Isy Suttie: 'I'd like to find out more about my Jewish roots'

She's a writer, a comedian, an actor and a singer - and now she's in her first feature film. Keren David met the multi-talented Isy Suttie


Have you heard of Isy Suttie? For some people she’s first and foremost Dobby, the role she played in the hit Channel Four show Peep Show. Others know her best for her quirky comedy routines and songs on Radio Four, especially Pearl and Dave, the series which won her the coveted Sony Gold Radio Academy award.

Or maybe you’re a fan of her stand-up comedy; or perhaps you read her first book, the autobiographical and very funny The Actual One: How I tried, and failed, to remain twenty-something for ever ( Weidenfeld & Nicolson) about the time in your life when “ the dastardly hat trick of mortgage, marriage and kids starts to pursue you. It starts with a whiff of it and you think you’re mistaken, then it’s a definite aroma and before you know it, it’s like Temple Run and you’ve got to check over your shoulder for it constantly, and try daring things to confuse and escape it, like an impromptu trip to Berlin with someone called Chantal you met in the Co-op in the early hours, like snorting nutmeg off a bin, like pretending to be a mystery shopper to get free burritos.”

And if you haven’t come across her yet where have you been? it’s a fair bet to say that you will soon. Suttie, now 39, may have left behind the hilarious, heart-breaking years of disastrous relationships that fuelled her early career; she’s now happily living in Crystal Palace with partner Elis James and their daughter Beti. But creatively she’s as busy as ever, writing her first novel and right now promoting her first feature film, which is why I’m meeting her on a blistering hot day in a deserted café where we’re having difficulty getting served.

The film, Pin Cushion a debut from British director Deborah Hayward, is out this week. I watched it the day before our interview and had nightmares that night, so creepily affecting is this story of the everyday cruelty of ordinary folk, mostly women.

Joanna Scanlan is exceptional as Lyn, a misfit single mother whose isolation has shaped her life. The crisis that the film captures comes when her teenage daughter Iona (a remarkable Lily Newmark) breaks into a Mean Girls type clique at her new school. Lyn’s desperate attempts to find friends at the local community centre do not meet with the same success.

Suttie plays Anne, leader of a “friendship” group at the community centre who seems to offer a helping hand to Lyn but ultimately delivers the opposite. “I think she wants to be kind,” says Suttie, “but she has no confidence to step away from the group.” These scenes are hard to watch as you’re desperate to intervene on Lyn’s behalf, so how was it to play? Suttie explains that Hayward allowed for improvisation sessions so “I did get to be nice.”



She knew she wanted to be in the film as soon as she read the script. “I loved the writing. I ask about everything ‘Is it funny?’ and it was. Does it make sense, is it exciting God, yes.”

The dynamic of a teenager caught between two worlds is one that Suttie recognises from her past. Much of her comedy is connected to her childhood years in Matlock, Derbyshire, yet she moved there from Hertfordshire aged six, and felt like an outsider. “I was trying to fit in. I changed a word a day into a Derbyshire accent.”

Later on, as a teenager, “I remember the pressure to go and smoke and drink and my parents being quite strict and wanting to know where I was. I was feeling pulled on both sides. I didn’t feel like myself in either role.

Even if you’re good and studious as a teenager, she says, there’s always “invisible turmoil. I felt that. I came from a very middle class, comfortable family, but I wanted to rebel.”

“Now I’ve got a daughter I want to say ‘just stay innocent’ “ Beti is only three, so she has some way to go.

The film was made in Derbyshire, and that’s where Suttie’s forthcoming novel is set too. It’s about a woman whose relationship breaks down and who moves back to live with her parents in a Derbyshire town that “is definitely not Matlock. It’s not about me! It’s definitely fictional! “

Suttie may be famous as the voice of Matlock, but she left there when she was 18 to live with a boyfriend in south London “against my parents’ advice” and attend Guildford School of Acting. Her ambition was to be in a Mike Leigh film, but she found herself drawn to stand up, through seeing a lot of comedy, she got an idea of what worked and what didn’t. It was a short step to trying it herself, particularly as she’d been writing comic songs since she was around twelve. “You do what’s natural to you. Songs were always going to form part of my act.”

She’s had her share of bad gigs (the very worse was in Edinburgh, where an audience member paid her £20 to leave the stage) and says the hardest thing is when you lose the audience’s interest. “They start chatting a bit, and it’s so infuriating. They feel sorry for you and afterwards you try and work out where we missed a moment.” But comedy is her vocation, there haven’t been many nights like that, and she points out that women comics of her age have had it much easier than those a little bit older, people like Jo Brand who “had to fight hard to be heard.”

Suttie’s role in Peep Show endeared her to the show’s many fans, as Dobby, the “geeky IT whizz ” who won hearts on and off screen. Suttie loved playing her. “She’s feisty and indecisive quite geeky, not girly.” But working on Peep Show was “nerve-wracking”, not least because performers never knew if they’d be rebooked for another series.

Halfway through our interview (and just as the peppermint tea arrives at last) there’s a brief interruption as she greets Robert Popper, creator of the very Jewish Friday Night Dinner, yet another Channel Four hit comedy show. This reminds me of a conversation I’d had that week in which a (non-Jewish) writer assured me that Tamsin Greig (also not Jewish) was insufficiently convincing as the show’s Jewish mother, whereas I (Jewish) assured her that Greig was more convincingly Jewish than the actual Jewish performers. With this odd debate in my mind, I turn to Isy Suttie’s Jewish heritage.

She is 100 percent halachically Jewish through her mother’s mother, but raised outside the community and religion. “I wish I knew more about the Jewish religion,” she says. A few years ago she did a play at JW3, which she enjoyed and the centre’s CEO Raymond Simonsen assured her that she was one of us, telling her that she had to come back, which she’d love to do.

Her mother’s mother was called Edith Feest and came from north London. Suttie has a family tree which is “full of Jewish names, I just wish I knew more about the people. What did they do? And were they funny? In photos from the 19th century everyone looks so serious.”

It’s a fair bet that they were. Her parents were “like a double act” she says, and Edith was also funny. She used to write for The Woodworker magazine, a column entitled “The Woodworker’s wife” looking at what it was like to be married to someone engrossed in their hobby. I love the idea of humour being handed down through the female side of the family, like Judaism, and hope Suttie does more research and uncovers a bloodline of comedians. Daughter Beti isn’t even at school yet but, says her proud mother, “She’s funny and she knows it.”

As Elis James, Suttie’s partner, another comedian, is Welsh speaking, Suttie is learning the language to help bring Beti up as bilingual as is possible when you live in south London.

So, what next for Isy Suttie? “I like dabbling here and there,” she says, but admits that nowadays a project has to be really exciting for her to want to leave London and her daughter Pin Cushion passed that test. “And I’d still really like to be in a Mike Leigh film.” Mike, if you’re reading this, what are you waiting for?


Pin Cushion is out in select cinemas across the UK from Friday 13th July.

Like this? Sign up for more with our JC Life newsletter, coming soon From fabulous recipes, to parenting tips;  travel and West End entertainment; insightful interviews and much more: there’s more to  the JC than news.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive