A class act

Steve Gribbin on class in comedy

It’s December 2002 and I’m taking part in the BBC Radio 4 programme Loose Ends. As we are waiting in the Green Room with Suggs, Arthur Smith and the late great Ned Sherrin, there occurs one of those conversations that, in retrospect, sheds light on an unspoken area of contention in today’s comedy scene – namely class.

A producer rushes in looking harassed. When I enquired what was the matter, she replied, ‘Oh, God…you know how awful these bloody school fees are’ to which I said, ‘Er…no…both my kids go to their local comprehensive school.’

She shot me a look that was a mixture of contempt, hurt pride and anger, and nothing more was said. But that look stayed with me. The more I thought about it, the more incensed I became. It was obvious that she had expected me to agree with her, much as the white cab driver takes it for granted that you’re on his side in his bigoted tirade against filthy asylum seekers.

For there is a class divide in comedy. Nothing illustrates this better than a story about an exchange in the dressing room of The Comedy Store about ten years ago when a famous comic was heard to enquire of Andy Linden, one of the few comics on our circuit from a genuinely working class background, ”So, Andy… what’s your five-year plan?’ To which Andy replied, ‘Five=year plan? Five=year plan? Listen, mate, I haven’t even got a five minute plan…I ‘m gonna go down the bookies, put a few bets on and then have a few pints and have a laugh!’

Typical feckless working class, eh? What a terrible non-aspirational way to live.

The comedy circuit in the UK is dominated by the middle class, and reflects their attitudes. I’ve known some comedians who were anti-the war in Iraq, but when they talked about their fellow countrymen from a lower social class, they might as well have been talking about someone from a different planet, albeit someone who was so obviously inferior they really weren’t worth bothering about.

It’s this attitude that has given rise to the over-use of the pejorative term ‘chav’, which has now become a catch-all term for anyone from a council estate. I’ve even heard the phrase “’oooh…she’s a bit council estate’ used a put-down. It speaks volumes about the users of such language that they would be horrified if someone used the N-word but will quite happily brand a whole strata of society as workshy, lazy and beyond redemption.

For when those comedians, their voices dripping with icy disdain, sneer at the

habits, dress sense and attitude to life of the so-called ‘chavs’, they’re talking about my family, my relatives, my friends from school.

I can just hear the cry, ‘Oh stop being so politically correct!’ and you are quite right… this is all about politics. Comedians, after all, reflect the society they live in. We are not, as some self-deluded practitioners erroneously believe, visionary avatars of truth who are completely above society.

We’ve had 13 years of New Labour in which we have all been constantly told that everyone must aspire to own their own home, kill their granny to get a place in a good school, and that ‘everyone is middle class now’. Funny how

most people in the UK still see themselves as working class.

Comedy reflects all the class tensions of society. If you can demonise the poor little proles, the you can deliver that age-old put down beloved of bible-thumpers and Tories: ‘It’s all your own fault!’

Witness the plethora of jokes about ‘this nanny-sate health and safety culture’. How oppressive, eh? Insisting on wearing safety helmets on a building site? Spoilsport bastards. Of course, health and safety in a solicitor’s office is probably not as life threatening. A paper cut doesn’t really equate with a ton of scaffolding slicing your head off.

A comedian said to me recently, ‘Oh for God’s sake will you stop banging on about class, Steve? You know there’s no such thing as the working class any more!’

Which must have come as quite a shock to his cleaner and the people building his house. And the train driver taking him to work.

  • Steve Gribbin is premiering his new show Laugh At First Sight, about his 25 years in comedy, at the Hen & Chickens Theatre, Islington, North London, from Thursday 25 to Saturday Saturday 27 March.

Published: 18 Mar 2010

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