When I was interviewed a long time ago for admission to one of our ancient universities, a don used the phrase “the maintained sector” to describe my educational background. He meant that I was a state school lad and I suppose his implication was that independent schools were somehow more free-thinking, reliable bastions of excellence. At the time I could only see the other side of that particular argument, but the phrase has come to mind again now in a different context.
The disastrous reception given to comedian Nish Kumar at yesterday’s Lord's Taverners' lunch is a sign that the maintained sector of British comedy has fallen victim to lazy groupthink and general mediocrity.
Kumar, who was booed offstage by his mainly provincial, small ‘c’ conservative audience – albeit at a swanky London venue – had made the mistake of rolling out the usual, anti-Brexit, anti-Tory observations that are usually lapped up by the live audiences of his BBC show The Mash Report. And he got a bread roll thrown at his head for his troubles.
A man absolutely died on stage 🤦🏼♂️ pic.twitter.com/WPCbpKEUHk
— Jon Austin 🤔 (@JonCAustin) December 2, 2019
I am sure Kumar is not entirely without talent. Clearly it takes courage for anyone to stand before an audience charged with being funny enough to quieten the clink of cutlery on crockery. But, let’s be frank, he is simply another BBC comedian with acceptable views.
BBC-approved comedians now dominate the maintained sector of British comedy. Auntie is the superpower of sponsored satire, scattering munificence in the direction of any up-and-coming talent with a neat line in attacking approved targets – the patriarchy, Brexit, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Tories, country sports enthusiasts, royalists and Priti Patel. You get the picture.
Of course not all comedians rely on such sketches. But those that don't all too often pay the price. Take talented young comedian Alistair Williams, who shot to prominence on the back of a sketch in which he likened Brexit to being stuck in a Burger King you have voted to leave. His video soon went viral. But as he noted on Twitter the next day: “Because I am a comedian that supports Brexit you can no longer find me on the comedy club circuit.”
There are exceptions, of course. Pro-Brexit comedian Geoff Norcott is gradually finding his way onto a few BBC shows. Then there is Simon Evans, a successful comic who parodies his own upper middle class, right-of-centre viewpoint, while occasionally getting in an anti-leftist dig along the way.
But just compare that to the roll call of conventional liberal-left comics who pop up on the BBC: Ed Byrne, Dara O’Briain, Marcus Brigstocke, Jolyon Rubinstein, Sandi Toksvig, Mitchell and Webb, Mark Steel, Mark Thomas, Jo Brand, Andy Parsons, Russell Howard and Stewart Lee. These and others form a rolling cast list for the BBC’s many radio and TV comic panel shows and sketch shows. All too often, they trot out the same takes again and again to approving titters from audiences apparently bussed in en-masse from north London.
A few weeks ago, after enduring a standard Have I Got News For You anti-Brexit fest, I turned over to watch Mock The Week on BBC2 only to see the host, Dara O’Briain, tell a panellist of Malaysian heritage that he wouldn’t be the type of person welcome in the Brexit party (Brexiteers = racists, you see).
I vented about it on Twitter – because whatever you think of the Brexit party it has been notably diverse since its inception and O’Briain’s lazy smear made no sense. It quickly transpired that the one Malaysian-born person to achieve senior elected office in the UK is Christina Jordan, who is the Brexit party MEP for Gibraltar and the south west. Soon she was giving O’Briain an ear-bashing. His retort was that what he said had got a laugh from the studio audience because that was what it thought of the Brexit party. No wonder, eh?
Even some of those among the BBC's typical comic roster have started to clock that their uniformity of outlook might be a problem. Brigstocke spoke in 2017 of the shock of seeing audience members walk out of his show during his anti-Brexit segment when he took it on tour round the country. But the comedy sector as a whole shows few signs of coming to terms with the case for more diverse thinking.
Most of us who are not on the left do not close our minds to the possibility of those we disagree with still being funny. The late Jeremy Hardy's News Quiz Tory takedowns were brilliant. But it seems most comics simply don’t work hard enough to offer such original material.
Jo Brand's joke about battery acid being thrown over politicians is a case in point. We get that she probably doesn’t really wish that on any one. But it’s just another way for her to say she doesn’t like particular politicians. We already knew that.
Thankfully there is the beginning of some salvation at hand. An “independent sector” is sprouting up, taking advantage of social media to push out content and hosting free-thinking comedy nights. Lee Hurst, a veteran comic whose own broadcast career was curtailed when his peer group learned he was no longer reliably left-wing, is an important patron of the scene.
In performers like Williams, Norcott, Evans, and Titania McGrath satirist Andrew Doyle – as well as more free-wheeling left-wingers like Francesca Martinez and Rob Delaney – we are seeing the makings of a new “alternative comedy” scene. My advice is to seek them out, ditch the BBC and have a laugh.
Geoff Norcott and Simon Evans join journalist Benedict Spence and comedy club founder Andy Shaw on a new podcast from Spectator Life. ‘That’s Life’ is a sideways look at the events, people, words and ideas that shape the news agenda.