Chris Arnot discovers what a gay academic finds to enjoy and admire about a homophobic northern comic
The abrasive stand-up Roy “Chubby” Brown would be startled to learn that one of his most avid admirers is a gay academic from Brighton. “The most important comedian of the past 25 years,” is the verdict of Andy Medhurst in his new book, A National Joke. Indeed, the final chapter is entirely devoted to that ribald stalwart of northern clubs and seaside revues, whose video oeuvre includes such classics as Clitoris Allsorts, King Thong and Chubby Goes Down.
Medhurst is senior lecturer in media, film and cultural studies at Sussex University. Earlier this summer, he was a “talking head” on BBC2’s British Film Forever. He has lectured at the British Film Institute and been invited to speak at seminars on humour in the unlikely setting of All Souls College, Oxford.
But has he ever seen Chubby Brown live on stage? “I have,” he says, leaning back in his rather cramped office where academic tomes rub spines with enough videos to stock several charity shops. “Saw him in Great Yarmouth, and he was suitably bracing.” Uncomfortably so, at times? “Yes. It was just after Kenny Everett had died, and a homophobic joke drew me out of my enjoyment of his astonishingly skilful technique. It was the enthusiastic reception of the joke, I suppose. There was an assumption that everyone in the audience was heterosexual.”
Then why is Brown so important? “He gives a voice to people who don’t have one. He sticks up two fingers at the liberal-progressive consensus, and stands up for the white, predominantly northern working class that Tony Blair liked to pretend doesn’t exist any more. He says things that they’ve been told they can’t say and, because of that, he’s a hero to them.”
Much the same used to be said about Bernard Manning, I suggest. “Yes, but his comedy was more defensive. He was trying to hold on to a world where white people were in control. His act was a bolthole for audiences refusing to acknowledge the changes around them. Like Chubby, he was a very talented joke-teller but less aggressive, more laid-back – a bit like Les Dawson with added racism.”
In A National Joke, Medhurst spans the 20th century, from music hall to The Royle Family, and uses comedy to pin down that most elusive of things, the English national identity. “There are differences within the regions. But comedy gives you a mythology that helps you to smooth out those differences.” Or, as he puts it in the introduction to the book, “it contributes significantly to how English culture has imagined its Englishness”.
Side by side
When he was assembling his bibliography, the serendipities of the alphabet placed Larry Grayson – “once the most unjustly vilified of English queer comedians” – next to Stuart Hall, “the single most influential voice in the development of the field of cultural studies”. Later entries drove Grayson and Hall apart but, as Medhurst puts it in chapter three, “this book remains an attempt to eavesdrop on the conversation they might have had if they had been left side by side”.
As with any discussion about Englishness, class is the issue. Medhurst wears his allegiances on his sleeve. He accepts that he has joined the middle class, and enjoys the tolerance afforded him and his partner in Brighton. But he resents the way people there routinely talk about northerners “with a contempt that they would never bestow on Asian people”. He’s uneasy about the “self-satisfied assumptions” of a city that increasingly sees itself as London-on-Sea, “but only certain parts of London. Camden, for instance”.
Medhurst’s roots lie south of the Thames, in Docklands. He grew up in a council flat. “I encountered the middle classes for the first time when I went to grammar school two bus rides away,” he recalls. “If I’d gone to the local comprehensive, I’d have had my head kicked in for being overweight, not good at sport, and queer.”
What saved him on the mean streets of south London was an encyclopaedic knowledge of pop music, and an ability to tell jokes. He listened to radio comics and has fond memories of Sunday lunch with Round the Horne. “I can’t think of a comedy that so perfectly captured a moment of change in social history,” he reflects. “You could almost hear the corsets coming off as listeners woke up to the 1950s being over.” It ran from 1964 to 1968, and Medhurst marvels that the BBC allowed Kenneth Williams to get away with so many in-jokes for a suppressed gay community. “Mum and Dad and myself were laughing over our roast beef, but we didn’t understand everything at the time.”
When he first arrived at Sussex as an undergraduate in 1977, it was the heyday of punk, and the beginning of the end of radicalism in the student body. “I now take seminars in rooms I once occupied,” he confides with a wry smile. But he also found time to enjoy his English degree, and seriously considered specialising in Jacobean drama.
What eased him away from classical literature in the direction of the modern media was attending evening classes at the British Film Institute. “One of the lecturers told me about a pioneering MA course in film studies at East Anglia,” he recalls.
These days film and media studies courses are well established. Medhurst, however, still encounters a certain defensiveness among colleagues in the face of sniping from academics in more traditional disciplines and, indeed, from the media itself. “Snobbery against people who write about comedy is alive and well,” he says. But he relishes dissecting jokes in the way a biologist might cut up a frog. Only what he calls “weak comedy, lazy comedy, over-hyped and merely modish comedy (Absolutely Fabulous, say, or anything involving Steve Coogan or Armando Ianucci) may buckle and crumble under sustained study”.
His next book will be about Coronation Street, another programme that brought down the curtain on the 1950s by featuring working-class people as three-dimensional characters. He still shows sceptical students those groundbreaking early episodes created by another gay man, Tony Warren. “One of the things that still intrigues me is the persistent strain of northern camp,” Medhurst ponders. “Sometimes the script sounds like downmarket Alan Bennett.”
A whole section of A National Joke is devoted to Bennett, who has been “thinking about Englishness for over 50 years”. In 1984, he wrote the screenplay for A Private Function, the 1940s as viewed from the 1980s and as much about Thatcherism as it is about rationing, Medhurst maintains. “I use the film a lot in teaching, and find it odd that Bennett has been so neglected by the academic world.”
Not half so neglected, one suspects, as the earthy oeuvre of Roy Chubby Brown.
Job Senior lecturer in media, film and cultural studies at University of Sussex
Before that Research fellow in film studies at East Anglia
Likes Ugly Betty, the Scottish Highlands, sweetbreads
Dislikes Have I Got News for You, Bono
In a civil partnership with Phil Ulyatt, a senior staff nurse
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