Sandi Toksvig is Britain’s favourite Dane – narrowly ahead of Hamlet and Hans Christian Andersen – her dry wit has made her a favourite of panel shows, most notably QI, and she enjoys a cult following courtesy of her stewardship of the frequently hilarious The News Quiz on Radio 4. She will be bringing her unique blend of stand-up, story-telling and fascinating facts to South Wales later this month. Her nationwide tour My Valentine reaches St. David’s Hall on Monday October 28th and the Swansea Grand Theatre on Tuesday October 29th. After each show Toksvig will be signing copies of her latest novel Valentine Grey (Virago) and Peas and Queues (Profile), her contemporary guide through the minefield of modern manners. The Wales Arts Review profiles this much-loved and multi-faceted writer-performer and features a Q & A that sheds a little light on her upcoming tour.
Sandi Toksvig’s distinctive, clipped voice sounds quintessentially English but her background is extravagantly cosmopolitan. She was born in Copenhagen, where her Danish father was a celebrated broadcaster. His career led to many family relocations and she spent a great deal of her childhood in Africa and the U.S. She became a comedian at Girton College, Cambridge – her contemporaries included Emma Thompson, impressionist Jan Ravens and Stephen Fry – where she wrote and performed in the first all-woman Footlights revue. Toksvig’s quick-fire delivery and formidable intelligence – she earned a first class degree in spite of extra-curricular activities such as performing on the opening night of The Comedy Store – made her a natural improviser, and she appeared as one of the original Comedy Store Players for several years.
People in their late 30s and early 40s will recall Toksvig as the host of a number of Saturday morning children’s shows, including No. 73 and Motormouth. She has since become a staple of the TV schedules, from chairing daytime quiz shows on Channel 4 to presenting a six-part documentary on the history of the Sudan for Al-Jazeera. In 2010 she brought live drama back to television when she conceived, co-wrote and hosted Theatre Live for Sky Arts television.
The multi-talented Toksvig’s current tour showcases her improvisational comic skills and her body of work as a writer of fiction and non-fiction for both children and adults. Her latest novel Valentine Grey was published in 2012. Toksvig’s book on modern manners, Peas and Queues, is published this autumn and promises to answer questions such as: How do you get rid of unwanted guests? What do you do if there’s someone making a racket in a quiet train carriage? How should you eat peas, and behave in queues? She offers guidance on the social pitfalls of every phase of life, from christenings to condolence letters – and has uncovered fascinating details about how our manners have changed across time, from the earliest etiquettes to the changing nature of spoons.
Sandi Toksvig is the current Chancellor of Portsmouth University (from 2012) and is involved with many charities focusing on civil liberty, women’s rights and education.
Tell us about My Valentine.
I decided to call the tour ‘My Valentine’ because it’s my valentine to life. I have a passion for life and honestly feel that we should all just bloody well get out there and enjoy it. Spike Milligan once said that jokes should be available on the NHS and there’s something in that. My intention is that people will come and see the show, have a laugh, enjoy themselves and, hopefully, walk out of the theatre feeling a little bit better than when they arrived.
Where did you get this ‘passion for life’?
When I was 21, I was seriously ill. I don’t want this to sound too dramatic, but it was touch and go for a while. I’m not a religious person, but that whole experience changed everything for me. I’m determined to be cheerful… determined to seek out all the interesting stuff that the world’s got to offer.
Most people probably know you from Radio 4’s The News Quiz or TV shows like QI. How does it feel to be back on a live stage?
Performing live was where it all started for me. I can’t believe it was 32 years ago. In this age of tabloid headlines, it’s very easy to get cynical about the job I do, but there’s a wonderful simplicity to being on stage. If the audience is enjoying what you’re doing, they will laugh. If they’re not, they’ll tell you to push off.
You’ve also have a new book out at the moment, Peas & Queues: The Minefield of Modern Manners. Do manners matter in 2013?
They matter more than ever. You’ve only got to look at the recent rows over Twitter to see what happens when there are no set rules about how we behave. It’s a bit like the Wild West of manners out there. When my partner, Debbie, came to London from Lancashire at the age of 18, she brought two things with her… an A-Z and Debrett’s Guide to Etiquette. In life, we all need to know how to get around and how to behave. I hope it isn’t one of those pompous books that tell you off for using the wrong spoon or anything like that. It isn’t a-me-on-my-soapbox book. I’m just trying to offer a little gentle guidance.
Do you find writing easy?
I don’t always like the process of writing, but I like seeing the end result. My father was a journalist, so he was always writing and, rather bizarrely, he compared the process to eating fish. He said: ‘First you must land the fish. Then, you fillet out the rubbish and enjoy the tasty bits’. There’s a section of the show where I talk about why I write and encourage the audience to write… we’ve all got a story to tell. No matter how many Kindles there are out there, people will always love books. Books can change lives. If George Bush had just read one book about Afghanistan, the world might be different place. Actually, the world might be a different place if George Bush had just read one book.
You’ve also written plays, you’re Chancellor of the University of Portsmouth, you’ll be appearing in the Christmas edition of Call the Midwife… how do you choose the projects you get involved in?
It’s either got to be something that makes me happy, like playing a grumpy polio nurse in the wonderful Call the Midwife, or something I care about, like education. My generation has done a huge disservice to the current generation by forcing them to pay for their education. I feel a lot of rage about that and I guess that I’m trying to give something back. I help out with staff training days at the university and, last July, I personally graduated and shook the hands of about 4500 students.
We can’t let you go without mentioning The News Quiz.
Did you know it’s now a worldwide phenomenon? I’ve actually been invited to perform in New Zealand and Australia next year, partly because of the success of The News Quiz down there. I like to think people enjoy the show – and I’m told its Radio 4’s most popular panel show of all time – because it’s not nasty, vile or personal. Yes, we make jokes, but it’s a very inclusive show. In that sense, I suppose it’s a bit like My Valentine. Every night of the tour, there’s me and a couple of thousand mates having a bit of a laugh with each other. We get the audience on their feet, we have a history quiz… there’s even a Q&A session.
What’s the best question you’ve been asked on stage?
Some of the questions are hilarious. A woman in Bradford wanted to know my bra size! I couldn’t actually remember, so she had to come up and have a look.