In a few hours' time, comedy fans in Sheffield will take to the streets in protest. Their cause? Not Brexit, or climate change, but the decision to ban Roy 'Chubby' Brown from performing a gig in the city.
Chubby, who is not to everyone's taste, is best described as the North’s answer to Bernard Manning or Jim Davidson. An earthy stand-up comic from Middlesbrough, he is perfectly prepared to talk, joke and trade raillery about race, religion and sexuality in a way few other performers are. This week, after 30 years of performing in Sheffield, he was told he is no longer welcome.
Sheffield City Trust, which runs various leisure sites on the local council's behalf, summarily cancelled a planned performance by him in the city’s Oval Hall next year. The reason? The trust's chief executive, Andrew Snelling, said:
'We don't believe this show reflects Sheffield City Trust values.'
For local Labour MP Gill Furniss this was welcome news. 'This is the right thing to do. There is no place for any hate filled performance in our diverse and welcoming city,' she said.
But to the council’s dismay, few others agreed – not least many local residents in Sheffield who rather like Chubby. The cancellation spawned a furious popular reaction; 35,000 people have now signed a petition demanding Chubby be allowed on stage.
This isn't the first time that Chubby has had shows cancelled: performances in Ashfield, in Nottinghamshire, back in 2016, and Swansea a couple of years ago, were also called off. Does he deserve this treatment?
Chubby’s patter is referred to by his detractors as racist, homophobic and misogynist. But it’s worth spending a few minutes on YouTube to see what he actually says. There is certainly a never-ending flow of insults, ridicule and profanity; and religion, race and sexuality undoubtedly get their share and more.
But you will hear little, if any, malice, nor are there calls to hate, attack or ostracise anyone. More than anything, Chubby is a highly successful performer because he has a disconcerting ability to see things through his audiences’ eyes. For working-class audiences familiar with thinking, talking and joking about race, sex, sexuality and religion in an entirely unsentimental way with little respect for political correctness, his popularity is hardly a surprise.
True, none of this cuts much ice with progressive intellectuals. But leave such people – who are unlikely to be seen dead at a 'Chubby' show anyway – to one side. For any ordinary observer, 'Chubby' is just a low – if popular – comedian, most of whose bons mots you wouldn’t be very surprised to hear at the end of a long evening in a lively pub in a down-at-heel area.
Despite the City Trust’s expressed high-minded desire to uphold the values of the city of Sheffield, few if any see this comedian as a hate-monger of any kind. And that may well be the real problem. There is a strong suspicion that what drives people to distance themselves from him may be something rather different: namely, good old-fashioned snobbery.
Is the same kind of condescension with which Emily Thornberry viewed 'White Van Man' at work here? In the decision to cancel this show, there certainly seems to be a suggestion that protecting people from entertainers who pander to their low tastes is an obvious priority.
Whatever the cause of the argument against Chubby Brown, he isn’t going away. This morning a group of supporters who object to the efforts of the City Trust and local politicians to prevent his appearance will gather outside Sheffield City Hall.
Even if Chubby Brown’s brand of humour isn’t your cup of tea, you may well think Sheffield’s approach to it even less so. If you do, and you want to strike a blow against petty municipal one-upmanship, then you should back the protest.