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English: Quentin Letts, British journalist.

English: Quentin Letts, British journalist. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

During 2009 and 2010 I did a bit of blogging for The Spectator Arts Blog. As it seems to have disappeared, and its content to have been dispersed amongst the aether like so much unwanted bum-fluff. I’m going to republish a couple of the bits I did here, so at least they will be archived somewhere online.

This piece was from October 2010. My views have changed slightly since then, but I thought it was worth putting up here in the wake of the Daniel Tosh thing… 

A couple of Thursdays ago, TheDaily Mail told us, on Prince Charles’ behalf, that modern comedy was offensive, ‘cruel and witless’. However, its front page the very next day was a dire warning that the EU was coming, and the thing it was coming to take away? Our good, honest, cruel British comedy, by which only pansies, Guardian readers, and the deaf could possibly be offended. Confused readers were possibly not helped by the following Wednesday’s article which was back to bemoaning how offensive British comedy now is.

The Daily Mail is of two minds about how offensive comedy should be. Or would be, if that didn’t imply that it had one fully-functioning mind to begin with.

The columnists in question, of course, may accidentally not have been describing comedy, but themselves. Who, for example, is more “impossibly ugly”: comedy or Jan Moir? Is it possible that there was a mirror somewhere in the periphery of Quentin Letts’ vision when he described comedy as “smug, scornful and obsessed with sex and flatulence”? What, Prince Charles, is more cruel: knob gags, or, when sitting with your wife-to-be, suggesting that someone who wants to know whether you love your fiancee should define their terms?

The paper’s split personality over comedy doesn’t mean its readers are going slowly, bitterly mad, however. Neither do the front page headlines calling for the abortion of gay foetuses (July 1993). Or the editorials suggesting Hitler should be given large chunks of Africa (March 1934). Or the support for the British Union of Fascists (“Hurrah For The Blackshirts!” January 1934). Individually, none of those things reveal you to be squalid and hateful beings, hypocritical, nasty, and prurient, but put them all together…

Of course, I’m being facetious in suggesting that the paper was being in any way inconsistent. The offensive humour that was to be celebrated and cherished and the EU were coming to grab was jokes about women, blacks, and disableds. The sort we should despise is the kind that makes fun of middle-class white men.

That’s not to say that modern comedy isn’t cruel and witless. Just that that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The cruel and the scatological are not new elements in British comedy. On the contrary, they are two of the great pillars of British humour. From Chaucer through Shakespeare to Swift and Sterne, from Gillray through Marie Lloyd to the Inbetweeners, great swathes of what the British find funny has been bums and humiliation. Often humiliation because of bums and the things that come out of them.

When Quentin Letts rails against the ‘sex-obsessed’ I can only assume he’s talking about the smutty undergraduates of I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue:

Their favourite treat is cheese with homemade chutney, but they never object when she palms them off with relish.”


“The archivist says he always loves to watch his little dog as he scampers up to Samantha with her couple of crackers held out and pants around her ankles.”

Those who claim bleakness and cynicism in comedy are new and deplorable traits are, quite frankly, jabbering idiots who would be best served by being put the sort of establishment where they restrict access to pointy objects and have special non-swallowable Scrabble tiles. British comedy has never been darker than during its ‘golden age’: Hancock’s Half Hour, Steptoe And Son, Rising Damp are all utterly pitiless, as is Fawlty Towers.

To sanitise and strip British comedy of its rich (and thoroughly offensive) heritage is to do it a disservice. I don’t blame the columnists of The Daily Mail for preferring to live in a Baden-Powell fantasy world, but we should really stop listening to them as if they were talking about, you know, reality.

Two other pillars of British comedy are silliness and satire, at both of which we excel, and which are often combined. From the Big-End and Little-Enders to On The Hour’s train drivers, on strike because they can see the track narrowing as it reaches the horizon and “with fixed-guage rolling stock, this could derail our trains” satire often tends towards the surreal, making the point that the world is often surreal.

However, as satire ages, and its targets become more distant its silliness is what endures. Now, MontyPython’s Flying Circus is usually described as ‘surreal’, but what made the programme unique wasn’t its nonsense, but it’s gimlet-eyed view of the world.

All jokes have a point. No matter how surreal or slapstick, every joke tells a story, it represents a take on the world. Richard Curtis appears to have forgotten that.

In this spectacularly misjudged video for the 10:10 campaign, he appears to be labouring under the impression that people blowing up is funny in and of itself. Even when the people around react with screams of horror. Even when it’s grownups blowing up children.

Franny Armstrong, a founder of the 10:10 campaign said it was:

a funny and satirical tongue-in-cheek little film in the over-the-top style of Monty Python orSouth Park”

Except no one in the known universe has been able to divine what it was intended to satirise.

Is this meant to warn us about the potentially fatal consequences of inactivity on climate change? If so, surely after a couple of people had refused the teacher should have sighed and blown everyone up. If you don’t act we all die. Probably still a rubbish film, but at least one with a point.

The film’s called No Pressure (and I’m guessing that the people blow up because they are de-pressurised?) so it would seem that it is suggesting that there really is pressure, even when people say there isn’t. Except that there’s actually much less pressure around them so they explode. Unless they’re highly-pressurised from the inside. Or something.

No one seems clear what it was trying to say, and if you’re unclear about what a joke is trying to say then it doesn’t work. That’s the thing about public communications. It helps if you have something you want to communicate. Instead, and I say that as someone who generally supports the aims of the 10:10 campaign, of just producing a bullying piece of proto-psychotic wish fulfilment.

Fortunately, even as wrong-headed, ill-thought-through, patronising, glib and stupid as No Pressure is, it’s not Richard Curtis’ worst film. That’s Love, Actually. If you don’t believe me, pause for one second to consider a film that begins with a mawkish voice-over about 9-11 and ends with an 11-year old child breaking through three levels of airport security, essentially unhindered. Next to that, No Pressure begins to look like a conceptual masterpiece.

The campaign organisers seem to be labouring under the delusion that what people found offensive was the gratuitous gore. Here’s a hint: when adults execute children to the screams of their horrified classmates, those adults are not the good guys. The problem is not that it’s offensive, but that it’s utterly incoherent.

For those who are unshocked by massive child-violence, however, there’s always rape. A couple of weeks ago, The Guardian ran this piece which bemoaned that making jokes about rape is becoming more acceptable.

I’m so politically correct it hurts. Literally. At the first whiff of a historical imbalance in power relations I come out in hives. I get gastric cramps when I read the word ‘niggardly’. However, not only should comedians have the right to make rape jokes, but they should be encouraged to.

[In retrospect, this is the part where my views of 18 months ago diverge most from the views I hold today. Although I still believe that the problem with the subject is that those we most need to hear saying things about rape are those who choose not to go near the subject now, I’ll quite happily have stern words with my younger self about a culture of sexual violence, triggering, and a world where child-size “When I Grow Up I Want 2 B A Kardashian” T-shirts are a thing. I wouldn’t write these paragraphs like this now.]

Sexual violence is, unfortunately, part of the world we live in, and, as such, is one of the things we have to deal with as humans. One of the ways humans deal with things is by making jokes about them.

The implication of the article’s sub-heading “What makes comedians think rape is something to laugh about?” is that there are subjects which are off-limits to comedy. You could as easily ask; what makes comedians think mass murder / genocide / paedophilia is something to laugh about. Maybe we shouldn’t touch these issues, but without them we wouldn’t have Gillray’s cartoons about the Terror in France, Mel Brooks’ The Producers, or the Brasseye Special. If we decide that some topics are taboo, the question then becomes who gets to decide what is and isn’t an acceptable subject for comedy.

Not all rape jokes are equal. Every joke takes a position, and not all positions are equally pleasant or unpleasant. There is an obvious difference between a joke or routine that honestly explores a comic’s personal reaction to a difficult subject, and one that trivialises sexual violence.

It’s certainly not unfair to judge a comic by their jokes. If their jokes revel in misogyny and use rape as a means of getting cheap laughs, then that tells you a lot about them. The greater a variety of comedians who feel able to give their personal take on rape and its part in our society, the better. As long as the only people who feel comfortable doing material about rape are those who couldn’t care less about it, the worse for everyone.

The problem is not that too many comics are telling jokes about rape, but that too few are, and many of those who do are doing it simply to shock. We need to have a culture in which comedians of all stripes feel free to discuss any subject that is important to them. More rape gags, please, and from more people.

As a comedian you are responsible for what you say. Like it or not, your jokes are yours. Until Keith Chegwin hears them…

But then I would say that. As a character comic, none of my jokes are mine. I get to espouse the most horrific opinions, tell the foulest, most shocking jokes, and blame them on the character I’m playing. And I do.

One of my characters is a racist, sexist, bigoted freak, and the act consists of watching him slowly have a nervous breakdown, and revealing the reasons for his being such a miserable human being. However, some of the laughs during that act do come simply from the shock value of hearing someone say terrible, terrible things. I did the act once at a rural club, where one of the patrons nodded throughout the whole thing, nodded and pointed and muttered: “Yes. Yes. He knows. That’s right.” I later discovered that the pub the night was being held in was where the local chapter of the BNP hold their meetings.

Even a routine in which a horrible person is shown for the hollow, diseased shell they are will be taken by some people as a positive affirmation of their awful views on minorities, women, and the current underuse of the word ‘poppycock’. Standing on a stage wielding a microphone is a powerful thing.

In the end I decided that, as it had only happened once, and that, for anyone with even a sliver of functioning brain, the point of the act was to discredit those opinions rather than give voice to them, I should continue doing that bit. Although I have to accept that in so doing I am also giving voice to them, and a tiny, stupid minority will take comfort from the very thing I designed to discomfit them.

If one really wishes to find comedy that was ‘cruel and witless’ one doesn’t have to look far beyond Quetin Letts’ ‘golden age’ of comedy. (Incidentally, in his staggeringly ill-informed article, Mr Letts bemoans the fact that we have no Pixar, no animation company capable of making touching films which garner international success. We’ll assume he’s never heard of Aardman.)

The casual, grinning racism of a lot of the acts on ‘The Comedians’ in the 1970s reminds us that not all comedy of the ‘golden age’ was gentle silliness with a good heart. It appears, instead, that any joke of any viciousness was acceptable as long as it was aimed at the Irish, blacks, mothers-in-law, Pakis, immigrants, married women, unmarried women, and gays. Those who seem so horrified by today’s comedy seem to have chortled happily through the ethnic mugging of The Two Ronnies.

Comedy has always been cruel and witless. It’s just that we only really notice when it stops being cruel and witless about the people we don’t care if it’s cruel and witless about. We only feel the need to write opinion columns about how cruel and witless it is when it’s cruel and witless about people like us. Or, in Prince Charles’ case, people very specifically like us. You know, us.

BAFTA Academy Fellowship Award

Image via Wikipedia

This is an elongated version of an article that originally appeared on The Spectator Arts Blog here.

Did you know that if you took your bowels and laid them end to end, you’d die? That joke works with practically any of the useless facts you were given about the human body as a child. Did you know that if you took off your skin and laid it out it would cover five tennis courts? And then you would die. If everyone in China stood on each other’s shoulders they would reach past the moon? And most of them would die. And life would go on in Midsomer completely unchanged.

There is, however, one substance, deep inside many of us that is inexhaustible. No matter how much you pull out of us, lay end to end, stretch across tennis courts, croquet pitches or badminton galleries, wind around the surface of Jupiter, or hurl, cackling, into the fiery bowels of the sun, there will still be more. Day after day, week after week it comes. That substance? Hatred of Richard Curtis.

No matter what his achievements, his international successes, his seemingly irredeemable niceness, all qualities we claim to value, almost everyone can be driven into a fizzing, supercilious foam by the mention of his name. Assailed from the left, scoffed at from the right, article after article after article appears, solely about how appalling Richard Curtis is.

I’m guilty of it myself. In an article I wrote for The Spectator last year I spent much of the middle section berating Mr Curtis, culminating in this particularly unpleasant couple of sentences:

“Fortunately, even as wrong-headed, ill-thought-through, patronising, glib and stupid as No Pressure is, it’s not Richard Curtis’ worst film. That’s Love, Actually.”

It’s all too cool and easy to join in the Curtis-bashing without thinking. Or even with thinking. With thinking and gleeful anticipation at all the horrid things you can say with impunity. And with writing yourself little notes in the middle of the night when you dream a particularly acidic putdown and don’t want to forget it before morning. I assume.

But all of the comedy I truly loved growing up had Richard Curtis’ hand in it. The first television programme I ever learned off by heart, imitating each and every one of the performers’ vocal tics, was Blackadder’s Christmas Carol. At school, we all knew it off by heart (when I say ‘all’ of us, I mean those of us not involved in the rugger, violence or sodomy cliques. Four of us).

We knew every series off by heart. And it introduced us to the hard stuff: A Bit Of Fry & Laurie, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, worlds that had seemed impenetrably adult before.

In the mid-nineties he was responsible for the teenage female population of Great Britain becoming infinitely more susceptible to awkward public school boys with unruly hair, when Four Weddings And A Funeral became a hit. My teenaged self is forever grateful. Many women now entering their mid-30s may well not be.

In fact, as the creator of so much of the comedy I devoured repeatedly during my formative years Richard Curtis is certainly responsible, at least in part, for the fact that I now make my living writing and performing comedy. That may be another black mark against him for many.

When I started writing the terrible student plays that terrible students write, I kept crossing out jokes, muttering ‘too Richard Curtis’. Now I just cross them out, muttering ‘too shit.’

How, then, did it reach this pass? How is Curtis-lambastation such an easy trope to fall into? How has Britain’s media become a trough of venom for one of the most successful figures our country had produced in the last century?

He has many of the virtues our right-wing media purport to hold dear. He’s a self-made man; and, although Harrow and The House don’t exactly smack of clawing one’s way up from the streets, he won a scholarship to Harrow, and his career has been marked by an quite boggling amount of work. Richard Curtis clearly works hard. Almost constantly.

And I think this is one of the things we hold against him. We’re lazy. We’re all lazy. Writers are crippled with the knowledge of all that time they’ve wasted checking emails, ‘doing research’, or playing Mineswee… rechecking emails. And when we catch a moment between wines for a quick snooze, we fall asleep haunted by the knowledge that somewhere Richard Curtis is writing something that millions of people will love, and that will lead to his having to build an extension to his bank.

Mr Curtis’ body of work is an indictment of every lazy one of us. Added to which, to a certain part of the right-wing commentariat, it’s probably just typical unpleasantness about a scholarship boy; every haughty reference to The Boat That Rocked a coded whisper about how Curtis has second-hand hockey kit.

He is also an incredible public fund-raiser. Funds that, much to the chagrin of the same cabal of tiresome proto-fascist foghorns, are freely given by people whose concerns are much the same as those of Richard Curtis: alleviating poverty in Britain and abroad with grass-roots projects.

It gives the lie to those libertarians (or, indulge me, ‘fibbertarians’) who claim that they don’t object to things being done for the poor in and of themselves, it’s just when they are done by governments that it’s also a problem for them when Richard Curtis does it. The fact that they are whipped into a steaming, broken, hate-froth by a man who spends a lot of his time organising charitable giving, bankrolled by his private income in the free market (where, incidentally, he’s pretty successful, too) just goes to indicate what decrepit, empty, noise-hoses they are, blaring hateful inanities until their eyes burst, or until Nanny turns down the topsheet. To be clear: they are against the Nanny State, not nannies

You’d think that if you wanted charitable giving to replace the welfare state you might at least take a polite interest in the activities of a man who has raised £630 million through Comic Relief (not counting his involvement in Live Aid or Live Eight). You might be a little intrigued by the way in which it operates on the Golden Pound principle, whereby none of the administrative costs of the organisation are paid for by donations, but rather through interest on money in the bank or corporate sponsorship.

If nothing else, Comic Relief took a grim, drab, wet, minor public school in the bumcrack of Surrey in the late 1980s, where most of the spring term was spent running between classrooms with books over your head to fend off the rain / hail / prefect urine, and offered the possibility that maybe, just for one day, the teachers might let you tell jokes, watch videos, do silly things to raise money. They never did, of course. Being slippered by a man in a plastic red nose is very similar to being slippered by a man without one, but it at least gave us hope.

We’re often told that the left ‘hate success’. They can’t bear it. They search around for anyone showing the slightest zest or entrepreneurial spirit, and then tear them down like a bunch of barely-motivated lions mauling a zebra. Or Richard Branson.

Very few Britons have been as internationally successful as Richard Curtis. It’s often a bit of hyperbole, but it actually would actually take too long to list all of his accomplishments here. His creations are beloved by the world: he co-created Mr Bean. He single-handedly invented a whole genre of films ‘the Britcom’. He’s Oscar-nominated and has a string of hits to his name. He came up with two long-running sitcoms. He hasn’t met a format in which he hasn’t had a huge success. He has exported a certain sort of British culture across the world, and had it embraced everywhere.

It isn’t the left who hate success. Dastardly from Wacky Races (or Stop The Pigeon if you’re a purist) hates success. As do people who write endless gloating articles about Richard Curtis’ perceived failings.

And how can we hate Richard Curtis? He’s so nice. So absolutely, irredeemably, bastardly fucking nice. He’s polite, unfailingly respectful (in public at least) of those around him, gathers talented people and gets excellent work out of them, for free. He’s a national treasure. What is there to get so upset about?

Four things keep coming up.

I’d probably best address the one I played on in the article I wrote: that he seems to have a tin ear for emotion, that he seems not to distinguish between real, earned emotion and cheap sentiment. I was first troubled by this in the infamous “we actually are expected to entertain, even for a beat, the fact that Julia Roberts’ stardom is more of a burden than Gina McKee’s not-having-any-legs and not-being-able-to-have-children” pastry distribution scene in Notting Hill.

To me, this made Love, Actually unwatchable actually (have a look at the other article for some of my specific problems with it), but, you know what? Curtis straddles the line between emotion and sentiment, and the exact position of that line is different for all of us. For some of my friends “Oh, is it raining? I hadn’t noticed…” is intolerable, but I relax into it with an enjoyable mental squelch.

Millions upon millions of people disagree with me about Love, Actually. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m emotionally deficient. Or maybe it’s all right when people disagree about films. And when he gets it right, he gets it exactly right, as he did at the end of his episode of Doctor Who last year.

The second recurrent criticism is just a vague sort of dislike-by-association, because people have him linked quite closely in their minds with Tony Blair and the late 1990s. I don’t see any real evidence for this, although the years of Curtis’ greatest success and prominence as an international figure were also those of the rise of New Labour.

I think Mr Curtis made his feelings pretty clear about Tony Blair in Love, Actually, and that we should bear in mind that one of them two of them holidays with murderers, dictators, alleged hirers of child prostitutes, and seems unable to distinguish between ‘morality’ and ‘venality’; and the other makes funny films and raises money for the poor.

Another criticism is that he is ‘too political’, something you won’t hear those same commentators saying about Rupert Murdoch. When these fibbertarians spend their time bemoaning the way a private individual chooses to give their time to causes they support, you really have to question their commitment to the principles they claim to espouse.

Their problem, of course, is not that he is too political. I’m sure, if pressed, they would concede that he’s entitled to be exactly as political as he wants. They are merely concerned that he is too good at being political, at achieving things and publicising the causes about which he cares. They remember The Vicar Of Dibley.

hat sitcom took a highly contentious issue (about which some of the pepole who so rail against Mr Curtis probably wish we were still arguing now) and showed its absurdity with some delightful casting and a dopey sidekick. He healed the rifts in the General Synod with a Christmas episode about having to eat lots of dinners. And he did it with a warm heart, jokes about words that sound funny, people who don’t understand things, and without ever stooping to the level of his detractors. (Yeah, me! Take that!)

His concerns are close to those of the general public, which is why when Richard Curtis decides the Robin Hood tax is a good thing, the aim of the bankers’ arm of the right-wing commentariat (which is all of the right-wing commentariat) suddenly becomes to destroy Curtis himself. The flying donkeys have been unleashed, beware a torrent of horse-manure.

The last criticism I have heard a lot is that Richard Curtis’ best work is behind him. To which my response is: And?

John Cleese’s best work is behind him, Woody Allen’s best work is behind him, but that is no criticism. When you have left behind things as glorious as they have, you can keep trying on the offchance. When even your relative misses far exceed most other people’s hits, it’s not a terrible thing to not be on your personal top form.

In conjunction with Rowan Atkinson, Richard Curtis also gave us something that is, I think, more valuable the whole Britcom genre. I call it the Comic Rallentando of Airy Passages. Or CRAP. This is something you’ll see a lot in the more florid passages of dialogue in Blackadder, or whenever there’s a particularly delightful mental image to savour, Rowan Atkinson slows down as he approaches the end of the sentence, and the silly word (ideally a monosyllable) that completes… it.

Atkinson’s eyes roll around the whole room before giving that last word. Often ‘pebble’, or ‘plinth’, or ‘Bob.’

I found myself using the other day with the word ‘glans’. I hadn’t realised when writing it, but as I mouthed that ‘glans’ in front of a room full of people I couldn’t help but think of Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson, rolling their plosives around in public.

That’s just one of the rhythms they gave us. When he worked with Rowan Atkinson, we had the joy of seeing someone delighting in writing word for someone who delighted in saying them. Every labial, oily crevice of a word would be exposed. Richard Curtis gave us a comedy in which language wasn’t funny because it had a second meaning, or because it revealed character, but because it was funny to say.

I have problems with some of Richard Curtis’ films, I do think he sometimes takes the easy option for his characters and stories, but he has given us new modes and rhythms of comedy. He wrote the comedy language that a lot of us learned as we grew up. He’s a dominant international figure, an ambassador for Britain, has a phenomenal body of work, and he has added to the lexicon of British comedy, changing it for the better.

Comic Relief is his crowning achievement, a unique testament to the man’s passions and achievements and one that engages all sorts of people across the country to do naff, unsophisticated things because it makes them laugh. Once every two years, Richard Curtis gives us an opportunity to change the world in small, tangible ways and to revel in laughter.

And nothing makes cold hearts sicker than knowing not only is the country laughing, but the country’s giving at the same time.

Oh, and for the record? Bernard And The Genie was excellent. I watched it so often I wore my videotape out. It should be on every Christmas, everywhere. And this Friday, I’ll be watching to see what new things he has come up with to entertain, amuse, and to save lives across the world*.

I’m putting money into Richard Curtis’ pot. I suggest you do, too. And then I’m punching myself in the face for contributing to the torrent of bile that washes over him, and doesn’t seem to have the slightest effect.

Did you know that if you took all of the venom spewed by all of the commentators and put it into a swimming pool, then you’d die. Both because there’s loads and you’d die of old age, but also because venom is… venomous and you shouldn’t even be in the pool in the first place, and… Oh, Richard Curtis is great. Give money to Comic Relief.

The End.

(*This is a fib. This Friday I’ll be at a gig. But I’ll watch it when I get in.)

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