How Sarah Millican struck comedy gold

Laughing Nightmare

The nerves may have been a ploy all along.

Five years ago when novice standup comedian Sarah Millican warily stood under a spotlight at her first Edinburgh Fringe Festival venue, she adjusted her blouse repeatedly, like a Geordie lass next door forced to perform a comic turn. Then this apparently shy girl from South Shields let fly a series of gaspingly rude jokes.

Whether or not Millican's jitters were a calculated stage effect, her late gamble on a career in live entertainment has certainly paid off since that debut. In Edinburgh last summer, the queues wound around the block for her show at one of the city's biggest venues. The comic also appears on television panel shows with a regularity that threatens to put Jimmy Carr in the shade, and next weekend her TV show is up for a Bafta award. And now the income from her DVDs and live shows has been revealed to be in excess of £2m.

For the actor and comedian Hugh Dennis it is clear the competitive atmosphere of BBC2's Mock the Week, on which they both appear, does not daunt Millican. "Sarah has got this thing about her, this brilliant knack, and you can watch her doing it," he said this weekend. "On a panel show you have to make a space around everything you say and she makes a sort of bubble around herself somehow – then you just listen to what she says."

And the 37-year-old star seems as happy to own her brilliant success as she is to own the limelight on a panel show. There is even a touch of glee when she talks about her DVD sales. "There were a handful of people that didn't think women sell DVDs. It's nice to do a two-finger salute," she has said. All the same, Millican does defer to the male giants of the comedy DVD market, Lee Evans and Peter Kay. "They are far outselling everyone else and then there's this middle section who are battling and doing really well. I wanted to be able to prove I could do it with the big boys, and I can!"

Her triumph in such a short time is the more remarkable given the chiefly male camaraderie of the comedy circuit and the macho traditions of Newcastle in particular. Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer made a Tyneside accent synonymous with TV comedy in the 1990s, and Ross Noble fills large venues whenever he tours Britain. But these popular surrealists have never touched on the sensitive domestic territory essential to Millican's humour.

Millican's forthright personal revelations are probably closer to the style of old music hall acts. And the banks of the Tyne were once fertile ground for that kind of entertainment. George Leybourne, nicknamed Champagne Charlie after his most famous song, was a star in the late 1800s. Then came Geordie Ridley, whose unflattering lovesong, Cushie Butterfield, remains second only to his other tune, Blaydon Races, as a Newcastle anthem. In fact, its chorus sets out the template for the sort of unabashed ribaldry that Millican offers her audiences:

She's a big lass an' a bonny one,

An' she likes her beer;

An, they call her Cushie Butterfield,

An' aw wish she was here.

The words "bawdy" and "canny" are still used with regularity in reviews of her shows, and yet Millican's style is always warm and self-deprecating too. One of her first jokes at Edinburgh was about an unconvincing effort to "talk dirty" with a boyfriend in bed. Instructed to inflict a punishment on him, she feebly told him to put the bins out. Her show, Sarah Millican's Not Nice, went on to praise sex with men who had reached their 30s. They were, she said, "generally much better, but you've got to rub their legs afterwards for cramp".

Guardian comedy critic Brian Logan was quick to spot her mix of intimate detail and friendly joshing. "It sounds like therapy masquerading as entertainment, but you'd be hard pushed to find a jollier set on the Fringe. Millican establishes a real atmosphere of bonhomie, which is no mean feat when your subject is heartbreak and you're probing couples in the front row for their sexual peccadilloes."

This approachable manner, which some have described as "motherly" despite its frankness, is also evident in Millican's Twitter account, which has a heavy emphasis on food and on cats. Last week her 850,000 followers could have read about how to poach eggs properly and also witnessed as she obligingly helped to find the lost handbag of a punter who had come to see her show.

On Mock the Week her co-star, Dennis, detects a caring brand of confidence in Millican that allows her to rise above the more boyish banter. "She kind of happily sits there sometimes and doesn't bother fighting fire with fire. She looks as if she is thinking, 'Oh you get on with it'. And then, when she says something, she does it brilliantly," he said.

Since Millican was voted best newcomer at Edinburgh in 2008, her life has transformed. Part of that transformation started when she divorced her husband in 2004 and began to shape a standup routine from the emotional debris.

After repeated success at Edinburgh, she was offered her own BBC Radio 4 show, Sarah Millican's Support Group, and began appearing on the television shows 8 out of 10 Cats, Have I Got News For You, Would I Lie To You?, QI and Loose Women, not to mention Mock the Week and her own BBC2 show, The Sarah Millican Television Programme. Although lucky enough to have the accent most commonly judged Britain's favourite, she lives with her boyfriend, standup comedian Gary Delaney from Birmingham, a city often judged to have the least appealing accent.

For the writer, comedian and former radio producer Chris Neill, Millican's swift rise is testament to the fact she found her comic voice quickly and understands where it will work best. Her fearlessness has seen her take on the most male-dominated comic terrain.

"Sarah is magnificently ballsy. She wants to hold her own with the best of them," he said. "Producers used to book three blokes and one woman for a show, but happily they do that less now. There are some panel shows that are less antagonistic than others, and comedians, whether they are men or women, find the ones that suit them, or the roles that suit them. Miranda Hart did not enjoy being on the panel of Have I but she is happy hosting it."

Female talents such as the late Linda Smith, Jo Brand, Jenny Eclair and Lucy Porter have gone before Millican, but Neill thinks accepting the challenge is half the battle. "When I produced a radio panel show, Just a Minute, people were very scared of doing it. It is true men turn offers down less, but that is true in other fields of life too. You have to say 'yes' and then find a way to add something," he said.

The problem for women, he believes, comes when a producer books them just because they are women, rather than for their gifts, whether they are a standup comic or not. "Then the star gets criticised when they have nothing to say. But if they used the same method to book men, the same thing would happen."

If Neill admits any general differences between the male and female comics he has worked with it is that the women tend to work harder: "Then they don't even assume that will always work in their favour. Perhaps women think more cogently about their strengths."

Millican, Neill thinks, "works ferociously hard and is very driven". The danger that her fame and money will soon remove her from the experiences she shares with her audience is one she will have to watch out for, he adds. "Sarah is very grounded, but you wonder what happens when she can't go to the supermarket any more and stops hearing all the things that give her material. The answer will be that she, like all comedians, will have to keep trying out her new material in small venues. And that is always tough."

At the moment Millican claims she finds it "a bit ridiculous" to think of thousands of people watching her DVDs. It is a modesty and simplicity that is reflected in her attitude to the notion that male comedians have an advantage. "I don't think there's an awful lot of sexism in this industry," she has said. "If an audience is watching you and you're a bloke – it's the same as if you're a woman. They're expecting the same: to be entertained."

Much of Millican's comedy has this simplicity, but it hides a more sophisticated unpicking of common assumptions. Her 2009 show, Sarah Millican: Typical Woman, played cleverly in this way on the notion that being "a typical woman" is still regarded as a sort of weakness.

Powered by article was written by Vanessa Thorpe, arts and media correspondent, for The Observer on Sunday 5th May 2013 00.05 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010