A Tory baroness and a leftwing comedian walk into a bar. As setups for a punchline go, it sounds fairly promising. But on day one of filming, neither Sayeeda Warsi nor Nick Helm saw the funny side of their pairing. Helm, star of BBC sitcom Uncle and a panel show regular, was one of five comedians tasked with mentoring a famous face, helping them to write an original five-minute routine which they would then perform in front of a live audience, for a Stand Up to Cancer special on Channel 4.
“We were given the list of names quite late on,” says the 40-year-old comic over Zoom. As well as Warsi, it included broadcaster the Rev Richard Coles, Love Islander Curtis Pritchard, and Happy Mondays frontman Shaun Ryder. “When I first looked at the names,” says Helm, “I thought I’d be OK if I got anyone other than the baroness. When they paired us up, I had a sort of existential crisis.”
Helm wasn’t just worried that they’d have next to nothing in common, which would make coaching tough. There had been some noise in the standup world when the show was announced, he explains, with some accusing producers of taking work for standups and giving it to celebrities. “I thought that was ridiculous,” says Helm, “as it was actually giving work to comedians, including me, who haven’t had a lot of work this year.”
What’s more, filming was initially delayed by Covid, and by the time it kicked off he felt rusty. Helm’s biggest concern, however, was that he might look like a sellout: his views are fiercely progressive, even if he generally steers clear of politics in his material. “If I do my job well,” Helm recalls telling his partner, “then I’m going to make you look really good. And I don’t want that: I didn’t want my entire industry to think I’m a Tory turncoat.”
“You should have seen Nick’s face!” says Warsi, jumping in on our call with a grin. “Within 30 seconds, he’d told me I was the person he least wanted!” Warsi, too, had some reservations. She wasn’t hugely familiar with Helm, so did a bit of research and soon concluded that he didn’t seem a natural fit for a woman who isn’t just a Tory but – for much of her life at least – has also seen herself as a stiff-upper-lipped, small-c conservative. “When I saw Nick running around the stage in his underpants on YouTube,” she says, “I thought, ‘God no!’ But I’m a politician, so I was polite when I met him. Nick was less so.”
Over the course of five sessions, though, their perspectives started to shift – if not on a political level, then a personal one. Helm’s obnoxious and loud onstage persona is markedly at odds with his more quiet and sensitive self. A trip they made to the one-bed in Yorkshire where Warsi grew up was just one sign of many that, while she might be a former chair of the Conservative party, this Muslim woman with northern working-class roots isn’t your run-of-the-mill Tory. Pretty quickly, they both saw these apparent contradictions had the makings of great material.
Still, it took a while for Warsi to loosen up. Both found the process frustrating. In an effort to draw Warsi out of her politician’s shell, Helm dressed her up in increasingly absurd fancy dress, and encouraged her to dig deep and get angry. And then something clicked. In an empty rehearsal room, Warsi put down her notes and went off-script, letting rip with pent-up anger and frustration.
“There is no way I’m going to let these posh bastards make me feel like I do not belong,” she yelled, referring to her party colleagues. “And then you want to talk to me about Muslims, as if somehow they’re just one big monolithic block. This blob that walks around and speaks for each other, having conversations about taking over the world. Have you ever met a Muslim? You get fucking two Muslims in a room you get six opinions. Most Muslims could not organise a piss-up in a fucking mocktail bar.”
It’s not hard to see where this tirade came from. For years, Warsi has been fighting what has appeared at times to be a one-woman war against Islamophobia in the Conservative party. Boris Johnson has been repeatedly accused of prejudice against Muslims. A 2020 report by Hope Not Hate found almost 60% of Conservative members believe myths about “no-go areas in Britain where sharia law dominates and non-Muslims cannot enter”. Some 57% expressed negative views about Muslims; 21% registered very negative attitudes. In the past, Warsi has said her membership of the party is like being in an “abusive relationship”.
“Comedy,” says Warsi, “is a space where you can do things that politicians cannot. Up there, I realised I could say what I wanted and get away with it.” Take, she says, the number of times she’s sat in meetings and listened to “those ‘Londonistan’ theories”. Warsi finds such notions of Muslim takeover farcical, given “we can’t even agree on a day for Eid, or how to wash for rituals. So I talked about that on stage: about being a recovering Tory, about being stuck inside the Conservative party and trying to keep my sanity.”
I wonder if raising all this on national TV is a last resort, an act of desperation even. Warsi’s demands for action, after all, appear to have been all but ignored when she has made them in the press or in parliament. And this will be her biggest platform yet. “I don’t think that was the reason for doing it,” she says, “but I definitely learned that comedy is an incredibly powerful medium to have debates we just aren’t having in politics.”
Our conversation turns to the politics of the comedy world itself. With the BBC’s new director-general Tim Davie reportedly planning a cull of the Corporation’s leftwing comedy shows, has this experience has left Helm wanting to see more rightwing comics on screen? “We’ve had hundreds of years of rightwing comedy,” he says, rolling his eyes. “Most of them are either dead or banned now. And it’s the Tories who are in power, so it makes sense that satire is aimed at them. You deconstruct authority figures and challenge the establishment. And they are the establishment.” If you want more rightwing comedians, he says, then let leftwing people govern the country for a change.
“Being to the left of politics also means you’re more likely to be speaking for the underdog,” Warsi chimes in, “whereas Conservatives preserve the status quo. And the status quo meant women would have been marginalised, black people would have been marginalised, gay people would have been marginalised. They’re the groups punching up through comedy. Naturally it lends itself to the left.”
As someone who grew up on a diet of Mind Your Language, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum and Alf Garnett, Warsi is glad that comedy has changed. “I look at what my parents used to watch and think, ‘No, it was fricking racist, it was horrible. It was laughing at you not with you.’”
By the time Warsi’s performance came round, the pair had clearly grown fond of each other. Helm brims with pride backstage as he watches his protegee wax lyrical to a crowd. Certainly, their vibe on our Zoom call is more old married couple than warring politicos. “I’ve not met a Tory politician before,” Helm says, “so I won’t make blanket statements. But I can say I at least get on with one of them.”
Granted, he adds, this has been in a very limited and specific way, given that they weren’t allowed to communicate off camera. “But still,” he says, “we won’t get anywhere as a society unless we listen to each other. And we managed it from different ends of the spectrum.” Directing his remarks to Warsi, he adds: “Well, I suppose you’re really more in the middle.”
Warsi found it revelatory, too. During filming, Helm coined her a catchphrase that she now tries to live by: “I’m the baroness, bitches.” She now uses it to psych herself up in both her professional and personal life. Warsi even emailed the prime minister to brief him about her material on the show. He has yet to respond, not that she’s bothered. “I’m going to be 50 in March,” she says. “And that’s been on my mind. I wanted to do something out there, change how I live my life. Nick made me do and say things I wouldn’t dare to. And considering my age, that felt incredibly liberating.”
This newfound freedom shines through in her set, in which Warsi pulls no punches. She riffs on how the government are “starving kids”, takes pot-shots at the “batshit stuff” her Tory colleagues in parliament are doing, and ends on a gag about life on the Isis kill list. “Am I bothered?” she says with a smile. “Am I eff – because Isis needs to know that I’m the baroness, bitches.”