Angela Barnes: ‘Comedy’s the only job I’ve had where I don’t feel like a failure’ | Comedy

As a BBC regular Angela Barnes is used to triggering the anti-Auntie trolls, be it her political views, voice, appearance or – in one bizarre week – being too good at Richard Osman’s House of Games, the cheerful teatime quizshow. Most of which she ignores, but the sanguine standup does engage with another novel complaint: that she’s too loud.

“I get that a lot, as people don’t realise that I’m deaf and can’t necessarily regulate the volume of my voice,” explains the comic, now sitting quietly in the corner of a big Brighton pub. “Sometimes they’ll say ‘Oh shit, sorry, I didn’t realise’ – and it’s not their fault, they wouldn’t know. But sometimes they double down: ‘That’s no excuse!’ Which really makes me laugh.”

The very idea of broadcasting herself would have bewildered Barnes 20 years ago. Now 46 and a hugely assured – if still slightly unsung – stage presence, she only took to comedy well into her 30s. Starting standup can be remarkably transformative. Without taking that stage “I don’t know if I’d still be here,” she admits. “Which sounds dramatic. But I was desperately unhappy.”

Our meeting is ostensibly to discuss her current UK tour, but also to compare notes on stressful student years: we both arrived in Brighton, at the same university halls, in 1996. Although my travails – two Prozac-fuelled final terms – were benign by comparison. Barnes had excelled back home in Maidstone, but things went awry in her late teens. The hearing issues began with the usually treatable glue ear – ear canal blockages – but something else was interacting with it, affecting her focus, social interactions and self-esteem.

Barnes on stage at the Hay Festival last year.
Barnes on stage at the Hay festival last year. Photograph: SHP/Alamy

One theme of her latest show, the admirably frank Hot Mess, is Barnes’ diagnosis during the pandemic with ADHD; not an uncommon discovery for comedians recently. Standup is almost a symptom, she suggests: “there’ll be people saying, ‘For god’s sake, you can’t all have ADHD,’ I go ‘yes, they can.’ If you’re secure, happy and stable, why would you do this?” And why did she? “It’s the only job I’ve had where I don’t feel like a failure.”

For Barnes, that belated revelation explained a lot – struggles with studies and jobs, treatments for depression and bipolar disorder. “I’d had, what, 27 years of being medicated for something I didn’t have,” she says, now very much speaking up. “I think that happens a lot, particularly to women. ‘Oh, you’re depressed, take some antidepressants,’ without going ‘well, what’s causing this?’”

One bright spot was comedy. After the unexpectedly unhappy uni years Barnes yo-yoed between Brighton and London, trained as a nurse, and started running a few club nights, while staying firmly off the stage. “I didn’t have that push to do it then,” she says, “very low confidence.”

As a child she and father Derek – a big comedy fan – had bonded over Radio 4 shows like The News Quiz, which Angela would eventually host. That seemed a long way off, but he now travelled down from Norfolk to watch her nights, and urged her to try performing too. Only after his sudden death, at 60, did she step up.

“It was ‘seize the day, life’s so short,’ all of that,” Barnes recalls, and just physically seizing the microphone felt oddly natural, after years of social awkwardness. Standing alone on stage “it is always your turn to speak,” she says. “That’s the contract. I talk, you listen.”

The sheer joy of performing still radiates through Barnes’ live work, and her audience is reliably enthusiastic: big whoopers. Things have certainly changed. Today’s meetup pub was once a goth bar, The Gloucester, the sort of noisy 90s haunt where conversations flew by and “I’d end up sat on my own feeling shit.” This time a twentysomething fan rushes over with the memorable opener “you owe me new knickers!”

Barnes has that effect on people, and doesn’t hold back during Hot Mess. It’s expertly crafted, often poignant but also peppered with furious political material, definitely too hot for Radio 4. At the London show I saw, two couples actually left abruptly after one particularly impassioned polemic – perhaps just beating the traffic. It was satire that made her name, after all, on The News Quiz and BBC Two’s Mock the Week. Then came the usually feelgood House of Games, where “we had so much fun,” says Barnes, but she won all five days, unprecedented. Cue a Twitter takedown.

“I’m not going to pretend I don’t know the answer to something I know the answer to, on telly,” sighs the “awful, competitive, nasty” comic. Tough crowd. “With this accent, and being an older woman, I feel like people underestimate my intelligence all the time.”

Trolls still assume that everyone on TV “leads a charmed life,” says Barnes. Her one extravagance? Futuristic, super-connective hearing aids, although her most important pre-interview task was unlinking them. “I have to remember at gigs,” she says. “It’s happened to me twice where I’m in the middle of a bit and my phone’s ringing in my ears.”

Now medication-free, her life is hardly charmed. Heavy colds hamper the hearing aids’ effectiveness, and there were fears last year that a second bout of Covid “permanently changed my hearing”. So touring at all is a relief, again, and the Brighton date looms; always a big moment, a home-town show. She moved back for good in 2018, partly because the coast offers old-school, sanatorium-style therapy.

“What I’ve learned, when my mental health is bad, I just get in the sea,” she says. “And I feel better.”

Radio, crowd laughter, the sea: sometimes happiness comes in waves.

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