“Yes it is rather odd for a pacifist,” says Sandi Toksvig, on the fact she has written rather a lot about war recently. Sandi is, of course, referring to Bully Boy, her work currently showing at Royal & Derngate, a challenging play that delves into the relationship between two very different soldiers dealing with post war trauma.
The prolific writer, who has penned a diverse range of works from fiction to non-fiction and children’s books to plays, also has a new novel due out, called Valentine Grey. Again a war-based drama this work concerns a young Victorian woman, who in 1899 decides to escape the confines of the drawing room by disguising herself as a man and going to serve in the second Anglo-Boer War. “It was really through researching the novel that I started the play,” she said.
“I attended a regimental dinner at The Honourable Artillery Company, and I met lots of present day personnel, so in the end the two projects ended up running in parallel.
“My partner is a psychotherapist and she was also dealing with a number of veterans who had suffered from post war trauma and was coming home upset at the time.
“There’s no real difference between war then and now. War is dreadful and it doesn’t matter when it takes place.”
Sandi has tried to raise awareness about the charity, Combat Stress, through the play, the UK’s leading military charity specialising in the care of ex-servicemen and women with mental health issues. But the play has also raised awareness in a more direct way.
“I had a GP come up to me after watching the play in Southampton and said; ‘we have lots of ex-service men who are patients and because of your play we are going to ask different questions,’ which was a nice thing to hear,” said Sandi, who comes from a family of writers, which includes her journalist brother and father.
“I don’t think we pay enough attention to mental health in general, we should look for the signs more and try to understand more.
“There is still a waiting list for soldiers who need to see a counsellor and part of that problem is that mental health issues from war sometimes take years to manifest themselves, so it’s not a short term solution.
“Whatever I write I imagine the person I am telling it to. For Bully Boy it was the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I tried to pick an inarticulate soldier, I imagined him. I tried to pay attention to voices that needed to be heard,” she said.
Throughout Sandi’s career much of her work has focused on raising the profile of injustice or voices that need to be heard, including her own.
“I started writing when I was in The Footlights, and in those days if you were in The Footlights and a woman it was difficult to get the funny lines, so I wrote them for myself,” said the host of BBC Radio 4’s The News Quiz, who was told after she hosted the pilot of Have I Got News for You, that they didn’t want a woman to host it.
I asked if she thinks sexism is still an issue in the comedy world.
“On a comedy panel where there are six panellists, you get one woman, maybe two, you never get more, it’s a shame there are not more, as women would provide 50 per cent of the funniest jokes.”
“But then sexism is still an issue in other areas, just this week North Korea allowed women to use bicycles.”
This isn’t the only area that Sandi would like to see changes in, I ask her if what she would like to see change in this country?
“I would like to see a fully democratic parliament, and the end of peers by patronage - I heard a Bishop say the other day gay people had enough equality - the idea that equality can be measured is hilarious.
“I would like to see tabloid newspapers making corrections for the errors they make as prominent as the originals.”
There has previously been talk of Sandi standing for election as a Liberal Democrat MP, but she quashed this idea.
“I still hope that you make changes through theatre and literature, and that’s what I’m going to concentrate on,” she said.
Bully Boy is at the Royal & Derngate until Saturday. Tickets priced from £28 to £13 can be booked now by calling the Box Office on 01604 624811 or visiting www.royalandderngate.co.uk.