Sometimes I turn on TV and I presume that what I witness is a deliberate assault on the idea of human imagination, an attempt by some commissioning editor to create somethinh so witless and vacuous that we concede that imagination was a lie and all that can exist is a banal reflection of an empty existence. Each show is the first thought that stuttered out of a head, unembroidered, devoid of any flight of fancy or artistic leap, but I have no time to bang on about that now.
Are our cultural tastes meant to be nailed down by accident of birth?
I am becoming class obsessed. A few months ago, I wrote about checking my privilege, scrutinising my background and the advantages I have had that have gone a long way to giving me the comfort and choices I have. During my tour, a few incidents have made me question class and expectation even more. Am I as niche as I think I am?
I am a middle class comedian and I am told that the audience that would like me are middle class too. My first issue is with what middle class means. For all those middle class people that like arthouse cinema, alternative guitar bands and BBC4, there is a tulgy mass of them that hate all those things. As usual, the comments section of the “the middle class are suffering most” newspapers will demonstrate that it’s not all Werner Herzog and The National down your local golf club.
There is a cultural divide, a schism that says, “you people have your art, and you people have yours, don’t risk crossing it, you are not wanted here”. It is useful control, though one that might be more by accident than design. There are locations where you are meant to feel out of place, where your skin is prickly and your ego feels under threat. There is trash you are all allowed to like and there is trash that is meant for subcultures, something to talk about over your gin and tonic or your WKD.
I read an interview with a TV producer, one whose televisual dirty protests had smeared many screens, defending himself. Yes, he made populist tat, but in his private life he liked the most refined of arts, the sort of thing that could never engage the hoi polloi because it was so pretty and intricate. Give that sort of thing to the clumsy handed tree fellers and shelf stackers and they’ll only smash it.
I am guilty of presumption when it comes to accent, outfit and apparent demeanor. Back in the Autumn, I was doing a gig in a small town with my oddball friends. The room seemed the wrong sort of wrong and as the audience filed in, they didn’t look like “our kind of audience”. “heck, this could go tits up”, we thought grumpily. I went on even more hyper than usual, uncertain, seeing how soon they realised they had chosen the wrong show for their saturday night out. I was the one who was wrong. They were the best kind of feisty. We hung around talking for a long time after the show. The blokes were blokey, but as well as blokey they were curious and questioning. The women were dressed for a Saturday night, and they were also filled with thoughts of insurrection, political fury and non-conformist. I had been a sloppy thinker. I had forgotten that you can have outsider thoughts inside your head without having outsider garb on your outside. The talk was of sexuality and political unrest. This sort of thing has happened before, it was ignorant of me to have worried.
The audiences I get, I am told by others who are not in attendance, is bespectacled men with pens in their top pocket and a comic book in their coat. Well, some of them are, of course, and that’s true of me too. But there are also hairdressers and plasterers, OAPs and under 15s. A friend in an audience the other night told me of “the geezers” who analysed the first half, bit by bit, from black holes to edible armadillos.
I am not trying to big myself up, but in this small pond I exist in, I see that what people might want and what people may be given are not the same thing. It seems post war (and before that) there was a culture that was fighting for an art for all – that great novels and fine plays were not just for those that had been brought up “the cultured way” and knew their Latin and Greek, that Madame Bovary and The Crucible could be for anyone. I read of a prison performance of Waiting for Godot, and the actors saying that the convicts had no fear of “this difficult play” and that their reading of it had more depth than most of the salon critiquing they had experienced.
I have reached the age where you fear dumbing down, forgetting that I am from another dumbed down generation, and before that another one. If all this dumbing down, which began sometime before Juvenal started bemoaning the young, has been going on so long, we should be naked and smeared in mud and grasping for grubs by now. I don’t think people are dumber, but I do wonder of we are returning to a time where we are all told there are places of interest for each of us and not to overreach ourselves. It took centuries, and there is still some work to be done, to prove that there is no gender divide in scientific curiosity, and at least as long to prove that maybe people want more than bread and circuses, sometimes cake and Beckett goes down well too.
I notice this when playing very small towns, when everyone comes out even though they have no idea who you are, you are just something to do. I see people cast as niche or “of limited appeal” perform, and I see what they do being lapped up by an audience of broad outlooks, backgrounds and foregrounds. You don’t need a degree to be open-minded, it can go the other way at times. It require striking out to break down the walls of cultural ghettos that are being built again, to be bold and imaginative and not hold back and pre judge because “these people aren’t the sort to like this kind of thing”. (yeah yeah, I’ve said it all before)
My 2013 tour is nearly done – Evesham, Leicester, Dartmouth, then off again with a new show in 2014 starting in Sheffield, Nottingham, Norwich and Bristol. all details HERE
the imperfect Christmas gift of my DVD HERE