Former Shaftesbury School pupil Cally Beaton has been on the board of major TV companies in New York, Amsterdam and London. Legendary comedian Joan Rivers spotted her comedy talent and told her to pursue a stand-up career. A frequent QI panellist, Cally is appearing at Shaftesbury Fringe 2019 and she’s looking forward to catching up with former school friends and maybe her first love.
Cally Beaton appears excited about her forthcoming Shaftesbury Fringe show. The comedian has performed at some of the world’s biggest comedy events and she’s an Edinburgh Fringe regular. But our hilltop town was her home from the age of 8. Her parents still live in Gillingham. She’ll be performing to a home crowed.
As we sat and chatted on a Park Walk bench, taking in the view of Melbury Hill in the April sunshine, Cally’s Shaftesbury childhood memories flooded back. “Park Walk was the site of my first ever snog. In those days there was a bit more shrubbery so one could be discreet. They were good times when I was a pupil at Shaftesbury Upper School,” said Cally.
“Sitting here you realise how beautiful it is. I forgot that my school days were spent in classrooms looking out over the Blackmore Vale. Now I see it was quite an incredible place to grow up. Any Shaftesbury people who don’t appreciate the glory of their area need to look out of their windows,” she smiled.
Cally had fun during her rebellious teenage years. “I was a bit of a nightmare at school. I did a lot of underage drinking, particularly at the ‘Two Brewers’. I don’t think am going to get anybody in trouble there because it was in the 1980s!” Cally laughed. “I always said to my kids when they were growing up in London ‘you have the cinema, bowling alleys and stuff to do. In our day, all you could do was snog people, get drunk and smoke weed’. I drank richly from all of those cups!”
If you ever needed proof that growing up in a small, rural Westcountry town need not hold back someone with goals, dreams and aspirations, look at Cally’s career. After graduating from London’s Goldsmiths College, Cally pursued a television career and gained senior board-level positions within major television companies here and abroad.
“I ended up running an independent production company that got bought by Carlton Television, which was part of ITV. So I found myself sitting on the board of ITV at a relatively young age not expecting to be doing that kind of job. It propelled me into an executive media career.”
Cally’s executive decisions have shaped the nation’s TV viewing. “It’s thanks to me that you’ve been able to see ‘Spongebob’ and ‘South Park’ over here. I worked at Viacom, one of the biggest American studios for a long, long time,” said Cally.
Cally was a senior vice-president at Viacom – that’s American business lingo for important. She left the role one year ago but she still does some media work and speaking. But we were here to chat about her newer comedy career. And she told me there was a crossover period during which she was almost leading a double life – in the TV boardroom during the day and performing stand-up in comedy clubs at night.
She decided to alter her name to avoid detection. “My birth name is Caroline Beaton and my family and friends have always called me Cally, so I used that name onstage,” she said. But eventually Cally’s two worlds collided when her US boss rumbled her. “I used to go to New York one week in four for board meetings. I entered a new act competition at the Gotham Comedy Club, one of the United States’ best and biggest clubs.”
Cally made it through to the final and her ‘cover’ was blown when the president of the company returned from his lunch. “He said ‘I have just seen a billboard in Times Square with somebody who looks like you and it says Cally Beaton. Is it you?’ I confirmed that it was and he said ‘give me a minute’. I thought I was going to be fired,” recalled Cally. “He called me into his massive corner office overlooking Manhattan and he said, ‘I have two questions. Can you guarantee that you are going to stay with us for another 18 months minimum?’ I said that I could stay. ‘And secondly, can I bring my wife and all of my friends tonight?’ The cat was firmly out of the bag then,” laughed Cally.
“Luckily his wife could not make it and he didn’t come to the gig. I am quite careful about what is out there in the public domain because I do work as a keynote speaker and my new show is quite dark. People have described it as unflinching and there are some shocking elements to it,” she said.
Surely, appearing at Shaftesbury Fringe and publicising her show with posters on lampposts around town doesn’t have the cachet of appearing on a Times Square billboard? “I have some amazing showbiz stories but the most fabulous things can happen in the most unlikely places. A decent poster in Bell Street and a good turnout for my show here would make me cock-a-hoop,” said Cally.
I pushed Cally for a showbiz story – and she did not disappoint. Cally’s work for American media giant Viacom included time spent at Comedy Central. There she worked closely with the comedian Joan Rivers. “We had corporate events and my job was to keep the crowd warm until Joan came on. I was meant to deliver Viacom’s corporate messaging but it soon became clear that people wanted me to keep them interested as they became drunker waiting for the main attraction,” said Cally.
“On the final night of the last tour, Joan told me ‘Cally, you should go and do stand up’. I replied by saying that I was 45, a single mum and had a massive day job. I said it was too late. Joan replied ‘Cally, I am 79. You will look back at 45 and realise that you are in the thick of it.’ That was the conversation that got me into stand-up. When Joan Rivers tells you to do something you do it,” laughed Cally. “I hadn’t really realised that Joan was the archetypal feminist. She broke through glass ceilings in Hollywood when nobody was doing so. She was a great inspiration.”
Cally’s experience within the TV industry has been useful in her comedy career. She applied what she learned when she appeared on the popular TV comedy panel show, QI. “Someone said to me, ‘Don’t ignore your boardroom experience. You’re used to having intelligent opinions in rooms full of strident men’. Another person said the Oscar Wilde quote, ‘Be yourself, everybody else is taken’. I know, having edited lots of shows like that, the main thing is just to say stuff. You have to say enough and be present enough so that you stay in the edit. Usually, when you start talking, funny things happen. I had real jitters doing QI the first time but I loved it once I had done it.”
As an experienced performer, Cally has had to deal with hecklers. One was bizarrely delivered to the stage. “I was on an outside stage at Hastings Fringe. There was a balustrade around the top from which teenage kids were throwing paper aeroplanes down onto the stage. I kept opening them and reading them out. One of them flew down and it said ‘Don’t give up’. I read it out. The next one said ‘…your day job’.
During her Shaftesbury Fringe show, Cally will focus on how messy life can be. “We’re all struggling, pretending that we know how to be a parent. It is a mess behind closed doors. Celebrating that vulnerability is really exciting,” she enthused.
Cally has spoken openly about her family as part of her routine. She has two grown-up children. Her son is a zookeeper. He has Aspergers and boasts a high IQ of 160, the same level as the late Stephen Hawkins.
“He is an animal-obsessed autist. It’s all about celebrating his brilliance. I’m having a pop at me, his incompetent, bumbling mother. He came to a preview of that show and I asked him to tell me what he was not happy with. He was fine with it but he gave me some technical notes on the animals and told me what was factually incorrect,” Callie explained.
“When I got to Edinburgh Fringe he was older – 17 – and he’d gone off the idea of being featured in the show but I was in Edinburgh and I couldn’t rewrite it halfway through a run. That did cause tension. Since then we have agreed that he is kept out of my comedy. My new show talks about me being a single mum. I refer to my children right at the beginning but they are not a part of the show.”
Cally admits that it can be awkward when her friends and family attend her shows. We were chatting the day after her gig at the Bath Arts Festival and her father, who lives in North Dorset, had gone along to see his daughter’s performance on the previous evening.
“I tried to work out which parts of the show were suitable for my dad to hear and I was left with, “Good evening. Good night’. He just had to broaden his horizons for the hour,” said Cally, who added that the car journey home to North Dorset was slightly uncomfortable.
“It was long. It was only 50 minutes, but felt like three weeks,” Cally laughed. “Bless him. I think it was quite moved by seeing me do this sort of thing. My dad is quite broadminded and I did tell him that not everything I say on stage is true. And I hope that he did not know which bits were true and which were not. There was quite a lot of graphic information about my sexual and dating history,” she added.
Some of Cally’s new Shaftesbury Fringe show addresses heavier subject matter. “It has some darker bits of stand up in it – not quite Frankie Boyle levels of dark. I am ginger. I haven’t quite got his beard yet. Hopefully, it has what you want out of an hour-long show. It has light and shade, laughter, tears and the whole caboodle,” Cally said.
“I am an upbeat person who seems quite optimistic but I have a cynical view of the world,” she added. “This show does have some observations about the way society looks at certain issues like age and gender. It looks at the dark side of human nature.”
Cally will recount a personal experience as part of her show, which had a profound impact on her. “I nearly disappeared in Iceland. The country, not the shop,” she smiled. “Something extreme happened to me when I was over there on my own. It was a difficult road trip but obviously, I survived, because I’m talking to you now. I depict that story in a quite humorous way. It ended up being quite an empowering trip.”
Cally told me that her show is called ‘Invisible’ for a number of reasons. “I nearly did disappear in a country which has a huge landmass and not many people there to find you. It is also having a pop at the idea that women my age are meant to become invisible in terms of being sexually attractive or noticed in shops. You do find that the world changes and it ghosts you. But there is something very celebratory in being who I am. Lots of women like me feel the same.”
Cally often performs at comedy festivals but Shaftesbury’s festival is a Fringe event and not everybody attending will necessarily seek out comedy shows. So which people, who may not normally attend stand-up, does she think would enjoy her show?
“First of all, I’m hoping that they won’t just be people who want to see how I’ve turned out from school,” she laughed. “I would love to see old school friends though. Lots of women my age and mums come to see me. I talk about being a mum.”
“A lot of women who came along to my Bath show last night brought their men and I think that the blokes were completely on-board. There were also some younger people. It was great to see guys the age of my kids liking it. I hope to think that I am pretty broad in appeal, and what I talk about is not pigeonholing people. It’s very relatable as a show,” said Cally.
Cally says she may include some references to growing up in Shaftesbury during her show. “There’s a bit about my ex-boyfriends. I have had to rewrite that bit several times because either people who know me or the exes show up at gigs. I have a nice long inventory of people that I can refer to. The first love of my life was from Shaftesbury and is still in my top three. I’m not saying who he was,” she smiled.
I asked Cally whether he would know that he was in her top three. “I don’t think he would. He doesn’t live around here anymore,” she replied.
Naturally, Cally has looked him up on Facebook. “Actually, he is a rather dishy 50-year-old man now so I should have hung onto him. He was my first big love,” she said.
Cally Beaton’s show ‘Invisible’ is on at St Peter’s Church Hall on Saturday, 6thJuly, starting at 8pm.