Barbara as in Streisand, Nice as in the biscuits! David Johns meets comedian Janice Connolly and her Britain’s Got Talent alter-ego, Mrs Barbara Nice
Actress, TV comedian, stand-up, artistic director. Quite a CV that Janice Connolly’s got. But despite appearing in the likes of Coronation Street and Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights and founding a successful theatre company, Janice will forever be known for her unforgettable debut on TV – as Mrs Barbara Nice.
“Barbara as in Streisand, Nice as in the biscuits,” she said, introducing herself to BGT judge David Walliams. In trademark yellow mac and clutching her bag for life (“one of 49 – I’m never going to die!”) the middle-aged mother-of-five from Kings Heath proceeded to have the live audience in stitches with her one-liners and was an equally big hit with the millions watching on TV.
“I’d been thinking about doing BGT for a while, thinking shall I go for it or not? I finally thought, just do it, have a go. So I did. I wanted the chance for more people to see Barbara Nice – and I think I proved that if you are wondering whether to do something or not, you should just do it. There’s nothing to lose.”
While BGT shot Janice to overnight TV sensation, she had been working steadily across a range of artistic disciplines for many years and was well known and respected by many in the business. Barbara Nice just put Janice’s genius in front of a national audience. “I have always been an actress as well as a comedian and get involved with lots of different things, I’m even doing a kids’ programme in the future,” she says.
Having lived in Birmingham for many years, Janice says: “I was born and brought up in Stockport so I would never have the cheek to say I am a Brummie but I think it’s fair to say that I am an adopted Brummie. Birmingham is a brilliant place. It’s relaxing, inclusive and a very low-macho place to be. I love it here.”
Janice came to Birmingham to study drama at Birmingham Polytechnic, now City University. In the early 1970s, she performed at Birmingham Arts Lab off Summer Row and over the next couple of decades was part of the Birmingham independent music scene, regularly playing at the Fighting Cocks in Moseley.
In 1984 she became founder member of Birmingham Women and Theatre company and is still heavily involved as its artistic director. Based at the Old Lodge in Queensbridge Road, Moseley, the company is committed to social change through new theatre and drama. This year it will be staging a special performance at the Rep on the eve of International Women’s Day on 7 March. In 2017, Janice was awarded the British Empire Medal in the Queen’s New Year Honours in recognition of her contribution to community arts through her work with Women and Theatre.
Janice’s first major break came in the late 1990s, when she was spotted playing Barbara Nice by Peter Kay in a competition for new acts. She went on to appear in several of his television shows, most notably playing Holy Mary in Phoenix Nights. She says: “Being in Phoenix Nights was one of those life-changing experiences. The show was so loved by people and touched so many lives. It was a privilege to be part of it.”
Janice explains that Barbara Nice came about because “I wanted to do stand-up comedy and thought I needed a character to make it work as at the time I thought I was a bit old to start in comedy stand-up. That’s funny looking back on it considering how old I am now! “
She adds: “I thought a mother character would be perfect. I wanted to have a character that was kind to audiences too. At that time stand-ups had the persona of being unkind to audiences and taking the mickey out of them. I wanted to be different.”
Far from making Janice’s diverse professional life even more complicated, stardom on BGT has actually made it easier, she says. “After BGT is became clearer what work I could do and maybe some that I couldn’t. Generally it meant I wouldn’t have time to play smaller venues so much,” she explains.
Janice is touring Barbara Nice around Britain throughout 2020 as well as continuing her work to raise the involvement of local people in theatre. One of her projects is a Barbara Nice ‘older person comedy course’ for the over-50s. She explains: “ The aims is to get people together, create a group and then put on a show.”
Nice idea, Janice!
MAKE A DATE: Join Women & Theatre at Birmingham Rep on the eve of International Women’s Day on Saturday 7 March as they celebrate the launch of their new podcast and book through live readings and discussion, hosted by Janice. Tickets from £6 at https://www.birmingham-rep.co.uk/whats-on/podcast-and-book-launch.html
Barbara Nice is running her running free stand-up community comedy course for people aged 50+ until Monday 30 March at the Brandwood Centre, Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 0121 449 7117 for details.