A National Joke: Popular Identity and English Cultural Identities

January 24, 2008

This is an excellent study of a popular comedy that links it into a variety of English cultural identities. Unusually for a book classified as cultural studies, it is clearly written, and by an author who enjoys humour.

I only wish that in celebrating English comedy Andy Medhurst had not been forced to keep looking over his shoulder at colleagues whose only interest in English identity is to denigrate it. As an outsider, I am baffled by the way in which so many English intellectuals burnish the sneers of others into glittering self-hatred.

In such a negative world, the author is able to win only by telling us at frequent intervals that he is gay and comes from a working-class background. Perhaps predictably, one of the best sections of the book deals with camp, openly gay and "you can't quite be sure about him" comedy stars. Here you will find a splendid account and appreciation of the acts of Frankie Howerd, Kenneth Williams, Larry Grayson and Julian Clary. They are evoked with such accuracy and affection that you can almost hear them talking from the page. Yet although I can see clearly that each is distinctively English, I am not sure that Medhurst is able to tell me why. How precisely do they differ from other European gay comedians such as Tam O'Kuopio or Guto Glas?

I could raise the same question about Medhurst's chapter "Togetherness through offensiveness: the importance of Roy 'Chubby' Brown". Those who live in homogenous working-class communities and wish to preserve a sense of constancy and continuity in a world unsympathetic to those values are going to like Chubby Brown because his offensiveness excludes those who would undermine them. Medhurst quotes Chubby Brown on the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, (I really must remember to look for the DVD). "If she had been a fat tart with boils, no one would have sent her one bastard flower" is one thought Brown shares, before speculating on how the late Princess's campaign against landmines increased the likelihood of unemployment for those who work in factories that make artificial limbs.

After Medhurst had shown clips of Chubby Brown's show to academics, "a psychoanalytic critic" said that the most interesting people in them were the one or two who were not laughing. It was a stupid remark, yet a reminder that collective laughter depends on the existence of others who are offended. There has to be a "them" to our "us". Chubby Brown is effectively banned from broadcasting, and many councils would like to deny him a venue, but he pulls in 350,000 fans every year. He is a very English comedian but he successfully tours outside England. What is the foreigners' take on his Englishness?

Such questions are tackled by the author in his conclusion when he talks about "inexportables". Why did Morecambe and Wise not achieve sustained success in the US, even though American comedians just as tedious were successful in Britain? It would seem that comedy as diverse as that of Alan Bennett, George Formby, the Carry On films and Dad's Army is liked because it draws strongly on the particular and the familiar. But then, that is what national identity is.

A National Joke: Popular Identity and English Cultural Identities

By Andy Medhurst
Routledge
240pp
£17.99
ISBN 9780415168786
Published 20 September 2007

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