‘Outspoken comic Frankie Boyle has called on the BBC to sack “cultural tumour” Jeremy Clarkson.’
Can anyone tell me what’s wrong with this opening sentence from a recent news report?
Clue: it’s that first word. In order to qualify as ‘outspoken’, surely, you need to be the kind of person who fearlessly, frequently and vociferously sets himself in opposition to the clamour of the times.
Does demanding that a public figure lose his job for some mildly sexist/racist/homophobic/ableist remark fit into that category? Hardly. In the current climate it’s about as heroically contentious as, say, a private school prospectus that promises ‘We believe in educating the whole person’; or a sign at a Co-op declaring its commitment to social justice, diversity and sustainability; or a Conservative Prime Minister declaring that three letters — NHS — are engraved on his heart.
The only mildly interesting aspect of the statement is that Frankie Boyle is not, contrary to all impressions, a junior policy co-ordinator at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, nor the head of diversity at a firm of chartered accountants, nor yet the health inequalities, disability and lesbian affairs officer at Strathclyde council. Amazingly — don’t laugh, because it really ain’t funny — Frankie Boyle is one of Britain’s most successful comedians.
I’ve written about him before in a Spectator TV review in which — to my eternal shame and regret — I praised him for his comedic daring. Boyle’s speciality is (or, rather, was) the kind of jokes so sick and offensive you’re really not quite sure whether to snigger guiltily or turn your TV off in disgust.
For example, during the Olympics he disgracefully mocked the looks of swimmer Rebecca Adlington, accusing her of having ‘an unfair advantage… by possessing a dolphin’s face’. He suggested that Camilla Parker Bowles was ‘what Princess Diana would look like if she survived the crash’. He made a rebarbative sexual reference to Jordan the celebrity’s disabled son, Harvey. As for his one about Jimmy Savile and Madeleine McCann, it’s so vile I don’t want to repeat it.
But I defended Boyle’s style nonetheless because I believe that testing the bounds of accepted common decency is one of a comedian’s jobs. They don’t all have to do it, obviously: look at that nice Michael McIntyre. But there’s space — or there ought to be — for those of a nearer-the-knuckle persuasion too. Comedy, after all, is one of the ways in which we expose received wisdoms and cultural taboos to ruthless scrutiny; it’s also one of our defence mechanisms against the cruelty of existence, black laughter providing cathartic release from our fear and unease over everything from cancer to child murder. Nothing ought to be off limits.
Apparently, though, there are some issues so contentious, so delicate, so manifestly evil, so far beyond discussion even in the lairiest Glasgow comedy clubs, that not even Frankie Boyle feels it is acceptable to broach them. One of them is the near-capital crime of making a laddish, self-mocking car programme in which — oh the horror! — you show a bridge with a person of oriental persuasion standing on it, and you make a sly, schoolboyish racial pun involving the word ‘slope’.
‘Slope’: it’s not an epithet in common currency. Indeed, the only time I’d ever heard it used before Jeremy Clarkson got himself into trouble recently was by my father, when referring back to his stint in the RAF in Hong Kong in the 1950s.
Which is probably one of the reasons why the Top Gear team got away with it. Or rather, why they almost did. Fortunately for the professional grievance industry, a sharp-eyed offence-taker — an actress by the name of Somi Guha — spotted the outrage and threatened the BBC with legal action. A subsequent Ofcom ruling decided that ‘slope’ was indeed a ‘pejorative racial term which has the potential to be offensive to Asian people specifically, as well as to viewers generally’. This in turn prompted the Director of BBC Television, Danny Cohen, to declare recently at the Edinburgh International Television Festival that he was ‘incredibly unhappy’ about Clarkson’s language and to threaten, ‘There’s no show or person that’s bigger than the BBC and that’s made clear to anyone who works there.’
You might have hoped, at this point, that some Pastor Niemöller figure from the media industry might have stepped in to call bull on all this fascistic nonsense. Top Gear, after all, is one of the BBC’s best-loved programmes: it accounted for half of the top 20 most viewed episodes on iPlayer last year. How so? Well partly, one suspects, because its puerile, risqué humour is so refreshingly different from the stultifyingly on-message PC crap which comprises the rest of the BBC’s repertoire. If Top Gear didn’t make jokes about lazy Mexicans, arrogant, garlic-eating French or efficient, borderline-Nazi Germans, it wouldn’t be doing its job.
And who better to speak up for Clarkson than a comedian who has himself been barred from a TV channel for his offensive humour? Step forward, Frankie Boyle. Or rather, retreat, cowering and muttering PC pieties, Frankie Boyle.
Look Frankie, I know it’s hard not sounding like yet another liberal-lefty drone when your entire industry is stuffed chock full of them. But for a brief moment I really thought you were bigger and braver than that. Clearly you’re not, and that puts your stuff about Rebecca Adlington, Camilla Parker Bowles, and Jordan’s disabled son into its proper context: not boldly transgressive but cowardly, gratuitous and cruel.