the howard's story
When one child in a family has epilepsy it can have an impact on siblings too. Comedy king Russell Howard tells Nicola Swanborough how his brother’s seizures have helped shape his wicked sense of humour, while over the page, two sisters tell their moving story.
It’s a funny thing, Daniel Howard’s epilepsy. In fact it’s so funny it has people laughing the length and breadth of Britain. Ok there are those who have been less than a little comfortable enjoying something which is rarely packaged as light entertainment, but Daniel’s own extraordinary laughter is licence enough to join in the joke.
So what makes Daniel’s epilepsy so funny? ‘Basically, my brother,’ says Daniel, grinning. ‘He’s a really funny guy and he has managed to turn something that was really bad in my life into something that is good and out there.’ Daniel is the younger, shorter, lesser known yet equally engaging brother of Russell Howard, one of the UK’s top comedians and a mainstay of TV’s Mock the Week. The brothers share the same bouncy, boy-next-door good looks that belie a wicked sense of humour. And the bond between them is obvious.
Daniel is Russell’s number one fan and trusts him implicitly in sharing often intimate details of his seizures as part of his stand-up comedy. Russell may joke on stage about his little brother’s epilepsy but away from the mic it is clear he takes the whole thing seriously. Two years older than Daniel, Russell has been there from the onset of his brother’s epilepsy.
Daniel explains: ‘I started having fits as a result of a severe head injury when I was 10. Russell and I were cycling down a hill near our home when the lights came off Russ’s bike and got stuck in my front wheel. I went over the handlebars, over Russ and landed on my head. Of course that was more than 15 years ago and I wasn’t wearing a helmet. Whenever I see someone cycling without a helmet now, I shout at them to put one on. ‘I don’t judge Daniel by his epilepsy, it is just a tiny facet of his personality’ ‘For a year after the crash I had really piercing headaches and then the epilepsy started.’
Both Russell and Daniel’s twin sister, actress Kerry, better known as Alice in the remake of Reggie Perrin, have vivid recollections of finding their brother in the middle of his first seizure. ‘It was incredibly scary,’ says Russell with no attempt to dilute the memory with a gag. Kerry agrees. ‘We had no idea what epilepsy was,’ she says. ‘We all thought Daniel was going to die.’
The Howards have always taken a whole-family approach to Daniel’s epilepsy. It may have been Daniel who went over the handlebars, but Russell and Kerry have shared the blow to the head. ‘I have always felt a little guilty that the lights came off my bike,’ continues Russell, although he is quick to point out that his closeness to his brother has little to do with the impact of his condition and more to do with the fact that he just genuinely likes him. ‘I don’t judge Daniel by his epilepsy,’ he says, ‘it is just a tiny facet of his personality.’ Then he checks himself and the comedian kicks in: ‘How would I describe my little brother?’ he muses then knocks him into touch with a single word. ‘Fat!’ he says. (‘Not funny,’ retorts Daniel ‘...or true!’) Kerry jumps in to avert a potential scrap. She admits that Daniel’s seizures long ago turned her into an over-protective sister.
As children, her mission was often to protect Daniel from the physically exuberant Russell. ‘I would fret every time Russ and Dan had play fights,’ she recalls. ‘I remember shouting at Russ, “Don’t hit his head.”’ Luckily, Daniel was tough. Kerry is convinced that had it been When one child in a family has epilepsy it can have an impact on siblings too. Comedy king Russell Howard tells Nicola Swanborough how his brother’s seizures have helped shape his wicked sense of humour, while over the page, two sisters tell their moving story herself or Russell with epilepsy, they would have been totally crushed by it. ‘We were a couple of big softies,’ she says, ‘whereas Daniel was just so brave.’
Daniel takes a degree of pleasure in pointing out that Russell is still a big softy. ‘Can you believe that my big brother’s still scared of the dark,’ he says, turning the tables on the king of comedy. ‘We’ve recently bought a house together and even now I’ll get a call from him late at night saying “Dan, I’m at the tube station. Will you come and walk back with me?”’ Russell may be a softy when it comes to the dark, but he’s no shrinking violet when it comes to representing epilepsy – almost a comedy taboo – on stage. ‘I always consult Daniel before using any material about his epilepsy in my gigs,’ he says but emphasises that any attempts to break down barriers and raise awareness of the condition are accidental. ‘I just do stuff that I find funny.’ Russell also knows when the comedy must stop. During one of his gigs, a woman in the audience had a seizure and Russell went into auto pilot. ‘I stopped performing, came off stage and put the lady in the recovery position,’ says Russell. ‘I put my coat under her head and made sure she was well looked after. Then after a break, I was back on with the gig.’