Brexit: “alternative comedy” has choked on its own vomit

Back in the late 1970s British television took a marked change of direction. Traditional sitcoms such as The Good Life, George & Mildred and Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em which never sought to do anything other than make people laugh, were replaced by what became known as “alternative comedy”. This gave birth to such programmes as Not The Nine O’Clock News, The Young Ones followed by Saturday Live, where their stars would make a virtue out of railing against the Establishment, championing proactive democracy, “power to the people” and all that. It made careers for the likes of Ben Elton, Alexei Sayle and Jeremy Hardy, who most recently thought SNP MP Kevan Jones, who has publicly spoken about suffering mental illness throughout his life and doesn’t share his views on Trident renewal was fair game for this zinger: “I would have thought you could hazard a guess that if someone supports nuclear weapons, if your view of existence is so bleak you’re prepared to help with the extermination of the entire northern hemisphere, that kind of suggests depression, don’t you?”, self-styled “alternative comedians” who inflicted their unsophisticated dreck upon impressionable kids who sucked it all up with the gratitude and ignorance of a parched dog drinking from a public toilet.

In the Noughties and now we have Marks Steel, Thomas and Usbrigstocke, and still Jeremy Hardy. Little has changed. They always think they’re right – whether in comedy and politics – and everybody else are basically mentally deranged Nazi sympathisers.

They were and still are happy to take the Establishment shilling while shitting their political invective onto an eagerly wanking audience to the point where it’s adulation became rimming. Even Private Eye, born out of the satire boom of the early 1960s, would – often at great legal expense – seek to expose cronyism and corruption perpetrated by institutions of all levels of Government, local, national or international.

These stars, shows and satirical magazines sought to represent their audience in a way which “the people” couldn’t do for themselves, with a platform unavailable to the masses but cornered and guarded fiercely by those fortunate enough to enjoy their position of celebrity and responsibility.

Campaigning for change, to the political system and politics as a whole, was exactly what the self-styled icons of anti-Establishment had built their careers – and fortunes on, with some stand-up comedians earning millions of pounds per year from hard-working fans, doing a 90-minute set telling those same people without a modicum of irony how little money they have. Their livelihoods were dependent on fawning fans lapping up their bile, worshipped by those who could do nothing in the vain hope that their idols could make things happen. For decades, this was a bit like trying to sixty-nine in a hammock: an interesting experience but of uncertain duration.

And so over the years “alternative” became the Establishment lapdog, the mainstream, having lured an entire generation, incapable of forming opinions for themselves, into blind, unquestioning obedience. If you think of the mainstream media as the Stadio Sant’Elia, then the part that isn’t all gooey-eyed about political institutions would be roughly represented by the bit where Gary Lineker wiped his backside in Italia ’90, way back when diarrhoea would pour from the hole between his lower rather than upper cheeks. But the thing is, the enormous smug egos that form this mainstream media have finally succumbed to that well-known but most annoying of cholesterol problems: egg on face. They’d been found out. In the last few years, through the explosion of social media – Twitter in particular – Establishment figures have become more accessible. No longer did TV shows and magazines, once the sole purveyors of Establishment-bashing, hold a monopoly in anti-deferential behaviour towards the great and the good. And soon, people realised that not only could they throw out the odd snarky Tweet about the political issue of the day, or whinge endlessly about how disconnected they’ve become from the political system and politics as a whole, but with enough numbers they could have influence. They could organise. They could effect change. And given the right opportunity, that change could be massive.

And so to the most important political upheaval in modern times. In the General Election of 2015 then Prime Minister, David Cameron promised a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union (EU) and would therefore have a mandate – if Cameron won the election – to follow through on the result, whatever it was.

And so the referendum came in June 2016, and the electorate, fed up of having laws decided by an unelected body in a different country, with the EU, it’s institutions and regulations registering “gushing” on the cronyism cum-o-meter, over 17.5 million people – 52% of voters – decided that Britain should leave the EU.

In Britain people had voted for change. Massive change. In their millions people had chosen the option so progressive they’d provided the most disruptive, the greatest systemic shift in how politics was done, and most importantly over all, they had taken to the stage and performed their own anti-Establishment show. And their audience was huge.

It was like fucking someone up the arse for the first time. The thought of what they were going into may at first have seemed unpleasant, off-putting even. But that didn’t matter, because the experience would be wonderful, the climax majestic and for the first time they’d shafted something they’d never thought they would: Brexit. People were prepared to put up with the prospect of shit in return for lashings of hot spunk, the resulting creampie being deliciously satisfying. And you can’t get more progressive than that.

You’d be forgiven for thinking, after all of that anti-Establishment anarchy and the now box-ticking British televisual representatives of cutting edge satire, swivel-eyed (sorry, lazy-eyed) race-baiter Jonathan Romesh Ranganathan and his ilk (to borrow the phrase used by William Keegan in The Guardian about Nigel Farage) would be dancing through the streets, their cause won, their careers vindicated, right?

Wrong. If there’s any truth in the phrase that we learn from our mistakes then these people should be geniuses, in fact they’ve been found out. Rather like those pub “brawls” you see when old men square up to each other, both happy to shout “come on then” but too afraid to fight. And that is exactly how those oh-so-brave stars of screen and print are. Spineless. Their bottle has gone. And so instead to try and retain some relevance, they enthusiastically, morbidly predict doom. Armageddon. World War Three. Billions in debt. Muslims deported. Chocolate made illegal (well, a tax on sugar). And when even the University of Cambridge, whose alumni include some of today’s “top comedians” admits that forecasts “were very flawed and very partisan”, lefty columnists have to resort to the ridiculous. Here’s Mark Steel in The Independent:

“And to comply with free movement of labour, the EU is going to ban teaspoons – if you want your tea stirred you’ll have to let a Bulgarian do it with his knob. All our pets will have to be handed in to Brussels in exchange for a huge European Superpet. Then, once Turkey is admitted into the EU, they’ll invite black holes to join too, so we’ll all be swallowed into perpetual darkness – costing us up to £12 a year extra in lightbulbs. The moon will be designated Slovakian and given a flat in Exeter, causing havoc with tides along the coast of Devon, and Jihadism will be taught at nursery schools that will be failed by Ofsted if they don’t explode once a week.”

There’s nothing they’d like more than for Brexit to go wrong, to justify their opinion, their careers, even their very existence. Even Eric Idle, admittedly the least interesting or funny of the Pythons but still a part of what was arguably the forerunner to “alternative” comedy (with apologies to Spike Milligan), described those wishing to leave the EU as “brain dead”.

And we were all stupid for making it happen, see? All that anti-Establishment stuff… “The EU wasn’t that bad…” and “the older generation have condemned the young to a life of misery” which led to 78-year-old Guardian columnist William Keegan to describe Brexiteers as “so-called people”.

The thing is, now the “so-called people” have seen the light, realise what they can achieve, the TV shows and magazines, once the sole purveyors of Establishment-bashing, can’t offer anything. No hope, no solution, no change. They’ve been found out. Their relevance extinguished, “alternative comedy” has choked on its own vomit.

Sandwiched between politics and porn

I’m a bit of a telly nerd. Only a bit, mind – I wouldn’t profess to have the in-depth knowledge of someone for whom being an enthusiast is a career, besides which I just don’t have the time. Taking getting to and from there into account I spend more than half my life at work, and more than half of what’s left trying to get some sleep, if the cat has left enough room.

But I’m enough of a nerd to know my way around British television, particularly sitcoms and light entertainment as my mahogany shelves would testify, creaking under the weight of umpteen DVD box sets. I’m also quite into what are known as idents, endcaps and the like – the presentation-y bits before and after television programmes that tell you when they were made and who by. Southern Television is a particular favourite, a regional ITV company until it’s bitter demise in 1981 whose logo was a white star that looked a bit like a ship’s wheel on a blue background, in the days when ITV had a proper federal, regional structure and you could get a warm glow when your own local station had produced something the whole country was watching.

The other reason that my nerdometer perhaps registers less than others is that I have a genuine problem with concentration. There’s probably a support group I could join or benefit I could claim, if only I could be bothered to fill the form in. This means that no matter how much I love a particular television programme, any more than two half hour episodes and my mind starts to drift. I have to draw on every ounce of what limited brainpower I have to get through a single Columbo, anything beyond that and I have to lie down. That probably explains why, during my forty-one years of existence, I have only ever been to the cinema twice: Ghostbusters and Ace Ventura Pet Detective. For me films have to be particularly engaging, and the only two I own on DVD, apart from the Columbo box set, are All The Presidents Men and Falling Down, and only then can I watch them on a rare day off having completely drained my mind beforehand.

Imagine then being asked to watch a film. A whole one. Specifically “The Bungee” on something called Talking Pictures TV. Now, I’m a pretty unadventurous kind of person, and my frequent but familiar journeys through the EPG had just about taken me through the General Entertainment genre and scratched the surface of News. This channel I was being asked to watch was sandwiched somewhere between politics and porn, a bit like a Jacqui Smith expenses claim.

So to the film: Hemel Pike (played by Harry H Corbett who a year later would take on his career-defining role as Harold Steptoe) and his cousin Ronnie (a pre-Frost Report, pre-anything come to think of it, Ronnie Barker) carry goods by canal around the waterways of Britain. It is a declining industry which sees boatmen living on their barges, and in the film Hemel often spends nights with different women en route, and herein lies the plot.

He crashes into a novice mariner, played by Eric Sykes, and both eventually stop at Rickmansworth where Hemel hooks up with Nellie, one of his regulars, who is a barmaid. When she realises she’s not the only port where he unloads his cargo, so to speak, she chases him away, threatening to kill him should they ever meet again.

Hemel and Ronnie continue towards Birmingham, on the way stopping at Leg O’Mutton Lock to meet Christine (Julia Foster), daughter of possesive lock keeper Joe Turnbull (Hugh Griffith) who Hemel fears. In order for them to meet, he hatches a plan whereby Ronnie takes Joe for a few drinks, leaving the coast clear. However it seems that Hemel’s plan is about to be thwarted when Joe says he’s going home, but Ronnie goads him into a drinking contest, leaving Hemel and Christine alone. Christine tries in vain to persuade Hemel to leave the canal and get a job on land so they can marry, but he enjoys the lifestyle too much.

The following morning after Hemel and Ronnie continue to Birmingham, Christine collapses and Joe calls Dr Scott (a young Derek Nimmo in a rare appearance without a dog collar). He tells Joe that Christine is three months pregnant, and Joe jumps to the conclusion that the father must be one of the men who pass through on the canal. In order to identify the culprit he drains the pound and padlocks the lock gates to prevent any barges passing through until the father comes forward. He attaches a bomb to the gates and takes the detonator and his gun to the outside toilet from where he keeps guard. The police are called (two of whom are played by the youthful Brian Wilde and Richard Briers) but to no avail.

Eventually Hemel and Ronnie return from Birmingham, Hemel admits that he is the father and is forced by Joe to pay his way and get a job on land in order to support Christine once they are married. Hemel goes through a number of different jobs, including one smashing glass bottles and another making plastic chandeliers, but deliberately gets the sack from them all, hankering after a return to the water.

After Christine learns from Ronnie that the canal boats are to be withdrawn from service in eighteen months time, she has Hemel’s boats renamed the Hemel and Christine in time for the wedding, and they agree to raise their new family on the waterways until Hemel is forced to return to a job on land.

For me The Bargee started slowly, and my only two problems with the film came very early on. Eric Sykes’ character didn’t really seem to serve any purpose; if it was meant to provide some slapstick relief to a fairly traditional love story then it just didn’t happen. The other is that Nellie seemed to exist purely to establish Hemel as a dirty (old) man, and save for the briefest of mentions at the very end when realising they’d have to return via Rickmansworth, that was the extent of her role.

Setting that aside, I found the film hugely enjoyable, flowing over the mind like the rippling waters of the canal – gentle but absorbing. The beautiful scenery was delightful to see as were early but fleeting performances from stars who’d go on to far greater things in sitcoms that are now universally regarded as the pinnacle of British television.

That, for me at least, is probably the most wonderful thing about Talking Pictures TV: even for those who struggle to watch films, the majority of those that they show will having you elbowing your partner, saying: “Look! LOOK!! Isn’t that, er, you know, him from, er…” and for curiosity alone it’s worth giving the channel a go and you’ll start to enjoy watching films, almost by stealth. I’m now looking forward to watching “The Iron Maiden”, another film that’s been suggested to me. If you take the trouble to plough through their schedule there are gems in there including a huge number of British comedy films starring early incarnations of those who went on to become small screen comedy fixtures.

Talking Pictures TV are quite big on those, too. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that they’re soon to show Take A Letter Mr Jones starting the brilliant John Inman as Graham Jones, “computer and secretary” to Joan Warner (Rula Lenska), a thirty-something executive at Eight Star, a company that seems to have its fingers in just about every possible pie. Add to the mix Miriam Margolyes as a mad Italian housekeeper and the writing of Ronald Chesney and Ronald Wolfe (On The Buses) along with Bryan Izzard as producer and you have all the elements of a truly great sitcom. It is also, however, a sadly underrated sitcom due to it only running for one series, not because it wasn’t any good, but because it was produced by the aforementioned Southern Television which, if you haven’t fallen asleep by know, you will have read earlier disappeared from existence about six weeks after the final episode was aired. It is also often unfairly dismissed as not being that good, probably by those lazily comparing it to John Inman’s more famous vehicle Are You Being Served? (strictly speaking it began as a vehicle for Trevor Bannister but Inman stole the show), but it really does deserve to stand up there amongst the best.

That Beryl Marston! Is another Southern sitcom that’s coming soon starring Julia Mackenzie. And then my particular favourite, Tell Me Another, not a sitcom but a series where various television personalities of the day share anecdotes with Dick Hills, half of Morecambe and Wise’s early writing team, all edited together in the style of The Comedians, meaning you get around half a dozen stars per show. And all of this is possible because Talking Pictures TV are owned by Renown Pictures, who seem to have distribution rights for huge swathes of Southern’s back catalogue.

Although Southern weren’t as prolific a programme maker as their big five ITV contemporaries (ATV, Granada, London Weekend, Thames and Yorkshire) they did provide us with many high quality series. Spearhead, an army drama not unlike the later Soldier Soldier but without the irritating singers, Dick Barton plus many others are peppered throughout the Talking Pictures TV schedule.

Give it a try. Sky channel 343, Freesat 306 or Freeview 81. You’ll suddenly find yourself immersed in a world which you kind of knew existed and were desperate to discover, but didn’t quite know how. Until now.

Are You Being Perved?

This week feminists have been foaming at the mouth and getting their claws into the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) claiming that using, amongst others, “rabid” as an example for the use of the word “feminist” is mysoginystic, and that non-gender specific words such as “doctor” and “teacher” should be more commonplace. The implication is that institutions such as the OED are inherently sexist, and are representative of a wider problem throughout society.

The same breed of talking heads spent last Christmas invading our television screens through a cornucopia of clip shows crowing about how sexist sitcoms of the 1970s were, and that now everything is rosy in the garden (tended, no doubt, by a man who doesn’t mind getting his fingernails dirty). So, was television in the past demeaning to women and if so, have things really improved?

Whenever you think of the traditional British sitcom, you probably picture a suburban family, everything prim and proper, semi-detached house, man goes to work, wife looks after the house. You know, the Terry and June model.

The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin had a similar setup. Loosely based on writer David Nobbs’ novel The Death of Reginald Perrin, it was a melancholic, at times surreal sitcom that concerned the titular character (played to perfection by Leonard Rossiter) who had faked his own death (in precisely the same manner as did the then Postmaster General, John Stonehouse). Perrin was overwhelmed by the meaninglessness of his life, the corporate culture he was immersed in at Sunshine Desserts – his gravestone read: “Here lies Reginald Iolanthe Perrin. He didn’t know the names of the trees and the flowers, but he knew the rhubarb crumble sales figures for Schleswig-Holstein” – and his dull, irritatingly boring family life. Central to this was his wife Elizabeth, played by Pauline Collins. She prepared the meals, cleaned the house, and even dutifully handed her husband his briefcase and umbrella every morning before he set off to work, only to always arrive 11 minutes late due to feminist protestors on the line at Hampton Wick, or something. All very traditional, very 1970s, very sexist you might say. But the point of the role of Elizabeth was merely to serve as an extreme contrast to Perrin. This was such a strong, character driven comedy that Perrin’s sense of the absurd, the extraordinary, the unconventional needed Elizabeth to be exactly what viewers would expect – ordinary and conventional – in order to emphasise Perrin’s skewed view of life. It would be fair to observe that the central female character in this particular comedy did indeed conform to a perceived stereotype, that of the stay at home housewife who tended the house and her husband, but that would – perhaps deliberately – miss the point. Elizabeth existed as a foil to allow Perrin’s quirks and foibles to blossom, rather than as a doting spouse.

At around the same time The Good Life was born. It too featured a middle class husband and wife: Jerry Leadbetter (Paul Eddington) had a middle management job, earned well and provided for Margot (Penelope Keith) who looked after him. All very cosy and predictable one might think. But again the wonderful character of Margot, who seemed to have undergone the same sense of humour bypass as today’s not even worthy but definitely dull Guardianistas, cut down any Council official or tradesman with a withering swipe of her tongue: “I am the silent majority!” She wasn’t dowdy or downtrodden – she certainly wore the metaphorical trousers chez Leadbetter – and although she was a housewife, she was a social climber, had aspirations – even if only to be the chair of the Music Society. As with Elizabeth in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, Margot’s character served as a contrast, this time to neighbours Tom and Barbara Good (Richard Briers and Felicity Kendal), who saw the funny side of everything and nothing, and who dropped out of their middle class comfort zone in much the same way as Reggie Perrin would go on to do, to become self-sufficient with the appropriate hilarious consequences.

Sitcoms of the 1970s had a huge breadth of female characters, though many were played as gossipy and hen-pecking, a sort of aggressive Cissie and Ada. Lily Briggs (Queenie Watts) in Romany Jones and Yus, My Dear was a forceful woman, always suspicious of the layabout brother-in-law Benny (James Beck) and forever badgering her husband Wally (Arthur Mullard) who would seek to help him out. Another in a similar vein was Mildred Roper played by the delightful Yootha Joyce. Perhaps better known from George and Mildred (starring Brian Murphy as long-suffering husband George), the character first appeared in Man About The House as landlady to two attractive young females (Paula Wilcox and Sally Thomsett) and Richard O’Sullivan. While clearly ruling the roost with a venomous “George!” who she would belittle in front of visitors, she could show a softer side and had an enthusiastic obsession with sex, often dropping less than subtle hints for “an early night”. Of course, had the roles been reversed such behaviour would have had feminist protestors choking on their dildos.

A torrent of drivel on this subject recently came courtesy of Helen Mirren – the pretentious pseudo-royal knicker-wetter who once said of herself “had big tits” – during an interview sympathetically covered by another woman doing it for herself, Yvonne Roberts of The Observer:

“The connection between Helen Mirren, strong, fearless, embracing life with ever greater vigour… and Mary Elizabeth Jennifer Rachel Abergavenny Slocombe, possibly born in the 1920s [and definitely sourced from Wikipedia], once employed as a senior member of staff in the Grace Brothers department store, may not be obvious. However, the historic sitcom character, notoriously single but for the cat referred to routinely as ‘my pussy’, could easily act as chief witness in Mirren’s accusation that the sexism of the 1970s was ‘horrible'”.

“‘It was far from unusual, and gave Jimmy Savile his cover. That decade, after the sexual revolution but before feminism, was perilous for women,’ Mirren said. ‘Men saw that as a sort of “Oh fantastic! We can fuck anything, however we like, whenever we like. They’re up for grabs, boys!”'”

If we are to believe Mirren’s desperate and rather sickening inference that sitcoms such as Are You Being Served? were responsible for the sexual abuse of young children by Savile, then their viewers – millions of them – were complicit. Maybe the officers of Operation Yewtree should trawl Amazon’s order book and arrest anyone perverted enough to have bought any offending box sets (guilty as charged – where’re the handcuffs?)

Mirren’s hypocrisy is also quite staggering. In an interview with GQ magazine in 2008 she pontificated on the subject of rape, something which Savile was alleged to have committed some 31 times: “I don’t think [a woman] can have that man into court under those circumstances. I guess it is one of the subtle parts of the men/women relationship that has to be negotiated and worked out between them. It’s such a tricky area, isn’t it? Especially if there is no violence, if a woman ends up in a man’s bedroom with her clothes off. Look at Mike Tyson – I don’t think he was a rapist.”

Back to The Observer article and Yvonne Roberts: “Mrs Slocombe, played by Mollie Sugden, appeared in the popular BBC sitcom Are You Being Served? It encapsulated the weird whirlpool of changing social attitudes, challenges to male power and female doubts about the value of sexual liberation that failed to deliver independence, freedom from domesticity or a route to female desire.”

“Slocombe, a divorcee with wigs of changing hues, was portrayed as being sex-mad but unthreatening to men because she was over 40, and therefore obviously out of action. Each week, she was ridiculed for her age, appearance, weight and love of her ‘pussy’.” Let’s just quickly make something clear: Roberts, bless her, has obviously never seen the show, for she would have known that at no point throughout it’s thirteen year run was her pussy (or cat) ever referred to by anyone other than Mrs Slocombe herself; it was merely a device for glorious double entendre each week, and very bloody funny they were too.

And on she goes: “On the Buses featured the shortsighted, less than glamorous Olive, who was the butt of all the ‘face like a back of a bus’ jokes. It was an era of dim dolly birds and ‘real’ blokes.”

Now On The Buses is often cited as being the worst protagonist for sexism, with characters Stan (Reg Varney) and Jack (Bob Grant) eyeing up the female Luxton and District conductors, with the occasional lingering camera shot on their breasts or backsides to lustfully illustrate the point. I happen to be a bus driver, and although females aren’t exactly my area of expertise, I do know colleagues past and present behave in this way. In that sense writers Ronalds Wolfe and Chesney have penned an accurately observed sitcom. It is rather disingenuous for Roberts to describe Olive’s character as “less than glamorous” – if that comment had been made by a man he’d have been hung by his testicles. That well-known chauvinistic tome the OED informs us that the word “situation” is derived from the Medieval Latin word “situare” meaning “to place”. All sitcoms are placed in a location and time (the “sit-” bit); On The Buses‘ location was a bus depot, it’s time: the 1970s. Get over it.

The overwhelming majority of sitcoms and their characters are based on the experiences or observations of their writers, sanitised or exaggerated possibly but always with their fair share of caricatures so that the audience can clearly identify the roles of each character and what should be expected of them. It is unlikely that a sitcom billed in the Radio Times as being about accountants struggle to balance the books with not so hilarious consequences would sell the advertising or justify a licence fee in anywhere near the same way as Are You Being Served? or On The Buses did. But these were exactly the kind of programmes John Logie Baird had in mind when he hot-footed it down to the patent office, often ridiculed by critics but enjoyed in their millions.

Female sitcom characters from the 1970s can largely be split into two categories: the understated to allow main characters the freedom to shine, the overstated to caricature identifiable traits. But how were these characters treated by others?

Till Death Us Do Part, the Johnny Speight masterpiece, satirised – amongst many bigoted traits – that of the selfish, mysoginystic, Victorian-esque head of the household brilliantly, constantly claiming that the patently ridiculous and unreasonable “stands to reason”. Probably the best example was featured in series four when they were about to embark on a holiday to Bournemouth. Here’s a couple of minutes of dialogue where Alf (Warren Mitchell) is sat reading the paper, wife Else (Dandy Nichols) is ironing a pair of his long johns and complains about how dirty they are while daughter Rita (Una Stubbs) and her husband Mike (Anthony Booth) looked on:

Alf: “Innit marvellous. You can’t have a proper discussion with her without it getting personal. I mean you would think that civilised people – you’d think that we’d be able to talk without picking holes in each other. That’s your bloody women’s lib for you, that is. No, I mean in the old days women got married, for better or worse and bloody grateful they was not to be left on the shelf. I mean when I married her (pointing to Else) she was lucky to get me, and she knew it, and she was bloody thankful (Else looks gobsmacked). Don’t stand there with your bloody mouth open – (points to the television) – it’s that thing I blame it on, that bloody telly there, that’s the cause. Before that came into the house that bloody telly she knew nothing. She was ignorant, she was, and better for it. That’s what’s unsettled her that bloody telly, sitting in front of that all day, stuffing her head full of nonsense.”

Rita: “If men like you had their way they’d have women as lackeys, slaves to wait on men hand and foot. Clean the house, make the beds, cook their meals, wash their shirts.”

Alf: “What do you expect them to do? Sit around all day doing nothing? That is a women’s work, to look after their man and keep his house and do for him.”

Else: (disgusted) “Do for him.”

Alf: “That’s what they married for in the first place isn’t it?”

Rita: “Unpaid skivvy.”

Alf: “What are you talking about unpaid? She gets her housekeeping doesn’t she?”

Rita: “Not every woman was born to be a drudge.”

Alf: “Everybody has got to do a job of work and it just so happens that a woman’s work is in the home.”

Rita: “And not very woman wants to be a slave to some bloody man.”

Alf: “It’s not always a question of what they want, my dear, you see. I mean women are different to men. It’s your nature isn’t it? God, he made them different.”

Rita: “Not different. No, not different.”

Alf: “No amount of arguing is going to turn a cabbage into a steak, is it? He – God put women here just for man didn’t he?”

Rita: “What?”

Alf: “It’s in your bible, your Garden of Eden. All he done there, see, is made Adam, see, and then realised in his infinite wisdom that man couldn’t be expected to run the Garden of Eden all on his own so he – God, that is – took a rib and made Eve so she could clean for him and wash up, look after Adam’s house for him. So you see, if it hadn’t have been for man and man’s need for home help, woman wouldn’t’ve been born in the first place.”

It was about at the point where Alf started going all religious (though really it should have been a long, long time before) that anyone with the tiniest vestige of common sense should have realised that Speight was satirising, through Alf, those who hold such views in a similar way as he’d done many times before with race. Speight was doing spoof television thirty years before the likes of Brass Eye, and it could be argued that his targets were exactly the same – the wilfully ignorant or just plain stupid: the mysoginyst, looking for an easy laugh or the rabid feminist (I looked it up), aching to be offended – and he was able to satisfy these two diametrically opposing extremes of his audience by pitching his character smack bang in the middle. Indeed, like Chris Morris (“Cake is a made up drug”), Speight left enough clues (“She was ignorant, she was, and better for it. That’s what’s unsettled her that bloody telly, sitting in front of that all day, stuffing her head full of nonsense”), but those who pleasure themselves by taking Alf’s rants as red for whatever reason are likely to be found wielding a clenched fist and sticking it wherever makes them ejaculate.

Contrary to popular belief, sitcoms of the seventies were not responsible for perpetuating sexism throughout society, but were merely a caricatured reflection of it. Writers developed scripts and ideas according to what people knew and wanted, rather than alienate them. As Dr Samuel Johnson put it: “The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar and familiar things new.” So what of television nowadays – will women ever be satisfied?

Sexism is a label lazily applied to that which is inoffensive and familiar to those who lived in times depicted by the sitcom, but new to those who didn’t, such as The Observer’s Yvonne Roberts and far too many others. Last week The Independent reported on a study of 500 hours of television, conducted by the Communication Research Group and commissioned by Channel 4, relating to diversity and sexism in particular. When terms like “diversity”, “The Independent” and “Channel 4” appear in the same sentence it is usually wise to have copious amounts of salt to hand, or in Helen Mirren’s case, cocaine. The survey found that sexism “occurred most frequently in comedy” and that women are “five times more likely to suffer sexism on-screen than men.

The buzz word now appears to be “objectification”; examples included a game-show presenter who told a contestant: “Darling, don’t you look beautiful? They’re all at home thinking ‘she’s a bit of all right’. You look gorgeous!” whilst simultaneously citing another instance of objectification where “victim” Aidan Turner was showing his “rippling muscles” while scything in Poldark. However, it seemed that those who voted in the National Television Awards weren’t in the least bit offended, choosing the scene as their televisual moment of the past year.

Back to that survey now and Oona King, failed politician (defeated as a Labour MP by George Galloway and losing the London Mayoral nomination to Ken Livingstone) and now Head of Diversity at Channel 4 (if the name doesn’t ring any bells hit Google then “images” and see if you can work out for yourself how Oona was the successful candidate), said: “Sexist objectification of male actors in dramas, witnessed by the trend for leading men to flaunt their torsos in topless scenes, was a new factor. There is a growing amount of sexual objectification of men but you’ve got to remember the context in which that takes place. When a man does a scene like that it doesn’t put him in a box they can’t get out of. You find often that when a woman comes across like that then she is labelled – ‘she’s got her kit off, she’s that type of woman’. So overall the increasing objectification we have, partly because of our celebrity culture, impacts women worse than men.”

Smells a bit fishy. For example Colin Firth, probably best known for playing Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, is often the go-to name when women, usually of a certain age, talk about attractive male television personalities, though the personality bit is generally ignored. However, for me having owned a small bus company back in the day, Firth will only ever be remembered for playing the title role in Donovan Quick, where his character, obsessed with the unscrupulous practices of a national bus company who’d taken off the bus service to his brother’s day centre, starts his own. Yet The Guardian, who interviewed Firth back in 2000 prior to the launch of the made-for-TV film, cooed: “[He] did a lot of acting with his eyes, burning with passion and unfulfilled sexual desire.” Pigeon holes, eh?

The study concluded that the “blatant sexism”, found in shows from the 1970s has been replaced by a “low-level” sexism which continues to thrive on-screen. Here’s more Oona: “Television is still awash with low-level sexism and it’s so ingrained we don’t really notice or remark upon it.” She then remarks upon it: “We are trapped a little bit in the mindset where black people were in the 1960s. In the 1970s, The Black and White Minstrel Show was OK. We hope that at Channel 4 today, low-level, everyday sexism is as bad as low level racism and we wouldn’t go along with that.”

So it seems we now measure sexism in the same way we used to measure a stiff breeze. Ironically, those who complain about the pigeon-holing of characters according to gender are doing exactly that with the offence they’ve supposedly committed. No doubt there’ll soon come a time when Tomasz Schafernaker, famed for his own nifty finger work, will be stood in front of an enormous Radio Times wearing nothing but a pair of tight white Calvin Kleins with beads of sweat running down his torso under the warm studio lights, – just give me a minute – pointing to Newsnight with a turkey baster and issuing a “Level 4 Sexism Warning” because Emily Maitlis is going to be “perched seductively” on the corner of a desk.

Sitcoms paint a picture of the life of the times in which they’re set, and times do indeed change. The role of women generally and how their work/life balance and roles and responsibilities have shifted in particular is admirably dealt with by characters such as Nicola Murray in The Thick Of It and Ellen Best in Bluestone 42, but who still contain a truth about women from which they cannot escape: that of being less capable of controlling their emotions.  But as attitudes have changed so too has the threshold for what is considered offensive, though sadly at a far greater pace. Nowadays it takes only the merest glimpse of a woman doing some ironing for it to be deemed “typical”, whereas the same whingers would argue that a woman in, say, in a senior management position was box-ticking rather than progressive and so, conveniently, comedies such as Southern’s Take A Letter Mr Jones – from the writers of On The Buses – where Rula Lenska played a “high-powered female executive” with John Inman as “a computer and a wife”, never seem to feature in lefty rags and list shows.

As Helen Mirren showed, hypocrisy reigns supreme in the strange world of the wantonly offended. Box-ticking seems permissible when the right boxes aren’t being ticked, as women not only want to artificially create more positions for women based on quota rather than talent, but expect comedy characters go above and beyond that which would realistically portray believable situations, in an idealistic feat of social engineering last seen in The Worm That Turned, the 1980 Two Ronnies‘ serial. Except even that was apparently sexist.

Perhaps it would be better for these people to focus on the “com”, and accept that the “sit” was of its time. Either that, or just be quiet and get the washing-up done.

We thrive on segregation

Whenever television looks back at the 1970s it tends to do so with disdain: the usual ragbag of modern day worthies pontificate about the bad old days of protests and colour bars, strikes and segregation. But what of today – have things really moved on?

Johnny Speight’s If There Weren’t Any Blacks You’d Have To Invent Them, first shown in 1970 then remade in colour in 1974, dealt with how people thrive on segregation, treating others as belonging a group rather than as individuals. From Richard Beckinsale fantasising about being a woman raped by a man to the blind Leonard Rossiter who thought Beckinsale was black because of the tone of his voice, Speight himself had something of an obsession with segregation, especially that according to race, with much of his work after The Arthur Haynes Show dealing with this subject – though sometimes misunderstood – to great effect.

Students at Oriel College, part of Oxford University, are the latest to find such a cause to leech onto, namely the “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign. Although it’s origins lay in a post-Apartheid South Africa, the British black and white copy seeks to have removed from the College a statue of former student Cecil Rhodes, seen by opponents as something of an imperialist, a white supremacist, who made his fortune from mining diamonds in the former Cape Colony of South Africa where he later became Prime Minister in 1890.

Rhodes was a shrewd, perhaps ruthless businessman. The discovery of diamonds in Kimberley in 1867 transformed South Africa into an industrial economy which saw Rhodes amongst others led to the rapid colonisation of the country, so much so that by the end of the 19th Century all the indigenous peoples of South Africa had lost their political and economic independence. White-owned mining companies were able to control workers who often found themselves in dangerous conditions for low wages and Rhodes was able to amass an enormous personal fortune through the creation of the De Beers consolidated Mines Company in 1888.  Today we call that “getting on”.

Rhodes used his personal wealth and political skills to become the Prime Minister of the Cape Colony. His treatment of indigenous Africans as a businessman and Premier varied: by today’s standards he is seen as something of an imperialist, but he took a genuine interest in their cultures and language, and had a respect and understanding for Africans that belies his legacy.

But Rhodes’ methods in business and politics were merely a development of over 200 years of British and Dutch colonisation, which were relentlessly intensified after his death in 1902 when the British Government implemented the Act of Union and brought together the previously separate colonies of the Orange Free State, Transvaal, Natal, and the Cape Colony to form the Union of what we now know as South Africa.  In comparison, today’s Britain is a small, insignificant bit-player in a group of nationals with vested interests seeking to unify different peoples under common, unelected law called the European Union, disgracefully championed by a toadying media including BBC Radio Four’s not very funny or clever The Now Show.

Back to The Cape.  For the following two decades successive governments introduced a raft of regulations and discriminatory laws that tightened state control over blacks. The Natives’ Land Act of 1913 which reserved around 90 percent of the land in South Africa for whites and prevented Africans from freely buying land; the remainder of the land became “reserves” and were a forerunner of the “homelands” where illness and malnutrition were rife. For many Africans, especially young men and women, migration to wage-earning jobs in cities and mines became one of the only ways to pay colonial taxes and survive. In turn during this period mass urbanisation saw the number of city-dwelling Africans more than triple, but they lived in terrible conditions, with poor housing, health and transport and no electricity for many decades, and along with poverty came crime and fear for personal safety. Sadly there are some indigenous to Britain for whom that is a fairly accurate picture of their country today.

Of course it is difficult to justify racial segregation in South Africa, just as it is difficult to justify segregation of any kind, anywhere. But Rhodes’ tenure as mining magnate and Prime Minister was merely a progression from what had proceeded him, and by the standards that followed it could be argued he was, comparatively speaking, a free-market Liberal. That is not to say that what he presided over was not cruel. To deny anyone the opportunity to live, learn and earn as they would wish purely on the basis of their being somehow different to what is perceived as a superior group of human beings is as distasteful as it is ultimately self-destructive. And it is this where, for me, the hypocrisy of the “Rhodes Must Go” campaigners at Oxford University becomes apparent.

What set Rhodes apart from the Premiers who succeeded him (apart from his statue) was that he left in his Will an endowment to Oriel College whereby eighty-three students each and every year, initially of Teutonic descent but latterly anyone – including some of the greatest campaigners against segregation and for civil liberties – would be awarded scholarships affording them the opportunity denied to others from a different academic and socioeconomic background. Indeed, there is much controversy about the alleged hypocrisy of a black Oriel College student, Ntokozo Qwabe, who although accepted a Rhodes scholarship, partook in the protests. In my view he was given his opportunity and should take it. However, it is a tad disingenuous for him to want to whitewash Rhodes out of history but happily take his cash.

But for these opportunities the students who benefit from them would not have their platform for debate. To be able to attend any university, let alone Oxford, is granted only to those with the very highest academic and economic means. The rest of us are kept in our respective places, working for a living and paying our taxes to, er, help fund “our” universities.

Yet for some even these opportunities are not enough. At the time of writing junior doctors, for example, who could go on to earn £120,000 as a consultant, are in the middle of a series of strikes because they believe that an eleven per cent pay rise is “derisory” and that working after seven o’clock in the evening is “antisocial”. The segregating of blacks in South Africa and forcing them into “homelands” was both derisory and antisocial; enjoying a double digit wage windfall while working when the sun is just about dipping over the horizon is something the majority of people would kill for. Yet for all the talk of Unions existing for the common good, and how important statues are as a symbol of what is right and wrong, what about the one outside the TUC which depicts a man helping another man off the ground? How are striking junior doctors helping others, except themselves?

On a 1980 edition of Parkinson, guests John Betjeman and Maggie Smith were talking about pay protests with the great Kenneth Williams who put it this way:

“Why can’t they march for somebody else instead of a few pounds for themselves? What about somebody who’s really hard up? When a union does something like jeopardising the work of their fellow men. For example if you stop trains, people can’t get to their work, can they? So in doing what you want for yourself you’re jeopardising your fellow men, aren’t you? Well why can’t you act in concert with your fellow men? Why do you have to do something that endangers… your fellow men when that statue represents exactly that, helping not hindering.”

Host Michael Parkinson countered: “Because it might be that one worker is a lot worse off than their fellow. If they were all equal there’d be no problem… it’s all very well if you’ve got a talent, a decent job, you can go on and earn a handsome living… because you work in an area where you can back your talent and because your talent pays off in the end then you had a horizon, you could see ahead.”

The points Johnny Speight, Kenneth Williams and Michael Parkinson were making, that all human beings should be treated equally and have the same opportunities in life regardless of anything, and that given an opportunity one should grasp it with both hands and have confidence in oneself rather than dragging others down with you, are absolutely spot on. Whether the points being made were intended to be interpreted in this way comes down to the simple passing of time: Speight saw the preoccupation with segregation as a regressive brake on society whereas today’s students see it has a bandwagon on which to hitch a ride and get noticed; Williams saw striking as an excuse not to better oneself whereas today’s strikers attach themselves to individual causes such as Ntokozo Qwabe or junior doctors’ pay – in so called “sympathy strikes” to seek attention rather than the greater good; Parkinson was attempting to argue that people who had what might be termed a menial job (the example he gave was people whose job it was to “stick on door knobs”) had more of a right to strike than those with better prospects – of course there are fewer jobs with better prospects than that of a junior doctor.

But while students mourn for their colonial brothers in spades perhaps they should reflect on the fact that in this country, not all indigenous whites have the same opportunity to attend university. The real problem is class not colour.

Segregation is commonplace, is part of our lives, and as such television portrays it in it’s many forms, from the class divide of Upstairs Downstairs and the exquisite Brass, to the more cut and dried Porridge, and not forgetting The Nineteenth Hole which also threw in sexism for good measure albeit satirised in a fashion typical of Johnny Speight. Between them Government and society have taken great strides along the path to equality of all forms, and this has perhaps been best documented by the venerable Coronation Street which, over it’s fifty-odd years, has gone from a stark northern working class kitchen sink drama to taking a more metropolitan, softer snapshot of everyday life with the introduction of characters who are black, gay and transgender. Sadly however the Street’s smokers – black, gay or otherwise – are segregated in the grubby yard at the back of the Rovers Return. That’s progress for you.

Seemingly only certain types of segregation attract publicity, mainly to do with race or sexual orientation, driven by a left wing media narrative whose greatest exponent is of course The Guardian, where Owen Jones, who probably believes every word he writes, hitches a lift on whichever particular segregation bandwagon will gain him a few hundred more Twitter followers that day. To be fair to Owen, he doesn’t bleat about “only” earning £30,000 a year for writing about those not afforded his opportunities. That said, he doesn’t mention the fact that the tax arrangements of the proprietors of The Guardian are very well segregated in The Caymans.  That, too, is called “getting on”.

So what do protestors want? Junior doctors would do well to take a leaf out of the Oriel College students’ book – and grab the money and the opportunity, no matter how distasteful they might find it. Maybe in an act of solidarity they should black-up, forming a picket line of Paki-Paddies between scholarship-funded lectures protesting about how downtrodden educational immigrants are. If they want to know real hardship they should do what Matthew Parris did for World In Action in 1984 and live on Jobseekers Allowance. In that year, months after my mother had died of a brain tumour (doctors, eh?) my father joined the ill-fated miners’ strike. Our meals came from food parcels which we’d collect from the stage at Arkwright Town Miners’ Welfare and had about as much nutrition as the crumpled brown paper sack they came in – plenty of Bulgarian jam but no shortnin’ bread – and our heat came from burning fence posts which I stole – aged ten – from hedgerows armed with a wheelbarrow and a set of wire cutters, posts I’d then saw into fire-sized pieces under the cover of darkness.

It is so easy to protest from a position of comfort, not really having experienced that about which they complain. Segregation is a fact of life. Our country thrives on segregation whether as a cause to get angry about or a structure to exploit. Whichever way you look at it segregation puts people in their place. And that’s how society works.

The Wheeltappers… where acts not activists bombed

Depending on who you ask, I was either born in the middle of the “Golden Age” of television comedy and entertainment, or just before half way through the most racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic decade ever to sully our screens. But maybe television was and is reflective of its time, where, as Game For A Laugh put it, it is actually “Watching us, watching you, watching us, watching you.” So back to my childhood to see what’s what.

Being born in 1974 perhaps, first time round at least, I was exposed to television comedy just as what has since been unfathomably termed “alternative comedy” was beginning to replace the music hall derived light entertainment spectacles and the cosy suburban sitcom.

If my Dad’s views, who in 1974 was the same age as I am now, were to be analysed by the same dreary D-listers that spend clip show after clip show trying to plague a new audience with the view that everything and everybody from that era was as racist, sexist, xenophobic and homophobic as television comedy and entertainment of that time, they’d probably troll him to the point of suicide. Thankfully he’s not the one with the closed mind.

I would be the first to concede that my Dad did perhaps lack some imagination and vision: he named me after himself and stopped me going on to sixth form and University on the grounds that as a family we needed me to be earning not learning, both of which have probably more than anything resulted in my having a pretty severe lack of self-confidence, but have at least allowed me to stand on my own two feet from an earlier age than my contemporaries.

Memories of staying up into the small hours listening to Test Match Special on BBC Radio 3, where Brian Johnston and Henry Blofeld would gorge themselves on an assortment of cakes sent in by devoted listeners – whose commentary on a Cairns Birdwing was occasionally interrupted by England’s cricket team inevitably losing The Ashes in Australia – and my perhaps being as equally fascinated by the crackles and whistles of late night medium wave as whether David Gower would snick another soft ball to second slip, remain as strong and as warm as playing snooker and pool at Arkwright Town Miners’ Welfare, where John Allwood would lisp his way through calling six houses of bingo, and acts of dubious quality would ply their trade before being paid off by Stuart Ashmore, the Concert Chairman.

The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club was a television programme like no other. Compered by Bernard Manning with the wonderful Colin Crompton playing the part of Concert Chairman to the hilt, it was my world. It was hard to believe that The Wheeltappers was actually a studio set such was the impressive attention to detail: the Pile of Pennies for Charity stood precariously on the edge of the bar, Double Diamond and Bass Mild, Golden Wonder Jungle Fresh Salted Peanuts, people carrying trays of beer to their tables and wandering off to the toilet between “turns” and Worthington ‘E’ ashtrays brimming with cigarette stubs, complete with a dense haze of smoke hanging over the creaky wooden stage.

The Wheeltappers was meant to reflect a concert night at a typical Northern Working Men’s Club, institutions which have seen a steady decline since their 1970s heyday. They began life back in Victorian times as a place to learn rather than drink, and were always an integral part of the social life of local communities. Over time these institutions evolved and the working man was able to enjoy a pint after a long, gruelling day’s work. Soon the more recognisable Working Men’s Club was born, with cheap beer and, it could be said, even cheaper entertainment.

No agenda, no politics (aside from the pictures of Harold Wilson sitting alongside notices warning patrons “Hats Will Not Be Tolerated” and that they should not swear during ladies’ nights), just mirth and music circa 1974. Entertainment for the sake of it. Acts like Trevillion and Nine, where (Sadie) Nine would sing with a voice that cut through like a constipated crow while (Paul) Trevillion drew a vaguely related cartoon, would appear alongside Kossak dancers, rubbish ventriloquists and, hilariously, a knife thrower interrupted by Colin Crompton sounding his fire bell and announcing that there were still tickets available for the meat raffle just as an eye-watering 12 inches was about to penetrate a scantily clad female pinned to a board.

Fast forward to November 1991 when I saw Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out at Sheffield City Hall, and these acts were being satirised in the most absurd ways imaginable on “Novelty Island”, a small paddock made from butcher’s grass where bizarre acts would ply their trade with Reeves acting as compere. Perhaps my favourite comedy moment of all time, and certainly one that was the talk of the Monition offices at work the following day, was where the first act, Judith Grant (played by Emma Cafferty) walked into the paddock carrying a white box spewing with wires and told Reeves she was going to electrocute a shrew. A short buzzing sound was heard before a ball of fluff (the unfortunate “shrew”) leapt half-heartedly from said box. That was it. End of act. Entertainment for the sake of it.

Back to The Wheeltappers and it wasn’t just the “speciality” acts on the bill. Many who made their television debut at The Wheeltappers went onto achieve greater exposure in their own prime time shows, such as Little & Large and Cannon & Ball, The Krankies and Paul Daniels while others were at the tail-end of their careers (even though in some cases they didn’t really want to believe it) including Charlie Williams, who’d just had a disastrous run hosting The Golden Shot, Freddie Garrity memorably dressed as a chicken on the 1974 New Year’s Eve Special, and Gene Pitney, who Bernard Manning introduced with “It’s a good job he was nice to me on the way up ‘cos I’ve just met him on the way down!”

Of course, this was the 1970s, and so Paul Daniels performed an exaggerated caricature of a camp homosexual, Cannon & Ball sang a song about Pakistanis during their first appearance in 1974 while Charlie Williams, himself of Caribbean descent, told jokes about how “they were going to take over” (make your own mind up as to whether this was prophetic or pathetic). The thing is, and this something that is often conveniently or lazily forgotten by current cultural commentators, there was absolutely no malicious intent in any of the acts.

Sadly many Working Men’s clubs have closed. Although anti-smoking legislation has undoubtedly had an impact, they certainly suffered from an old-fashioned image among young people, perpetrated by a prejudiced modern left-leaning Southern-centric media which seeks to colour the North of the 1970s as an era of hatred and racial division, of misery and deprivation by and large with pieces written in The Guardian or list shows on Channel Four pursuing their metropolitan, predictably politically correct narrative.

The problem with this breed of social commentators is that they haven’t lived in the North or through the 1970s with its rugged industrial landscape, genuine albeit sometimes misplaced fear of immigration, and the ignorance of the different. Writer Harry Pearson once said: “When judging Southerners we must always remember that they have not had the benefit of our disadvantages.”

It is ironic that while progress has undoubtedly been made in terms of race representation, for example, regional diversity is lagging behind.

In a piece subtitled “The bad old days of British comedy”, Allister Harry wrote in The Guardian in April 2000: “[Charlie] Williams, now 72, was the first black British comic to enjoy mainstream TV success. In the early 70s he was a resident on Granada TV’s influential stand-up show The Comedians. He hosted the popular game show The Golden Shot and in 1973 topped the bill in Scarborough, breaking box- office records. Here’s one of his jokes: ‘When Enoch Powell said, ‘Go home, black man,’ I said, ‘I’ve got a hell of a long wait for a bus to Barnsley.'”

“‘I didn’t set out to offend. I went out so that people could laugh.’ Williams met two other [black] comics on The Comedians – Josh White and Sammy Thomas – both from Lancashire.”

Harry then goes onto quote Curtis Walker, star of The Real McCoy who had at the time been a stand-up for 18 years: “…if it wasn’t for Charlie… doing what [he] did, a lot of black performers wouldn’t be anywhere near telly today.'”

Of course some of the material in the 1970s may have been uncomfortable so far as perceptions of racism was concerned, this acts as a smoke screen, a scapegoat for an anti-Northern bias, prejudice even. Bradford-born comedian Kate Fox, talking to The Yorkshire Post back in October, said: “That while some progress has been made in terms of… race representation, regional diversity is lagging behind. ‘I think it is harder for a young person in a Northern school or college to make their way in the creative industries… [which] are still very London-centric and middle class.'”

All of which makes you wonder where the problem really lies. The same media set, so quick to criticise Northern Working Men’s Clubs of the 1970s for having a supposedly narrow-minded attitude to race, is similarly blinkered when it comes to anything north of Watford.

The Wheeltappers, which emerged from the success of The Comedians, gave opportunities to performers regardless of colour, and represented a club where the whole community could come together, have a laugh and a sing-song and chat to friends. An important meeting place. A force for social cohesion. A hub. At Arkwright Town Miners’ Welfare Club in 1984, it was the place where people bought and sold allotment vegetables, enjoyed a game of dominos and where striking miners’ families would collect food parcels containing such variable delights from lentil soup to Bulgarian jam (while Norma Dolby kept all the tins of Stewed Steak to herself). We had genuine community spirit. And yet where current comedians and talking heads would see our Working Men’s Clubs confined to history, they were just as crucial to social well-being as Facebook and mosques are today.  And what people forget is that once we’d had our watered down beer (mine was a shandy, to be fair – I was only 10) and won our topside of beef, we went home to the Epilogue and a good night’s sleep. We didn’t spend countless hours online threatening to kill someone or walk into a bar full of people with a nail bomb, because they were the wrong colour, sex or sexuality, or because they were too fat, too thin, introvert or into the wrong thing.

In the 1970s any prejudices stemmed from what was seen as a sudden, unstoppable change the likes of which had never been seen before, and were, generally speaking, played out with humour. Nowadays, even with the benefit of experience and education, there is an indoctrinated hatred that manifests itself as wanton cruelty and destruction, with collateral damage that has a far deeper and longer lasting impact than the closing of a few hundred clubs. Are things really better now?

The only thing that bombed at Working Men’s Clubs were the turns. We had a bloody good time.

In colour

In the last few years there has been a glut of programmes, predominantly on Channels Four and Five with repeats striped across the EPG between this Christmas and the New Year, saying how all television comedy before the former burst onto the scene with it’s radical agenda to showcase the anarchic and the alternative (Countdown) was lots of words ending in “ist”, and how Johnny Speight (Till Death Us Do Part, Curry & Chips) and Vince Powell (Love Thy Neighbour, Mind Your Language) and Granada’s The Comedians did to comedy in the 1970s what Adolf Hitler did to the 1936 Olympics.

These programmes almost always feature the reliable Andrew Collins and/or David Quantick plus whatever ill-informed, irrelevant and irritating collection of television “personalities” happen to have a career-sized window in their diaries, captioned “Broadcaster” to compensate for the absence of any discernible talent and feigning offence at the usual couple of dozen clips before telling us how terrible we all were for not smashing our twenty-six inch Fergusons to bits with coal scuttles.

The latest of these programmes was It Was Alright In The… followed by the decade it was alright in. Except the clip-show collective simply spent an hour telling us how it was actually not alright, and how offended Nathan Caton would’ve been had he been around to watch it. Which he wasn’t.

Another regular on these programmes is gay black comic Stephen K Amos. Notable for being a) gay, b) black and c) absent from any list of top 50/100 comics anywhere ever, this Christmas saw him dull our screens in a repeat showing of the 2013 series The Two Ronnies Spectacle, where K Amos took the UK Gold gold, was captioned “Comedian” for the avoidance of doubt and contributed precious little to an otherwise enjoyable three hours celebrating the best of Barker & Corbett. Though K Amos rightly praised the writing and performances of The Rons in perhaps the only known recording where he had anything positive to say about anyone but himself, he oddly overlooked the fact that in their 102 shows The Rons blacked-up more times than Spike Milligan ever did for Johnny Speight. Funny that.

Having hosted Penis Envy, a documentary about massive pricks, in 2010 K Amos gave an interview to The Guardian (who else?) titled “I don’t want to be labelled ‘The gay black comic'” (whoops) where he said: “I had a meeting with an executive who said to me: ‘You know what, you’re really funny, you’re ready to make a show right now. But it’s them – ‘ and he pointed out of the window ‘ – they’re not ready for you.’ And I just thought: “What? You’ve called me into your office to tell me that they’re not ready when you have the power to say let’s give this a go?”

There soon followed the unimaginatively titled The Stephen K Amos Show. After just one series The Mirror reported that “The BBC has axed comic Stephen K Amos’s show after plummeting ratings and damning reviews.” It had lost two-thirds of it’s audience, down to just 360,000, meaning that from a British-African population of over 1.8 million (UK Census 2011) at least 80% didn’t indulge the gay black comic (he loves it really). In June 2011 Digital Spy reported an interview with a BBC spokesperson, connected to a lie detector, who said: “We are working with Stephen on other projects and think he’s a big talent.” The lie detector exploded and three people were taken to hospital: two with minor burns and a third with a bruised ego and ruptured career. No sides needed stitching.

Back to that Guardian interview: “Another producer once said to me: ‘We really like you but we’ve just had Richard Blackwood.’ As if it’s one in, one out. I used to do a joke…”

He goes on: “…where I said I’d have to wait for Lenny Henry to die before I could get on television. But I can’t think of a time when there were two black performers on any network at the same time. I know lots of comics who’ve left the country and are trying their hand in America because they feel they’re hitting a glass ceiling here.” Nobody loves a glass ceiling more than a lefty, but even back in 1971 The Comedians featured Charlie Williams and Josh White, two highly accomplished black performers, doing stand-up. On the same show.

There was also a steady stream of sitcoms in the 1970s that featured black performers, from what was arguably the best ever BBC sitcom Porridge (Tony Osoba) and it’s ITV counterpart Rising Damp (Don Warrington) through the aforementioned Love Thy Neighbour (Rudolph Walker, Nina Baden-Semper) to the less familiar Mixed Blessings (Muriel Odunton, Carmen and Gregory Munroe) and The Fosters (Norman Beaton, Lenny Henry and Carmen Munroe).

“I don’t think it has to be cathartic,” K Amos continues, “But when I started out in the clubs, my idea of comedy was… just showing off. Once I started revealing something or talking about a race issue, where in one sentence people can laugh and then go: ‘Ohhh’, I found people responded to that. I never thought people would be interested in my life… it would have been easy never to mention anything about sexuality and fend off the questions and just be jolly old Steve, but what’s the point? No, if I can do something that empowers me in the process, that can only make you grow as a human being.” Cheers.

Of course comedians’ experiences can provide a wealth of material which, when part of a well-honed routine done with intelligence and even a touch of self-deprecation, can be revealing and interesting, and even make people think. But it’s nothing radical or alternative. In the 1970s Charlie Williams, Josh White and Kenny Lynch (who starred in Speight’s Curry & Chips) amongst others dealt with race by showing the ludicrousness of racism with jokes about, for example, how your rent would go up if they moved next door, rather than preaching from a pity pot. The audience laughed, intelligent enough to realise how stupid this was. Black performers on prime time television were able to ridicule stereotypes by playing on the ignorance of those with racial prejudice and stretching their perceptions to the point of absurdity.

These performances were no different in intent to the routine on Central’s OTT in 1982 where Alexei “I was good” Sayle, widely but wrongly seen as the father of alternative comedy, adopted a ridiculously exaggerated accent while playing an Albanian looking for a job as a stereotype, and not an eyelid was batted.

All the creations of Johnny Speight and Vince Powell in the 1970s did exactly that, albeit to varying degrees of success, and it seems the latest wave of black comedians are as ignorant as the racist white audience of the 1970s who couldn’t see what writers and performers were trying to achieve. The character of Alf Garnett in Till Death Us Do Part is a bigoted cockney who freely plays on racial stereotypes to insult anyone of colour, and is often cited as one of the worst examples of casual racism and being very much of it’s time. Yet fast forward forty years to Christmas 2015 and Catherine Tate’s Nan, also a bigoted cockney, who in the first episode was attending an anger management course at the local community centre and said of the Muslim caretaker who entered carrying a satchel: “No sudden movements, ‘cos if this one’s got an anger problem we’re all in trouble.”

Through the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s many great comedies featuring black and Asian performers hit our screens: The Lenny Henry Show (up to and including Delbert Wilkins), Desmond’s, Goodness Gracious Me, The Kumars At Number 42 and Citizen Khan, all in peak hour slots on mainstream channels and all achieving ratings and reviews many other comedies could only dream of. And their success came about through embracing their heritage and being themselves, inviting the audience in rather than shutting them out.

Just as the hotels and bars of the 1970s had signs saying “No Blacks”, there is now a growing band of black and Asian performers who take pleasure in seemingly segregating the audience, placing that glass ceiling on their own appeal and, in turn, their careers. K Amos, Nathan Caton, clown Come Dancer Omid Djalili and the ubiquitous Romesh Ranganathan, who probably masturbates himself into a coma whenever he hears someone “doing” a foreign accent as it gives him another ten minutes of material (though Sayle’s effort was apparently cutting-edge), et al treat their audiences with a lack of respect. Their careers are based almost entirely on the myth that in the past all references to race were invariably made to cause offence (forgetting, of course, that offence is always taken not given) and were therefore guilty of deepening racial divides, yet are themselves part of a generation happy to use racism for comic effect.

Of course things were not perfect in the 1970s. At a time of increasing immigration and in the wake of Enoch Powell’s famous Birmingham speech Bernard Manning, a highly skilled joke-teller, exploited an unenlightened audience with gags peppered with racial epithets which played on the most extreme perceptions, and as a result all comedians of that era were tarred with the same brush. Thirty years later Frankie Boyle, whose determination to shock has grown in direct proportion to his stomach and ludicrous ginger beard, packs his sets with gags about the disabled and macabre sexual violence. Yet comedians contemporaneous with him aren’t lazily lumped into some artificial category. Neither could reasonably be said to be typical of their times, with perhaps the former being more defensible, if only through ignorance and fear. It is far more difficult to justify Boyle’s invective.

Sometimes, although trying to deal with racism with the best of intentions, sitcoms and performers fell flat. Two offerings from each end of the televisual timeline, Love Thy Neighbour and the post-Delbert Wilkins incarnation of Lenny Henry, both disappointed not because their treatment of racism made people feel uncomfortable, but because they simply weren’t funny.

Yes racism was then and is still a problem. But instead of being professional victims with a misguided and unproven sense of their own superiority, black comedians in the 1970s used their race to change the attitudes of the audience who have long since moved on. Many of today’s black and Asian comedians who, it could be argued, are hell bent on radicalising the indigenous in their audience in the sense that they have developed a disturbing desire to colour their beliefs and dictate what is socially acceptable with an unhealthy and unhelpful obsession with race, seem to be trying worryingly hard to turn them back.

Puns not points

In the last few years stand-up comedy has seen something of a resurgence, particularly on television. Not since The Comedians, the likes of which would give today’s left-wing brigade collective aneurisms, have comedians been showcased quite so prominently and prolifically.

There are three basic breeds of comedian: the middle-aged. middle-of-the-road, middle-of-the-Saturday-evening-BBC One-schedules set (Michael McIntyre, John Bishop) with perfectly polished teeth and performances to match. They’re more Marks and Spencer than Marks and Gran – quality assured but all a bit beige. Mind you, if that’s your thing you’re guaranteed a entertaining evening, made all the better with an enormous glass of pink milk (two straws) and a pack of Blue Ribands.

Then there’s the jeans and T-shirt laddish messy hair type (Russell Howard, Chris Ramsey). The career paths for these are often very similar: start off with a spot at the local comedy club, followed nowadays by a podcast (usually with someone they became friends with at University only to ditch them when they have served their useful purpose), then a plethora of panel shows providing an easy earner (the £500-a-pop hopefuls sat at the end of the 8 Out Of 10 Cats or Mock The Week desk, with the regulars barely breaking into a smirk at the newcomers’ “witty observations” as Des O’Connor awkwardly used to call them) without burning up too much material before moving onto larger theatres and the obligatory Christmas DVD or download. Following that there’d be their own stand up or sitcom on BBC Three, repeated ad infinitum between Top Gear repeats and episodes of How To Masturbate With Reggie Yates (apparently the first episode is called “Knowing When To Pause”).

You see these comedians on the telly and you know exactly what you’re going to get: they’re likeable and charming in their own way and will unfailingly deliver an hour and a bit of “hilarious things that happened to my brother” – the sort of stuff you’d hear on the local radio phone-in after the “wacky” breakfast show but with added masturbation gags that’s more rooted in the ribald rather than reality – smothered with lashings of mildly amusing bonhomie. Nothing laugh out loud, nothing world-changing, they’re not out to make a point, they’re just there to make you happy. Fine.

And then there’s the left-wing comedians. For convenience (and descriptive accuracy) let’s call them “Leftards”. They really do make me want to vomit. In the 1980s and 1990s you had Ben Elton, Alexei Sayle and Jeremy Hardy, not laughingly self-styled “alternative” “comedians” who inflicted their unsophisticated bile via Saturday Live upon impressionable kids who lapped it all up with the gratitude and ignorance of a dog drinking from a toilet.

In the Noughties and now we have Marks Steel, Thomas and Usbrigstocke, and Jeremy Hardy. Little has changed. Leftards always think they’re right – whether in comedy and politics – and everybody else are wrong, nasty, evil people. But, as with those on the Left in politics, Leftards aren’t as popular as they’d have you believe or wish to be. That’s why they usually occupy the sixth-form socialism at six-thirty slot on Radio 4, or write for common room communist rags like The Guardian. They’re never happier than when making a point, and their latest fetish is the anti-austerity “movement”. I, too, have just had a “movement” and couldn’t tell the difference.

The thing is, when making their points, they’re usually not borne out by much in the way of facts. Plus, their fans/supporters are usually so intellectually bereft the Leftards have to resort to the absurd or distasteful to get that much needed attention and to ram home their message.

Here’s Mark Steel writing about how wages are starting to rise, and with the deftness you’d expect, manages to be both absurd and distasteful in the same piece:

“it would be greedy to expect that after only four years of austerity and cuts, we can swan about in the carefree 24-hour party lifestyles enjoyed by our lucky grandparents in the Great Depression, but it doesn’t hurt to dream.

“Presumably, as we’ve all been in this together, this good fortune will be shared out equally. For example, the people who now rely on food banks could be said to have endured their share of austerity.

“So maybe next week their food bank will give them an extra pickled onion each, or a Cheesy Wotsit to share, providing more compelling evidence that George Osborne’s methods have worked.

“There’s even more good news, because it was also announced that the amount lost to corporate tax ­avoidance last year was down £2.5billion. That’s down £2.5billion to £18.8billion.

“It’s like if Oscar Pistorius said in his trial: ‘In my defence I shot three people the year before, so to get it down to one last year is a change that should be welcomed, m’lady.'”

Now aside from the absurd references to pickled onions and a maize-based cheese flavoured snack there are a couple of gems here, the stand-out one for me being the flippant use of the horrific murder of his wife by a South African paraplegic athlete shooting her four times in cold blood as a metaphor to measure the reduction in corporate tax avoidance. Had, say, Johnny Speight written about a disabled South African man who murdered his wife, whatever the context, for comic effect he’d have been vilified by every Leftard in the land. But maybe we live in enlightened times, and the audience should be credited for knowing what’s right and what’s wrong, a concept left-wingers, and particularly left-wing political parties have always failed to get hold of.

The other is the subject of corporate tax avoidance itself. Now, when the Marks and their buddy Owen Jones, 31, are enjoying their game of soggy biscuit at a food bank on the outskirts of Manchester while sharing naked videos of Spain’s Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias (and, just like when any left-wing political party scaremongers its way into power – Labour in the UK or Syriza in Greece – after a brief period of euphoria there’s the inevitable sticky mess for someone else to clean up) they might reflect on the fact that those nasty vicious evil corporate tax avoiding bastards who put their money into subsidiary companies in the Cayman Islands such as, er, thinking off the top of my head, the Guardian Media Group, who are paying Owen Jones, 31, his £30k a year to write about how terrible everything is.  His solution, in an article written for the New Statesman today in his role as it’s Lost Causes Editor, is for a resurgence of Social Democratic parties across Europe, which would be about as welcome as Daesh winning the contract for Channel Tunnel security, funded by selling body parts of anybody who isn’t part of Momentum.  You see?  You’ve got me at it now.

That’s the point about the Left. It’s riddled with hypocrites who’d enjoy nothing more than for everybody to have the same as everybody else. Except themselves.

Maybe the reason the lefties haven’t reached the heights of your McIntyres, Bishops, Howards or Ramseys is that they’ve hit the glass ceiling that socialism seeks to inflict on others. An allergy to aspiration. And it’s the same glass ceiling that sees the Leftards and left-wing political leaders only ever play to those who agree with them. The security of a faithful following with the certainty of never quite making it. For those devotees of The Guardian, The Independent, Radio 4 or Her Majesty’s Opposition, unless you look somewhere else for something better you will forever remain a captive audience.