After Hurtwood - Celeste Dring: writer, comic, actress, and all-round top human bean
One of the great joys of being a Hurtwood teacher is the very different experience of each group of students. A truism, of course, it is nevertheless always striking how the chemistry of each group varies. Meet Celeste, a key player in a group that I will never forget, fortunately for the right reasons. She was one of a twelve-girl variously talented and creative class studying English: the lack of male input, necessarily a loss, did not hold these girls back, and from day one the classroom was jumping with energy, challenging ideas, boundaries and received opinions. At the heart of this was Celeste: quiet and self-effacing, her coolly understated intelligence immediately working under the radar. She was swiftly impressing me with sharp insights, and when she matched this with sophisticated written analysis (once you got behind the surface issues of scrappy crossing-out and presentation) I rightly assumed that we were in for an interesting ride. Nearly 15 years later it is pure joy to catch up with both Celeste and another equally impressive member of the group, Jess Banting, still the closest of friends, and both making impressive waves in our cultural and creative industries. With much manoeuvring we finally catch up in the vaulted and atmospheric semi-darkness of Gordon’s Wine Bar in Charing Cross for non-stop nostalgia and gossip, leapfrogging the years and covering everything from London life, Hurtwood memories, the vagaries of the media world, as well as the horrors of camping (Celeste) and delights of motherhood (Jess). There is much to share here, food for two interviews in fact, so let’s tuck into the first.
So to Celeste’s considerable comic and intellectual talent, for in the intervening years she has been building a really interesting name for herself in the world of screenwriting and performance. To say that she is as sharp as nails doesn’t quite cover it; you quickly realise that another metaphor is needed. She has a mind like a steel trap. She seems to absorb the world around her beneath a surface of innocent normality, only to turn things dryly on their head in some apparently throwaway comment or observation. To adapt the Bard, ‘though she be but little, she is fierce.’ Cultivating an unobtrusive and benign presence, she certainly packs an ironic punch, and she has turned this already into a very promising looking career. But first things first. What brought her to Hurtwood in the first place all those years ago? Consideration for the pressures that her very varied creative interests had put on her mum, who, she tells me, had chauffeured her hither and thither in her exploration of numerous different creative outlets from dance to drama. Interest in comedy was central from the start, having become enthralled by TV show The Office by the age of 11. Following on from the rough and tumble of three older brothers, and with parents who had come from working-class backgrounds, without university experience, but had happily achieved a comfortable family lifestyle, she chose Hurtwood because of its creative breadth to challenge and test herself. What she gained, she assesses with open-eyed truthfulness. First and foremost she identifies that it changed her ‘life and horizons’. Also centrally ‘I made friends for life,’ she tells me almost instantly, identifying three Hurtwood pals whose careers have taken very different trajectories within the creative industries, but who have proved supportive and mutually enriching.
Celeste studied History and German A Levels alongside English, and found time to star in the Christmas musical Summer Holiday, amongst other performances, including rather bravely and impressively some stand-up comedy. To this day she values the particular support of Media genius John Goddard, for what Hurtwood had brought her was teachers who had time to identify and encourage considerable talents. Mention Celeste’s name and all her former teachers are unequivocal in their praise, even if chasing down the last essay or submission was a regular occurrence. Her intellectual capacity was legendary. In English this was easy and instant: here was a natural academic on one level, deeply analytical and knowledgeable, yet completely involved in the real world, and with a great sense of humour. All this and as cohesive and as fluent in her writing as in her discursive talents. Part of why I remember her so well is that I had to twist her arm to encourage her application to read English at Cambridge, ultimately changing a class lesson plan into a timed essay on Yeats’ poetry (oh joy for the other students, eh?) in order to catch the postal essay submission (oh changed world, I hear you say) as part of her application. She freely admits now that fear of failure was part of her reluctance to apply, she finally tells me. Was I worried? No. And neither I assume was Emmanuel College, who snapped her up without hesitation. She did us all proud three years later, emerging with more knowledge, acting, travel experience, oh and a first-class degree in English. It was great fun, she tells me, but challenging also in terms of its social and intellectual elitism. Within a year she found herself on a Cambridge University-funded tour of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Japan, and in her final year she took The Tempest to the USA. In between she had played Viola in Twelfth Night in the Arts Theatre, but with characteristic modesty she confesses that a very important part of what she gained from an Oxbridge degree was a healthy awareness of her own limitations. Far from feeling that she was now an intellectual mistress of the universe, she had learned to accommodate herself within a hierarchy of other hugely talented people, accepting that ‘you can’t nail every module’ and that ‘sticking with it’ is often the best that you can hope for. Comic self-deprecation comes into play as she describes the sum of her literary study as ‘knowledge of a few niche poems’: along with the ability to wear her academic brilliance very lightly indeed I find myself thinking. Am I surprised that she came away with a first-class degree? No. I think vindicated is the word. However, I salute her honesty in acknowledging that in spite of recognising in others how easy it is to be ‘thwarted by the need to be the best,’ she still struggled with self-esteem, and some negative mental health attitudes, that lingered a while in the years following university, now hopefully receding.
So, Cambridge days done, a few years in London followed as she struggled to consolidate the way forward. A range of odd jobs including ‘tutoring’ an unwilling teenager and PA-ing for a super busy woman who had no visible employment eventually produced the desired effect. ‘I finally got bored of myself,’ she admits. The obvious way proved to be to turn her woes into comedy. Why? ‘It seems like my natural position,’ she replies without thought. Here she was with a top degree in English, testament to her rich command of language; she ‘could write’ as well as act, what was not to love? Writing alone seemed quite a lonely option given the solitary nature of the role, and so she forged ahead with the concept of staging comedy nights with a like-minded pal. Aged 23 by now, this suggested a viable outlet for her skills: comedy seemed to have a universal appeal, there were lots of available comics, even relatively big names, ‘gigging’ being their life-blood. Pasting them together into a show seemed the way forward. Settling into a large disused warehouse in Peckham, the die was cast, and as a fully paid-up ‘control freak’ (her words) she found herself both writing and performing her own material, as well as working regularly with others. Next stop – rather obviously – was Edinburgh, in this case what Celeste calls ‘the fringe of The Fringe’. Putting on a 45-minute show in a pub, something of a double-hander, ‘investing in a large piece of cardboard attached to a stick’ and like the Pied Piper, trawling this around the streets (‘pretty hard work in a wind’) until enough people had been garnered for an audience (yes folks, it’s that simple, that humbling) they were off. This was 2013 and by the end of the Fringe it was a sell-out. The Guardian gave them a small but very encouraging review, enough to make them hurry back the following year, 2014, this time as a double act, bringing in Freya with whom Celeste has worked intermittently but very fruitfully ever since. Lazy Susan was launched. Why did they choose this name? With a sureness that suggests that I am not the first to ask this question, she tells me: because it was ‘human, female, and not animal-centred’ like many other acts. Also, perhaps because it’s funny and self-mocking, I think. We all know what a Lazy Susan is and may even have one tucked away in a dusty recess. I certainly do. Do I use it? Nice idea ... but of course not.
Now part of a comedy duo and with a quirky name, things were beginning to fall into place. Lazy Susan were nominated for the Best Newcomer award and although they didn’t get it, they now had a platform of acknowledgment, something to market. By 2018 their shows were a sell-out, so much so that even Cosmo and Tina Jackson couldn’t manage to get a ticket. They were fast-tracked for a Soho transfer as well as a paid booking for the Aast Festival in Melbourne, Australia; things were really beginning to happen. What are the joys and pains of a double-act? I ask, aware that it is in this format that so many successful acts gain household currency. ‘When we’re good,’ Celeste tells me, ‘we are so much more than the sum of our parts.’ Working with Freya ‘has sparked all kinds of creative mayhem’, and you only have to see them in action (take a look on iPlayer at the BBC’s latest commission) to see how they spark ideas off each other, joyfully riffing on traditional notions of femininity and sexuality, challenging traditional expectations and having at least as much fun at the expense of women as that of men. The difficulties of working with another creative? The fact that everything takes much longer as it involves two approaches as well as two diaries, presumably, and thus at times, limits spontaneity.
Covid has obviously altered so much for Lazy Susan: but long before lockdown and the weirdness of social distancing, Celeste had been having considerable success across television and film, even securing a few repeat character roles. Call it my age, but my own favourite began in 2016 and is Princess Eugenie, daughter of disgraced parents Andrew and Fergie, in Channel 4’s The Windsors. She has loved this, not least because it brought her into contact with some of the finest comic talents in the country, including a particular heroine, Vicky Pepardine, who plays Princess Anne. Roles in Wanderlust and BBC’s This Country followed in 2018, and more recently appearances in The Witchfinder, as well as cameos in Last Night in Soho and Cyrano, both on the big screen, have kept her out an about, and out of mischief. She is also rightly proud of a couple of series that they wrote and performed for Radio 4 called The East Coast Listening Post (a spoof of / homage to earnest podcasts like This American Life) in 2017 and 2019. She offers sterling advice for our students that ‘radio is a good, low-stakes place to cut (your) teeth if you're interested in writing,’ providing ‘practice at structuring stories,’ with far ‘less pressure than TV’. the drawback? ‘Less money, sadly!’
So what about now, and what advice does she have to share with present students who are drawn to acting and/or writing? Her instant response is to encourage patience. ‘Work initially with the skills you have. Have a go,’ she enthuses. ‘Work from where you are, work from the relationships you already have, learn to collaborate and water the soil you’re in.’ Which all sounds pretty sensible and simple, but does require the kind of self-discipline that has come to her over the years. She has learnt much along the way. ‘By all means be hungry for more’ but don’t be obsessive, and try not to see everything in terms of ‘pass or fail’. Her wisdom strikes me as profound when she recommends ‘short-term goals’ and extols the pleasures she has discovered in the sheer range of rewarding work that is out there for the finding, roles and possibilities for a myriad of talents across the board, incorporating the skills of writing and performing. ‘Keep working at your craft,’ she repeats, ‘look after your practice and ultimately it will look after you.’ She makes the striking point that if you can act as well as write, you can always write yourself a part, and that by default, acting enlarges your sense of how the writing works, and of course, how both roles can be improved. Everything is to play for and she feels rightly proud that her skills are earning her a decent living. With a couple of pilots and a number of commissions in the mix, she feels reasonably confident and excited about the future. Poised for even more success, I would say.
Any last memories of Hurtwood? I ask. She comes back again to that sense of encouragement and friendship that she encountered, both of which remain with her to this day. It gave her the breadth of practical experience within the performing arts as well as the space to take her considerable academic powers forward so fruitfully. ‘I would not be doing what I am doing now,’ she affirms, if she had not taken a punt on the school on the hill. No idle or meaningless compliments here: this mistress of language and communication falls back on simplicity and integrity. It is really good to know that she is still driven by these old imperatives, and the firm understanding that comedy, as ever, not only entertains but that it can reach the parts that make us think as well as laugh. Thank you for sharing your time and wisdom, Celeste: it was a joy and privilege to teach you and it’s been fascinating to follow your journey. Keep thinking outside the box, keep challenging cliché and conformity in all its versions, keep making Hurtwood proud.