When I was 14, and wearing one of my father’s old shirts back to front in one of those secondary school Art lessons that facilitate conversation more than they facilitate artistic endeavour, I was in the middle of a monologue, when a friend interrupted me. ‘Scott,’ he said. ‘You sound just like Hugh Grant.’ I was pleased, until he added, ‘Too bad you don’t look like him – or you’d be pulling girls like crazy.’
My accent – a sort of sub-standard Hugh Grant-Henry Higgins mash-up, certain to enchant Americans but equally certain to mark me out as irrevocably middle class to anyone with even the most distant upper class origins – is not shared by my maternal grandmother. She is, as my late grandfather was, gloriously and, despite decades living in the Midlands, un-dilutedly Geordie. Grandma grew up in Newcastle, and married and gave birth to her children there, but she and my grandfather moved to Warwickshire when those children were very young, in order that Granddad could find work.
Thirty years after my grandparents had left school, aged 14 and without a qualification between them, they had two children at Oxbridge. Twenty years after that, they had a grandson who could, at least to girls with very poor eyesight, feasibly be mistaken for Hugh Grant. No matriarch ever adored her family as much as my grandmother adores hers but there is, sometimes in the things she says, and always in the accent in which she says them, the implication that there is a bridgeable but distinct divide between her reality and that of her children and grandchildren (and, now, great-grandchildren).
It was this feeling that, when I was twelve, led my grandparents to play me an audio cassette of a Geordie comedian named Bobby Thompson but called ‘The Little Waster’. Thompson was, I was told, a great comedian: ‘much better than any of these comics you get on the telly’. From the build up my grandparents gave the routine they were about to play for me, I was expecting to hear something funnier than all my favourite episodes of The Simpsons and flatulence in church in combined. Granddad pressed ‘play’ on his by then outdated – and by now ancient – stereo and I braced myself lest my sides should spilt.
What I heard was incomprehensible. I thought perhaps there was a problem with the sound, that the recording was old or that the tape had degraded since it was last played – but then I heard the laughter. The laughter was totally clear. It was unmistakably spontaneous but, just as unmistakably, it was being orchestrated by a stand-up in absolute command of his comedy. The laughter subsided, the talking returned, and my bemusement deepened. My grandparents, scarcely contained by their armchairs, periodically erupted into explosions of irrepressible mirth, inspired half by the words of Bobby Thompson, and half by their youngest grandson’s utter inability to understand them.
Now, having developed a better understanding of Newcastle accents and – in the age of YouTube – being always able to find footage of Geordie comedians online, I understand something of just how funny that tape of The Little Waster was. But with an accent that is, in most places, understood and, in many, admired, I will never entirely understand just how funny the spectacle of me hearing it for the first time was to my grandparents.
The Little Waster always wore the ill-fitting flat cap and oversized woollen jumper he sports in these clips. As a teetotaller, he pretended to be drunk; and, as a non-smoker, he pretended to chain smoke. Later, as a rich man, he pretended to be poor. Despite his storied troubles with the taxman, and the limited geographical appeal of his act, he earned enough to pay for a Rolls Royce and a chauffeur to drive it. In every club he played every audience member he played to thought he was the finest comic they had ever heard.
(I should add that, in the preceding paragraph, I may be guilty of following John Ford and ‘printing the legend’. These statements of fact about Thompson are not taken from research into his career, but from memories of childhood conversations. If they are incorrect, I don’t want to know. I’d rather believe my grandmother than Google.)
In one small area of the country The Little Waster was an icon; everywhere else he was an unknown. Today, post-Auf Wiedersehen Pet and Big Brother voiceovers, with those who would perhaps once have been strictly regional comedians (Peter Kay, Dave Spikey, John Bishop) famous across the UK, Thompson might have enjoyed a national career. One of his central themes – the insidiousness of the debt culture and the ironic ability of the wealthy to further impoverish the poor by ostensibly giving them money – would be more relevant in our day than it was in his; and it is a joy just to imagine the material he would have created for, say, Live At The Apollo about 21st Century Britain’s version of the infamous ‘North-South Divide’.
The accent, though, would still most likely have separated him from the mainstream – and without the accent, the act would die. Thompson’s accent is the ideal – indeed, the only – vehicle for his material. Its idiosyncrasies, half by chance and half by calculation, push away those who can’t truly get his jokes whilst pulling together all who can.
When I played the first video embedded here for my grandmother yesterday, it was the first time she had seen The Little Waster since she sat in the audience at a working man’s club somewhere in Whitley Bay sometime in the 1970s. I have never seen her laugh as recklessly as she did when watching this little YouTube video of a figure she feared forgotten – and I have seen her laugh recklessly on incalculable occasions. After the video had ended, once her crinkled eyes had been wiped and her brittle hair had stopped bouncing, she looked at me and made the proud pronouncement: ‘I understood every word of that.’
It seems unlikely that many of my readers here will be able to claim the same – I certainly cannot. But The Little Waster is worth everyone watching at least once. Those of you with an ear for Geordie can laugh at one of Britain’s finest comedians. Those of you without an ear for Geordie can laugh at the inscrutability of it all. But all of you should remember: eef yer pey wot yer owh, yer’ll netha ha’ nowt.
We first published this piece in the blog's pre-Spectator incarnation.