The us and them of comedy

Two books which i read within days of each other have got me thinking about comedy – or about British comedy anyway – and modern Britain in general. One of the books was a biography of the singer-comic-ukelele player George Formby who was once the country’s top box office draw. The other was a book about the work of the mysterious Banksy, graffiti artist cum social commentator of our times.

George Formby was your classic Northern comedian. His comedy was as broad as his Lancashire accent; there was nothing political or sophisticated about it. To me though the most important thing about Formby was that his humour was ‘us’ humour. By that i mean he located himself inside the group he was laughing at. Even when he joked about idiot superiors they were ‘our’ idiot superiors. And most of his fans probably thought he was as simple as his stage persona – certainly he never seems to have gone to any trouble to disabuse them of the notion.

Increasingly though comedy seems to be of the ‘them’ variety. The comedian removes himself from the people he’s mocking, observing them as though through a window rather than from in their midst, and tries to remove himself from the joke too. When he makes himself the joke – for example Ricky Gervais as David Brent – then he is careful to cultivate an off-stage persona which disavows the stupidity of the character he plays. No-one wants to be seen as a Fool anymore.

Why is that? A big part of the reason in my opinion is that no-one feels safe enough. The spirit of our time is cynical rather than sentimental. Some people would say more truthful or more honest but cynicism is  not more truthful: grey-tinted shades distort just as much as rose-tinted glasses. Where before people kept unpalatable truths about dysfunctional marriages and back-street abortions hidden from view and concealed their ‘dark side’, now people fear to be exposed as caring too much, trusting too simply or believing too sincerely.

Banksy’s work is often extremely funny. As i looked at one piece after another though i noticed how often the humour seemed to be used as a tool to protect the artist from being mocked for his convictions. He says something serious with one of his stencils and then immediately inserts something humorous as if to assert “But i’m not being earnest. I’m not one of them.” He makes his point and then exits before he can get caught.

It’s ironic because Banksy, like most modern comedians, considers himself a progressive – meaning he wants to move society forward. Yet few things hamper social action more than this withdrawal from ‘us’.  It’s all their fault and we can’t do anything because they have all the power. But – hey! – at least we can laugh at them.

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That shallow decade

In an article in the Times today Libby Purves assures us that the Tories have changed. What’s more so has Britain and we’re all the better for it. She’s talking about the Tories and the Britain of the 80s: the decade of Thatcherism, loadsamoney, Section 28, miners’ strikes and the Falklands War. She says:

[T]hat shallow decade can’t be repeated. Britain is — believe it or not — much pleasanter and more thoughtful than it was on emerging from the bruising, punkish, strikebound 1970s. During the 1980s, remember, hardly anybody in government gave a damn about the environment: debates about badgers and newts were confined to the backwaters of the House of Lords, and welfare organic farming — when we took it up in 1990 — was widely and viciously mocked. Homophobia flowered into Section 28 of the Local Government Act. Racial discrimination was technically illegal but dislike was open: who can forget Lord Tebbit’s weird remark on the Today programme about the Ugandan-Asian born Yasmin Alibhai-Brown :“This Miss Brown may think she’s British . . .”

I can’t help but admire the way Purves deftly palms off the blame for the aggressive atmosphere of ‘that shallow decade’ onto the one that preceded it, or rather its tail end when Labour were in power; but the 80s was a far more abrasive decade than the 70s. Where the 70s spat, the 80s bludgeoned. And bludgeoned and bludgeoned. It was as though Mrs Thatcher saw herself as Churchill in drag and her battles – with Argentina, with the miners, with anybody and everybody (even members of her own party) – as a second Second World War.

In a way it was a war, but Argentines aside, it was mostly a war with ourselves as we tried to work out who we were and what we believed in because this was the decade when the consensus around our national identity and culture broke down. The 70s might have been a decade of ‘socialism’ but it was also the last decade it was possible to talk unchallenged of Britain as a Christian nation. I remember the 80s as the decade in which my family stopped watching the Queen’s Speech on Christmas Day; the decade in which it became acceptable, even in the more conservative parts of the country, to live together ‘outside of wedlock’ (what a quaint expression that seems now); and the decade in which we stopped thinking of non-white Britons as ‘immigrants’, or at least started the process. It was also, courtesy of AIDS, the decade in which we started to openly discuss (and accept) homosexuality.

It’s really only now that i can see, looking back, what a time of upheaval it was. Despite the way in which Purves contrasts the 80s and the more socially enlightened times we live in now, it was the 80s when, half-hidden by the belligerent materialism of the decade, the very developments she describes began to put out shoots. It’s ironic really that the things the Tories wanted to preserve – monarchism, Christianity, marriage and so on – are the very things their economic philosophy helped to undermine. The more individuals were ‘encouraged’ to be self-sufficient, the more their dependence on (and consequently attachment to) traditional institutions weakened.

Whether or not that’s a good or a bad thing depends on your point of view. It has certainly created problems for us as a society, problems we have so far failed to find convincing solutions to. Dispersed and disconnected families, buildings in which so-called ‘neighbours’ live side by side for years without so much as speaking to one another, an increasing fear of crime – of being robbed or short-changed by A.N. Other; these are less pleasant manifestations of our modern self-oriented culture.

I wonder if we really are more ‘thoughtful’? I think we are certainly more careful in what we say about one another. But how much does that reflect progress in our attitudes and how much does it reflect the fact that without a common culture it is hard to work out what the boundaries of the acceptable are? We over-censor or we fail to censor ourselves at all. The war with ourselves has gone undercover now: it’s waged mostly anonymously via comments on news articles, and to a lesser extent on blogs and social network sites. I don’t know about ‘pleasanter’. To my eyes it looks vicious.

Just British?

There’s an interesting post over at Mark Easton’s UK in which he comments on the minefield which is ethnic terminology. During last week’s controversial “Question Time”, featuring Nick Griffin from the British National Party (BNP), a woman in the audience upbraided Jack Straw of the Labour Party for using the term “Afro-Caribbean”, rather than her preferred version: “African-Caribbean”.

Meanwhile, Nick Griffin, possibly the least photogenic politician since Roy Hattersley, drew flak for using the expression “indigenous British people”. One of the standard arguments against the use of terms like this is that no-one in Britain can truly claim to be indigenous. We’re all descended from migrants; the only difference is that some of those migrant ancestors arrived here sooner than others.

No population is entirely separate from the rest of humanity, goes the rhetoric. We are all members of a single species whose ultimate roots lie in Africa. That being the case, how can it be meaningful to refer to anyone as “African”? How can that word be used to differentiate the origins of any human sub-group?

Then, the second part of her term: “Caribbean”. Surely the association between this lady’s ancestors and the Caribbean is likely to be even more ephemeral than is that of the average Welshman, say, and Britain? A few hundred years as opposed to a few thousand.

As for the lady herself, surely she is “just British”? If this isn’t true, then presumably the majority white population aren’t “just British” either. In which case, what are they?