Sandi Toksvig read Law at Cambridge (often considered to be the world’s best university), but would never practice, instead pursuing a career in comedy, leading her to present popular TV shows The Great British Bake Off and QI, as well as authoring over twenty novels. Calling from her home in England, in the middle of a British heatwave, shortly after the overturning of Roe V Wade, she talks to Oliver Hall about returning to stand-up comedy, co-founding the Women’s Equality political party and receiving death threats after coming out publicly in 1994.

You came out of Cambridge University with a seriously accomplished degree. So why comedy?

I don’t know now. When I got my degree, I went to see one of my professors and I said, I’d like to stay on to do my PhD. And she said, “sit down Sandi, have a glass of sherry and stick to acting!” It might be more about her than it was about me… I was in a show a comedy show at university, a professional director saw me and it asked me to go and work for him for a year. I just thought I’d have a gap year, but I’m basically having the longest gap year in history. I have never applied for any jobs. I pick up the phone and people go, ‘do you want to do this?’ And I say, ‘okay.’


Why return to stand up now?

We all need to get together. One of the things that I discovered during lockdown is that we are social creatures, and we need each other. And there’s something really special about being in a room where everybody is rocking with laughter… Let’s talk to each other. Let’s be in the room together. Let’s smile at each other. Let’s just enjoy being human beings in each other’s company.

What can we expect from the show?

I will talk about what I did during Lockdown. It wasn’t all good. To celebrate Easter, we dressed the dog as the Pope. Stuff that I’m not proud of. I will get the audience to tell me what they got up to. Then find the Reasons to be Cheerful in the world. There are enough reasons to feel miserable every day: politicians, climate change, all those things. Instead of that, let’s focus on the fun stuff. I give out presents. And I suggest a new alternative to democracy, which is that we pick the cleverest person in the room, via a quiz and get them to represent us. So we will be having a quiz!

You mentioned climate change, and I just wondered how 38 degrees is suiting you in England today?

I feel really bad about this. But I live in the middle of 15 acres of ancient woodland and then trees they’re just sorting it out for us. We’re cool as a cucumber and there’s a lovely breeze coming in off the lake. Keep growing trees everyone – trees are the answer!

Sandi Toksvig by Steve Ullathorne.

You came out publicly in 1994. You commented at the time that you didn’t know of any publicly out lesbians and felt the need to come out for your children. How challenging was that and what impact did it have on you?

The younger generation can’t even understand this, it was terrifying. I had three small children. I had a successful career. And I had to decide whether to put my children first or my career. Now, for me, it’s a no-brainer – you risk your career, so your children don’t have to ever live in the shadow of a secret. And I was completely fine with that. What I hadn’t expected were the death threats that came once, led by a reprehensible newspaper in this country called the Daily Mail, which is a tabloid whose headlines caused most of the death threats. I had to take my children into hiding, we had to have police protection. I had expected to risk my career. I had not expected to risk myself and more importantly, the lives of my children. It was absolutely terrifying. But having done it, and having made the move, nothing was going to stop me from standing up; nothing! We had fantastic support from their schools. We had to move what playgrounds they played in so that the public didn’t have access. There are crazy people out there. I feel so sorry for people who have that much hatred in their hearts. It must be awful to be so consumed by hatred and very weird to think you’re so much superior to another human being. In the end, I just think ‘oh, you pathetic sad fucks.’

What did the Daily Mail, say in their headline?

I can’t remember the exact headline now, but it was pretty much ‘If God had meant gay people to have children, he would have made it possible,’ was the front-page headline. It was a ridiculous headline because we did have children! It was possible! Luckily my children have become the most glorious adults. We didn’t know any other gay people with children at all, so they were pioneers too… When my son was six, I heard him in the next room playing with a friend, who said to him, ‘What’s it like having two mommies?’ He said, ‘It’s fantastic. Because if one of them is poorly, you’ve still got another one to ‘do’ for you.”

Any advice that you would have for gay parents today?

Tell children the truth. Never stop talking to your children. Don’t let them have phones at the table. Talk to each other over dinner. Every night that I was able to we had dinner at the table, in a very Danish way lit the candles laid the table properly, and had a conversation and I didn’t care if they were only two or three. We wanted to know what they thought about things… Tell them that there’s some hatred in the world and that we should feel sorry for those people. We should try and live our lives so that they may be changed their minds. 

Powerful stuff.

I have three fabulous kids and two glorious grandchildren. I recommend it. It’s been one of the best things in my life. They’re all straight, though. I don’t know what’s happening. I’m having to wait to see if any of the grandchildren are gay.

It feels like we’re heading into a time where sexuality won’t really be a thing.

Don’t you want that? That’s where the next generation has got it right. We’re all on a spectrum with our sexuality. The world is not binary. We’re all as unique as a leaf on a tree. So let’s enjoy the uniqueness of people and not try to put everybody into a little box of some kind.

Sandi Toksvig by Steve Ullathorne.

Do you think we were coming to the end of labels?

Wouldn’t that be great? Just let the child grow up and see who they want to be and how they want to express themselves. That would make me happy because we’re crushing people’s creativity. If you crush who they are as a person, you’re crushing what they can contribute to society.

Tell me about the Women’s Equality Party and what it means to you?

I have been thrilled at the way in which we have tried to engage with politics in a different way. Politics is all about money. It’s all about who’s got money. Several people have given huge donations to the Tory party and then been made members of the House of Lords. That’s how it works. If you’ve got money, you get power. We don’t have a lot of money; the Women’s Equality Party are supported by some of the poorest people in the country. And yet, we’ve had a huge impact in the last general election, we had the money to fund five candidates, it’s very expensive to fund a candidate. So we stood five survivors of violence against five men with standing allegations of sexual impropriety. We didn’t win the seats, but four of the men stood down and one of them lost his seat, they are no longer in Parliament because we would not back down. That is how you make change.

Was it challenging to create a feminist political party that was fully embracing of the trans community?

I get upset about the amount of conversation that there is about the trans community and the effect it’s having on the mental health of our trans brothers and sisters. It makes me really distressed. As far as I am concerned, our party is called the Equality Party. That means everybody is welcome. I will not isolate anybody, because I’ve had that happen to me, and know what it feels like… No, it wasn’t a challenge. Has it been a challenge for other people? Yes, as but as far as I am concerned, equality means just that!

Following the overturning of Roe v. Wade in the United States. Is The Handmaid’s Tale coming to fruition?

Roe v. Wade had started out at this very lovely shiny apple of women’s rights. And by the time it was overturned, it was pretty much a rotten apple goal. Because so many exemptions have been created by individual states. I am hoping that what this is going to do is cause a new wave of activism. Latest polls show that 60% of the United States, and that includes Republicans, do not think this was the right decision and believe women should have autonomy over their bodies… I’m not saying I wanted it to be overturned. I didn’t. I’m horrified and upset. If we don’t stand up for our human rights, they will disappear. Every single human being has something that they can do. None of us are helpless.

Sandi Toksvig is touring Aotearoa-New Zealand this December. Sunday 4 at Christchurch Town Hall, Monday 5 at Wellington Opera House, and Tuesday 6 at Auckland’s Aotea Centre. Book tickets at