“I couldn’t get enough of reading about them.” | Harriet Braine on the women of science that inspired Les Admirables

Tell us about the show you’re bringing to the Vault Festival, Les Admirables.

It’s my third hour of comedy songs, but instead of being about dead men (see previous shows Total Eclipse of the Art, about famous artists, i.e. men, and Apocalibrary, about a library during an apocalypse caused by men), it’s about dead women instead. Except one is actually alive. You’ll have to come and see it if you want to know which one! 

What inspired you to write a show of iconic women from throughout the history of science?

I was inspired initially by my podcast-mates Bec Hill and Dr Lucy Rogers, two intimidatingly intelligent and creative people. One might even say, iconic.

Some of the research I did for our podcast (History Makers, renamed The DesignSpark Podcast for the second series, the name of the forthcoming third series is TBC, I mean, that’s not it’s name, it doesn’t have one yet) happened to focus on women from the history of technology. Don’t worry, the podcast isn’t about women, it’s about technology. Give it a listen!

I decided to make my show about the women in particular because I couldn’t get enough of reading about them. After all, I am a woman.

You’ve said this show was inspired by your grandmothers. Tell us about them.

I sadly didn’t know either of them very well, but I know they were both scientists, a marine biologist and a consultant physician. As I was writing material for the show I thought it would be great to ask my parents about them, try to get to know them a bit, and put them in the show with other amazing, pioneering, possibly like-minded women. Who knows, they might have hated it, but it’s too late now, I’ve written them a duet!

How did you decide which historical figures to include in your show?

Some were obvious, like Hedy Lamarr – she’s just too interesting not to include, as is Ada Lovelace. But the ones who’ve actually turned out to be my favourites are the more obscure Rear-Admiral Grace Hopper and Maria Sabina, both absolute stand-out characters. I chose big characters, basically. Or what I could imagine to be big characters. I’m not an impressionist. Those guys were losers.

How do you choose what type of music to pair with each character?

I sort of chose musical styles based on stereotypes about where the characters are from, but with a little fun twist. So for Maria Sabina, a healer from Mexico, I’ve done a sort of Dick Dale / Tarantino movie kind of tune, but instead of doing a vaguely racist accent (which people would usually expect from me, see my Diego Rivera song) I’ve given her the voice of Phil Daniels. 

What is your trick to balancing humour with the informative element of your shows?

It’s really tricky, and I’m not 100% sure I pull it off. It’s not a comfortable position to write piss-take songs about such great people. The title is Les Admirables for a reason. I’m much more comfortable writing about self-proclaimed geniuses, who are much easier targets (Pablo Picasso, Sigmund Freud, Josiah Wedgwood, you know the type) and get bigger laughs.

But for a topic like women in the history of science, I really enjoy doing the informative bits, I’m not even bothered if they’re not super funny. People need to know this stuff!

It is really funny though, The Wee Review said so.

What do you hope people take away from your show?

Ammunition for pub quizzes and Trivial Pursuit, mainly.

Are there any other shows you’re looking forward to at the Vault Festival?

I’m looking forward to the gorgeous Thanyia Moore’s Bully, which is an hour of comedy I’m VERY excited about, and I can’t wait to see works in progress from Olga Koch and Helen Duff. They both genuinely make me poop with laughter.

Do you have any advice for anyone looking to break into comedy?

Write about what interests you, and don’t underestimate your audience by trying to “be relatable”. Also don’t be scared of entering competitions early on when you don’t know how anything works. The naivete was really useful to me as I thought you had to write a new set for every heat of every competition. I was clearly an idiot, but boy did it get my first show written.

Harriet is performing Les Admirables from 31st January to 2nd February.

Book your ticket here.

Find out more about Vault Festival here.

You can keep up with Harriet’s other work by following her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.