There is a rather sweet moment in the middle of each Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown show where, after some magnificently obscene one-liner, he addresses the howling audience. ‘I love you people,’ he says. ‘Just like me, you’re rough.’ The audience laughs and applauds at this observation of itself. The wall is broken and the performer and audience are as one. This is ‘rough’ used primarily in its north-east of England context, meaning not so much violent or abrasive (although both are also possible), but cheap and low-down and a little bit ugly.
Roy’s now 76 and has been knocking them dead for 40 years, packed houses wherever he goes. But you won’t see him on television. Nor is he about to be presenting The News Quiz on Radio 4, not least because they’d have to rename it ‘The Fucking News Quiz’ and it would be a lot funnier than it is now. He is shunned by the comedy commissioners because, like Bernard Manning before him, he transgresses. He does not share their values nor their multitude of aching sensibilities. They do not find him funny — they find him a disgusting throwback to a time before political correctness.
So no TV for Roy. But increasingly he is also persecuted by the Labour-run councils which still — for a while at least — run the large concert venues in the north of England. The latest to recoil in horror from him is Sheffield City Council, spurred on by the local Labour MP Gill Furniss. The council has supported Sheffield City Hall’s decision to ban Brown from appearing, and Furniss said: ‘There is no place for any hate-filled performance in our diverse and welcoming city.’ Furniss is as thick as mince, sententious, totalitarian: there is no ‘hate’ in any of Roy’s performances for a start. Just vast acres of filth. And neither she nor the city council should be allowed to decide what sort of jokes people should be allowed to hear. The consequence is that more than 30,000 people, mainly local, have signed a petition to get his show put back on, and a protest march was due to take place in the city on Friday. People do not much like the arrival of the humour commissars.
Roy is a good friend of mine; we Teessiders must stick together. He has become used to Labour councils trying to prevent him from earning a livelihood. ‘I understand I’m not everyone’s cup of tea,’ he told me this week. ‘But I’m not a racist or sexist. I’m just a jokeist. I just tell jokes.’ He added — unironically, I think — ‘OK, there’s a few fucks in my show, Rod, but only when they’re fucking necessary.’ If asked to describe his humour — bearing in mind that Roy isn’t one for a great deal of introspection — he will point you to Reg Smythe’s Andy Capp comic strip. That’s about right. Flat-capped, working-class northern humour. Andy Capp from Hartlepool, Roy Chubby Brown from Middlesbrough.
There is a broader psephological point, though. Here is my Roy Chubby Brown thesis — make of it what you will. Follow his tour around the north of England and I will guarantee that any Labour-run town or city which decides to ban him will not be Labour-run for very much longer. Because Roy Chubby Brown is the culture war writ small, and this stuff really, really matters to working-class voters.
Middlesbrough Council, for example, banned him from appearing in his own town. Bad move, bad move. Such a furore. The woman who enforced the ban on Roy resigned; the independents, not Labour, now control the town council, and Roy is welcome to perform any time. The Tees Valley mayorship went Conservative. So did the constituencies of Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, Stockton South, Hartlepool and even Redcar. As I say, this stuff matters.
I am not of course suggesting that Roy Chubby Brown was the sole cause of this massive shift away from the Labour party. It is about the contempt in which the Labour party holds the people it was set up to represent. The disdain, the disgust.
Another example from my home town, Middlesbrough. There’s an expensive art gallery there, the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, opened in 2007 and intended to up the area’s cultural clout. Middlesbrough’s most famous artist is a chap called Mackenzie Thorpe, a former shipyard worker whose work is adored for its depictions of Teesside’s industrial past, its hard-bitten men and women, vignettes from the rough pubs of old gadgies drinking and men making their way to work, the foundries and plants awaiting them: Teesside’s Lowry, then. I’ve got a couple of Thorpe’s prints in my lounge and Roy Chubby Brown has what I think is an original in his front room. Middlesbrough loves Mackenzie Thorpe.
Needless to say, MIMA wouldn’t touch Thorpe with a bargepole. The work was way too lowbrow for those monkeys. There was no attempt at an accommodation: ‘Look, here’s your display of Mackenzie Thorpe, but why not venture into our other gallery where we have a video installation about used tampons which may well win the Turner Prize?’ Nope, no room at all for Mackenzie Thorpe. In the case of both Thorpe and Roy Chubby Brown, an elite which no longer had any real connection to the area which paid for its existence determined what you could laugh at and what art you were allowed to enjoy. This kind of thing rankles a little, no?
So keep an eye out at the next election for the fate of that sanctimonious besom Gill Furniss. Sheffield may be more ‘diverse’ than it once was and she may have a whopping majority. But not quite to the extent that she can pour contempt upon the traditional Labour voters. Watch out, in Sheffield Brightside, for the Roy Chubby Brown effect.