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Phoenix Nights star tells DMU audience how she landed her break

She entertained millions in Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights, played two roles in Coronation Street and has just been given a major new BBC radio series.

And for one evening, Janice Connolly gave an audience to De Montfort University Leicester (DMU), talking through her long career in comedy.

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Janice – better known as her alter ego, Mrs Barbara Nice – was joined by Leicester Comedy Festival director Geoff Rowe for this year’s I Say Comedy Conversation, a perennial part of the festival, traditionally held at DMU.

Speaking in front of the audience at one of the lecture theatres in DMU’s Hugh Aston Building, Janice talked about her life, growing up in Birmingham and joining punk bands (her first was called Strumpet) and, from there, moving into comedy in the 1980s.

She said: “I think punk is quite close to comedy and the great thing about stand-up is that you don’t need permission.

“It’s the best way to get out there and noticed. If you want people to see your writing, get up there and perform it. If you’re funny, you’ll be spotted.”

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It was after gaining some early experience that Janice came up with her most famous comic creation, Barbara Nice: a caricature of a middle-aged housewife and mother of five from Kings Heath, Birmingham.

She said: “It came out of wanting to find a way to get in comedy clubs as an older women. There were lots of young comics at the time: I spent quite a while with Frank Skinner when he was on the rise, when he won the Perrier at Edinburgh.”

Janice developed a unique live act in the role of Barbara Nice, heavily involving audiences, acting as their agony aunt, getting them to perform congas and play What’s the Time Mr Wolf. She gave Barbara a back story and a husband, Ken.

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And this act drew the eye of young Bolton comic Peter Kay, who asked her to be part of his new TV show, That Peter Kay Thing, and, subsequently, the smash hit Phoenix Nights.

Janice said: “He used ask, ‘What’s it feel like to be making a Bafta-award winning comedy?’ And that was before we’d even made it.”

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Her appearance as Holy Mary in the show led to her entertaining thousands at the Manchester Arena over 15 packed nights, for 2015’s Phoenix Nights Live shows.

She said: “In it, I did a huge raffle with the audience. I had to go round charity shops in the day buying up tat for prizes. It was fun.”

In a Q&A with the audience, someone asked how Janice felt about the idea that women comedians are considered less funny than men.

She said: “I’ve always enjoyed being underestimated. I’s back stage at a show and I know people are wondering who I am. And they come off and give me a look and I think, ‘I’m going to blow you off the stage’.

“And then after I come off, nobody wants to go on.”

Recently, Janice has finished making a sitcom about Barbara Nice, which will be aired on BBC Radio 2 in March.

She said: “Writing a sitcom is hard. You might watch something and think, ooh, that’s dreadful. But try writing one.

“And then you realise that to get characters so rich that you can get dozens and dozens of episodes out of just their relationship – that’s very hard.

“I would love to get Barbara onto TV. That’s what I’m going for.”

Posted on Friday 24th February 2017

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