tripped into writing the money bits at work," she moans. She once had to write a whole list of jokes on the pre-budget report, none of which were used. "They were good, but I think [MC's] Punt and Dennis decided the subject was too dull," she muses. "They were probably right."
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