Interview: Cucumber and Banana star Bethany Black
The makers of Channel 4’s and E4’s interlinked dramas, Cucumber and Banana, were looking for an actor to play transsexual character Helen. Who better, then, than Bethany Black, a stand-up comedian who has experienced the change for herself?
Broke and on the brink of giving up showbusiness, she answered the call to appear in Russell T Davies’s eight-part project and makes her television debut this week.
Fifteen years ago she told her parents about her life-changing plans. Once the news had sunk in, her mother’s reaction was to say: ‘But we’ve just had a conservatory built!’
Happier and hopeful for the future, Black talks about her preparation for the role and how Mum was misunderstood . . .
What’s the story behind your involvement with Cucumber and Banana?
As a result of breaking my leg, I ended up unable to work and in really deep trouble financially. It was looking like I would have to declare myself bankrupt and do a nine to five job. Then about five or six people messaged me on Facebook to say that Channel 4 were casting for Banana.
You obviously auditioned – was it a long wait afterwards?
The audition was on the Thursday, I got a recall over the weekend, got the job on the Wednesday and we started filming the following Sunday. Filming started at the beginning of June through to September last year.
You appear in both programmes, and as the lead character in one of the Banana episodes. Tell us about the episode and your character in particular.
It’s a great episode. This is the most dramatic of them, it’s a really nice change of pace. My character Helen has an ex and it’s a messy break-up and you are not entirely sure if it is over. Helen has decided it is definitely over and Eddie starts to retaliate. She has had enough of Eddie, she is fed up of being his fetish. The way I see the character is that she has been with this man but had felt undeserving of any more than to be the object of someone’s desire. But now she has grown in confidence and is pushing this guy away. She is strong and decides not to put up with it.
It’s your television acting debut. Aside from your stand-up, have you done any acting in the theatre?
No. I last acted playing Lane, the manservant, in The Importance of Being Earnest for my A-levels.
What were your initial thoughts about playing a transgender character and why do you think you were offered the part?
Having been a trans for the last fifteen years – since I came out in the late 90s – and having been a comic as well, I have seen trans characters portrayed and I have seen them go badly wrong. I thought, ‘Oh God, how awful is this going to be?’ I expected to not like it but I thought it was great. She was straight for a start and I thought ‘How on Earth am I going to play that?’. I was told by Russell that they were really struggling to find someone who could do the role. They had seen lots of trans actors but they hadn’t necessarily had much experience of performing. I’ve been a stand-up comedian for ten years. Doing half an hour on stage every night is not acting as such but there are lots of transferable skills like making ad libs sound fresh when you have said them a thousand times before.
So was this a case of meticulous preparation – or winging it on the day?
I was incredibly well prepared. From the H&M top and jeans I thought she’d wear, to getting my hair and make-up right on the day to the perfume she’d use. She works in a restaurant, so I thought ‘OK, what would she wear to counter that?’
You were born a male, and now you’re female. Can you tell us about the experience?
Well, it’s not ‘Hurray, there’s the surgery and now I’m a woman’. A few years ago I had the surgery and then after 18 months I had my boobs done. People think that surgery is the focal point but that is not the big life-changing thing. The thing is that suddenly and overnight you are treated entirely differently. Suddenly you are on the receiving end of all sorts of attention.
What if you hadn’t had the surgery?
People end up committing suicide – 82% of trans end up having thought about suicide or do it so this is absolutely vital; these are lifesaving operations and I must say the NHS were absolutely fantastic.
Let’s talk about the conservatory. You tell the story in your act: what did your mother mean?
It was only when I spoke to my Mum about that – much later – she said to me, ‘You are making me out to be a fool and I am not’. She was worried. She was saying she was worried that I’d be sad and lonely and no one would want anything to do with me. My parents have been together for 45 years; they got married six weeks after they met. What my Mum meant was, ‘If Dad had rejected you I’d have to have left him. And we’d just had the conservatory built’.
Do your parents watch you perform on stage?
Mum and Dad live in France now, so not really, but they are massively proud of what I do. My Mum has such a terrible fear of public speaking that it stops her from seeing things in public.
What differences did you notice between acting for television and live comedy?
Make it smaller. And the other main difference is the level of pressure is a lot less in filming stuff. For the first few takes I was over-prepared. I’d been thinking, ‘Day one as an actor and here I am with 40 people in the crew. Let’s not screw this up’. After that I relaxed into it and it felt so much easier.
When you are doing stand-up in front of a crowd you are getting feedback every six seconds.
* Cucumber begins January 22 on Channel 4 at 9pm; Banana begins the same night on E4 at 10pm. Bethany appears regularly but stars in episode four of Banana on February 12
Born: Preston, 1978
Landmark productions: Cucumber and Banana, Channel 4/E4 (2015)
Awards: Best Debut nomination, Leicester Comedy Festival (2008)
Agent: Jon Keyes, Paramount International
What was your first job? Working in a wax factory in Chorley, Lancashire
What’s your next job? I’m performing various comedy dates this month and next. I’m writing something and being mentored by Russell T Davies, he’s helping me with that. I have a couple of auditions coming up.
Other comics you admire? Billy Connolly, Victoria Wood, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and Sarah Millican who is one of the nicest people to work with.