‘I spend a lot of time helping teenagers who’ve been sexually abused…’ — beat — ‘…find their way out of my house.’
You’d scarcely imagine, listening to Frankie Boyle now, that this was the kind of joke he was telling on TV as recently as this decade. I wouldn’t believe it myself if I didn’t have written evidence of it, in the form of a 2011 TV review of his now-forgotten shocker of a Channel 4 show, Tramadol Nights.
Boyle was great back then because he went to places few other comics dared to tread. He joked about everything from cancer (‘What is it about people with cancer thinking they’re suddenly going to run a marathon?’) to having sex with your granny (‘Often she’ll stick £5 in your pocket afterwards and say, “Don’t tell your mum.”’) to Jordan the large-breasted celebrity’s disabled son. It was cruel, it was tasteless, it was horrid — but it was hugely refreshing.
As I argued at the time, Boyle’s no-holds-barred humour was a very necessary counter to the political correctness increasingly strangling comedy.
I’m still really glad that someone is doing it, out there, pushing the boundaries because disability is real and cancer is real and the reason we have taboos about them is that they make us feel scared and uncomfortable. The job of comedy is to test these boundaries; the stronger the taboo the more it needs testing, for that’s how we naturally deal with our fear and unease — through the catharsis of laughter.
Eight years on, Boyle has moved up in the world. He’s on the third series of his own show — Frankie Boyle’s New World Order — yer actual BBC this time (Thursdays), rather than lowly Channel 4. As comics tend to do when they’re endorsed and promoted by our state broadcaster, he has amassed a respectable fortune (estimated at £3.3 million). And all he had to do to achieve this was to sell his soul, stop taking risks and renounce every last scintilla of his comedic integrity.
Like a dissident who has found a new, more profitable and comfortable career in the secret police, Boyle now makes his living not by pushing boundaries but by enforcing their limits. His job is to say the totally and predictably sayable: Annunziata (as in Jacob Rees-Mogg’s sister, now a Brexit party candidate) is ‘a spell Harry Potter would say to deport the Windrush generation’; Netanyahu’s re-election ‘will reduce the number of Palestinians who hate Israel — by literally reducing the number of Palestinians’; Piers Morgan is to interview Donald Trump in the White House, ‘So, al Qaeda. If you’re watching: pop that one in the diary.’
In other words, Boyle’s show, just like every other BBC comedy panel show these days, is essentially an excuse for people from the BBC’s roster of approved comics — at least one of them female, one either disabled, gay or from an ethnic minority — to signal their approval of all the correct causes and their disapproval of all the incorrect ones. The studio audience then gives itself a big round of applause for sharing these progressive sentiments. And everyone goes home happy.
Do I blame Boyle for his despicable act of self-serving cowardice? Well, no more, I suppose, than I’d blame a family of wartime French or Dutch farmers for shopping the downed Allied airman hiding in their barn to the Germans. Some people, perhaps most people when push comes to shove, will choose personal security and wellbeing over higher moral principle.
But it’s a damn shame all the same. I believe that we are living in increasingly dangerous times, where free speech is under grave threat and where the cosy left-liberal consensus that the BBC thrusts down our throat at every opportunity is starting to look as oppressive and intolerant as any totalitarian tyranny, only with TV bakery competitions instead of bread queues. If edgy, fearless outsiders like Glaswegian faux-thug Boyle are going to capitulate at the first whiff of grapeshot, it hardly augurs well for the great fightback.
Fight back, though, we must. The BBC has now reached the point where it doesn’t bother paying even lip service to its charter obligations to fairness and balance. Its comedy and drama are as relentlessly woke as its news coverage. And on some issues it has become so aggressively far left that any self-respecting Conservative government would have intervened by now and threatened to withdraw its right to charge a licence fee.
Last week’s David Attenborough’s Climate Change: The Facts (Thursday) was a particularly depressing example of this. As one wag said, it really should have been called Climate: Change the Facts. None of the other TV reviewers made this point, needless to say. They thought it was really powerful and moving because in their own way, just like Boyle, they’ve all forgotten how to do their job.