This follows on from the question Mike raised in the previous post Class divide in the arts – are they just for the toffs? at http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2015/01/24/class-divide-in-the-arts-is-it-just-for-the-toffs/. The controversial Scots comedian, Frankie Boyle, was interviewed last year at the Guardian’s International Television Festival last year by Pointless’s Richard Osman. The interview was a review of the state of television. And Boyle made it very clear that he though British television was being held back by the desire of TV commissioning editors to remain safe. Boyle made it very clear that class attitudes were very definitely a part of this. The interview can be found on Youtube with the title GEITF 2014 – Frankie Boyle: State of the TV Nation.
Boyle on the Two Most Offensive Jokes
Boyle is one of Britain’s very edgiest comedians. Osman tackled him about two of his most controversial jokes. These were about Katie Price being raped by her mentally disabled son, and a disparaging comment about the appearance of the Paralympic swimming heroine, Rebecca Adlington. Osman states that he’s a fan of Boyle, but makes it clear that he feels those jokes should never have been broadcast, and an apology should have been issued. Boyle defended the Katie Price joke by stating that he thought very hard about it. He told it because he felt it was a valid comment about Price. She had two points on which she sold herself: her looks, and her disabled son. She had other, non-handicapped children, who you never heard anything about. Boyle felt that the joke was a suitable comment on Price’s self-publicity.
False Banter on Comedy Panel Shows
Boyle made the comment that television panel shows, like Mock the Week, now relied on banter. It looked like normal conversation, but was all false. It was all scripted. And it was there, because the TV companies did not want to tackle other, more difficult issues. He specifically mentioned the two land wars in which Britain was involved at the time. Five years ago, Boyle said, you could mention them. Now they were verboten. He tried on Mock the Week to make a joke commenting on them, but was told that he couldn’t. As an example of the depths the show how reached now, he said that the last time he watched it had to make jokes about the Ryder Cup. He told the Katie Price joke because for the past ten weeks they’d been making jokes about the Olympics, and then they were being asked to return to them. Boyle’s controversial joke followed soon after.
No Challenge to Cameron’s Murder of the Disabled by Atos
As a further example, Boyle gave the murderous campaign of Cameron against the disabled. He said outright that Cameron had killed at least 2,200 people ‘bottom line’ through Atos and the fit for work test. But he was never challenged. Osman raised the topic of the Channel 4 conspiracy drama, Utopia, as an example of television tackling difficult topics. Boyle stated in his usual forthright terms that the show was rubbish. It was based very much on the type of comics produced by Alan Moore and his ilk. However, Channel 4 had taken all the good material out of it. If they were really determined to produce quality television, they’d hire Alan Moore and co. Instead Channel 4 produced endless programmes genuinely exploiting deformity and sneering at the working class, explicitly mentioning Benefits Street.
TV Bosses’ Misogyny
He criticised the channel bosses for their peculiar ideas of what was ‘fringe’ and ‘mainstream’. He’d tried to get Andrew Newsom on a programme, only to be told that she was too fringe. He felt this was rubbish, as he’d just seen her play at the Royal Albert Hall. He was also sharply critical at television’s very misogynist attitudes. When asked about the issue of quotas, and putting more women and members of ethnic minorities on screen, Boyle said he agreed with them. Regarding the proportion of women on panel shows, he felt it should be 50/50 with men. This, however, was definitely unwelcome to channel bosses. He told how he heard the regular host of a panel show use an extremely crude term for women comedians. It’s extremely coarse, so be warned. The bosses had very definite ideas about how many women should be allowed on a panel show. He tried to get a female comedian on Never Mind the Buzzcocks four times. One of these times he tried to get them to bring on Sarah Millican. He was told that this was not possible, as they already had a female comedian on for that week.
Sack the Bosses, Not Cancel BBC 3
He was very critical of the efforts of the television bosses themselves and their personal failure to increase diversity. He noted that Alan Yentob and the others bewailed the fact that there weren’t enough women and Black people on TV, while doing absolutely nothing about it, despite the fact that it was their jobs. On the subject of the scrapping of BBC 3, the Corporation’s youth channel, Boyle said that the Beeb had admitted they had made a mistake. They had been trying to get young people to watch TV instead of other media. The age demographic for the other channels was very high – in the 50s. Yet they had scrapped the channel in order to concentrate on the internet, which was precisely the thing that was taking da yoof away from TV. When Osman asked Boyle where Boyle would cut to save money, he replied that it would be with the bosses. They formed a useless layer of people, whose job was to stop programme being commissioned, often for the most bizarre reasons.
Class Bias in Satire and the Westminster Bubble
Boyle considered that such satire that was permitted, was only allowed because it came from an upper middle class voice. He gave as examples Peter Cook and Patrick Morris, the creator of Brass Eye. Anything that did not come from that social echelon, which could be easily identified as ‘ironic’, or ‘playing with concepts’, was therefore dangerous and unsettling.
He felt part of the problem was that satire in this country was very newspaper-based. He gave Have I Got News for You and Private Eye as examples. They were stuck in the Westminster bubble and the Westminster cycle as a result. Comedians like Boyle presented a problem, as editors and producers wanted them to produce party political satire, which Boyle didn’t.
Jeremy Clarkson’s a Cultural Tumour
They got on to the different way Boyle and Jeremy Clarkson had been treated by television. Clarkson, like Boyle, made controversial jokes and comments. Boyle, however, declared that Clarkson, whom he described as ‘a cultural tumour’, was acceptable because there was no context for what he said. For example, Boyle had been criticised for a comment he made about Israel during the Gaza conflict. He was attacked as anti-Semitic, an accusation which he denied. Yet when Clarkson was attacked for using the ‘N’ word in nursery rhyme, the head of BBC 1 appeared to defend him and state that he wasn’t racist. Boyle felt this might have been due to rights issues. Most producers, Boyle said, would be happy with 3/4s of the ratings, if the content was less controversial. Clarkson, however, still had his job, which suggested to him that they were afraid to sack him because of the problem of who owned the rights.
The Beeb and Scots Independence
Boyle was also one of those, who support Scots independence. He remarked on the media bias against the independence campaign, and the weird behaviour of David Cameron and the leaders of the ‘No’ team, when they ventured north of the Border. He stated that the Beeb were against independence, because the licence money from Scotland acted a subsidy for the corporation as a whole. Altogether, the BBC gains £300 million from the licence fee in Scotland. Of this, only about £40 million is spent on Scottish programmes. Another £60 million is spent ‘finessing’ programmes produced elsewhere, but which travel up to Scotland. Thus the Beeb effectively got a subsidy of £200 million from Scots viewers.
As for David Cameron, Boyle stated that when he and the ‘No’ coterie travelled up to fair Caledonia, they were so out of place that they looked like time travellers trying to find oil to power their time machine. He was particularly amused by Cameron’s comments about the ‘silent Scottish majority’. He’d never known Scots to be silent about anything.
Osman raised the topic of Boyle’s writing for the Sun. Boyle was a left-wing comedian, but there he was, writing for Murdoch. Boyle replied that there were no ‘good’ papers, as far as he was concerned. The Observer, for example, had also cheered on the war in Iraq. He started writing for the Sun because they censored him less than the BBC. He also developed a particular technique of making sure they didn’t take too much out of his work. However, during one newspaper and magazine media event, Boyle had found his material disappearing. He asked why it was suddenly being edited out. He was told that it was because Murdoch himself was up for the event, and liked to edit everything in person. Boyle didn’t believe it was true, but went into the cafeteria early one morning to see Murdoch sat at a table, going through everything with black marker. So perhaps, he concluded, it really was true.
Upbringing of the Ruling Class
As for the ruling class, they were so appalling because of the way they were raised. It was exactly like the Spartans. At seven or eight they were taken away from their parents and placed in an all-male environment. They were then bored with Latin and other useless subjects, in order to inculcate the right attitudes into them ‘like a brainwashing cult’. And then finally and suddenly, sodomy. With this background, no wonder they were like they were.
Drama, Brothel Keeping and the Hedge Fund Managers
And as an example of the way television was reluctant to tackle anything too challenging, he gave the example of a friend of his, who was a professional television writer. The man had been hired to write a story about people trafficking for one of the cop dramas. In the script he subsequently produced, the villain was a hedge fund manager, who went into people smuggling because the returns were so good. This was very definitely not what the Beeb wanted. They told him that instead of a hedge fund manager, the villain was going to be a Russian gangster called ‘Sergey’.
So he subsequently revised the script. The villain was turned into the gangster, Sergey. But in his treatment, Sergey had gone into the people smuggling business, after borrowing money from hedge fund managers, because the return was so spectacular. This was, against, unacceptable. The villain was a Russian gangster called Sergey. He had a black leather jacket and a gun, and he was into people smuggling because he was evil. End of. The story was taken away from the writer for someone else to work on.
A few months later, the cops in New England raided a brothel. It was one of string of them, all run by a hedge fund manager. Because the returns were spectacular. It was a reality that the Beeb had literally not wanted to imagine.
Here’s the interview. Warning: Boyle’s language is at times very coarse, and the jokes about Price and Addlington are offensive.
It’s a fascinating perspective from the state of television today from someone, whose frequently tasteless jokes have almost made him an outsider. Nevertheless, Boyle makes it clear that he thinks very hard about what he says. As for the comments about satire being acceptable if it comes from an establishment voice, he has a point. Even so, Private Eye and Brass Eye at various points in their careers were barely acceptable. When it started out, Private Eye was only stocked by a very few newsagents. I remember ten years ago I took a copy of the Eye into work, and was asked by an older colleague, ‘You don’t actually read that, do you?’ Some of the Eye’s jokes have been considered in such bad taste, such as their cover satirising the mass adulation at the funeral of Princess Di, that newsagents have refused to stock it. As for Brass Eye, that was indeed so extreme in its satire that Grade had to fight hard to save it from cancellation.
As the founders of Private Eye, Richard Ingrams and co themselves made clear, they, Ingrams, Peter Cook and Willie Rushton were all far from outsiders. They were privately educated members of the middle class. Auberon Waugh was the son of the novelist Evelyn, and John Wells had been the headmaster of Eton. You couldn’t get much more establishment than that.
Private Eye also inspired David Frost’s That Was The Week That Was, the ’60s ancestor of popular satirical television. While it’s now regarded as a classic, it was intensely controversial at the time. Even in the 1980s Robin Day, the heavyweight interviewer of politicians on the Beeb, disliked it so much that he described it as ‘deplorable’ in his autobiography, Grand Inquisitor. Satire has become acceptable on TV, only because so many of its producers were respectably middle class, and even they had to work very, very hard.