Where we see vulnerability, Frankie Boyle sees a target

Frankie Boyle passes off his jokes about rape and "retards" as satire, but it is just vile with a smile, says Nicky Clark.

What has Frankie Boyle got that Jim Davidson hasn’t? Celebrity friends on Twitter, for a start. These sons of Glaswegians both like to think of themselves as edgy, opposed to political correctness and telling it like it is. If "funny for money" is a spectrum then Jim stays to the right and Frankie stays to the left, but they are in step.
 
They both have armies of devoted fans ready to pay for the privilege of the comedy of cruelty. They talk about free speech, but I see it as having a higher purpose than ridiculing a glamour model’s children, or making jokes about "special needs". 

Whereas Davidson is overt, obvious and blatant in his bigotry, Boyle, like the teacher he wanted to be, is educating us lesser souls that he knows best and we really need to listen. Call it satire, but to me, it’s just vile with a smile.
 


The BBC has hosted both of these “comics” and brought their humour to a wider audience. However, that relationship has waned and died in both cases. Boyle wrote a letter detailing how it wasn’t his fault and made a beeline for taboo-busting Channel 4. His new sketch show got several complaints for “jokes” which demonstrate both his favourite topic and some people’s tolerance for cruelty.

In a few short punchy sentences, Frankie realised his talent lay in belittling and dehumanising a blind autistic child, but he packaged this up as a comment about Katie Price's celebrity and called it satire. I’m not sure that’s exactly what people immediately think of when they hear the word satire. I think of iconoclasts, destroyers of pomposity, the pretension of politics laid bare.
 
Suggesting that an innocent child needs to be prevented from fucking his own mother isn’t exactly an exhaustive deconstruction of our celebrity culture. And suggesting that his mother and step-father were fighting over his custody in a divorce because neither wanted him due to his disability, doesn’t exactly address the issue of a media obsessed with reality TV shows, or the dumbing down of a ratings driven medium. But as I say, we all have our own interpretation of satire.



Ultimately, however it’s dressed up, the truth is that where we see vulnerability, Frankie sees a target. He likes the word “retard” which I’m sure he would like us to believe is a statement referencing linguistic oppression. I think he just likes to mock the “weak”.
 
If he feels oppressed by others asking him not to use it, how does he think it feels to be a learning disabled person having abuse screamed at them in the street? It’s pretty oppressive to be too scared to leave your home, because people who find “Fun Boy” Frankie and his arsenal of barbed comments “hilarious” tend to copy their heroes. School is tough enough when you have a disability. Bullies must bless the day when their scriptwriter got his own show.
 

Gemma Hayter, the woman with learning disabilities ask to drink urine and beaten to death in 2010, could tell Frankie a thing or two about hatred and oppression. I doubt it would make him cry like the documentary on Palestine which brought him to tears. Having clearly learned from the old style bigots, Frankie lets his left-leaning, caring side show so that the obviousness of his bullying gets diluted enough so as to be overlooked in favour of the “good stuff”. Gemma was learning disabled and she found some friends who liked a laugh. They liked it so much that they laughed and laughed as they tortured her to death and then dumped her naked body by a railway line. 

Perhaps they didn’t call her “retard” as they tortured her. But it's likely that they did, because hate crimes, as with all bullying, often begin with a “joke” and verbal abuse. It’s unlikely Gemma would have got any of the “jokes” that preceded her murder. She wasn’t cynical or aware enough of her own vulnerability to know the difference between being a friend and being a toy to be played with and then thrown away. To her family, she was a person who mattered not a punchline to a joke. Certainly not “just a retard”. 

I suppose the difference is in the detail as you exchange tweets with other celebrities, then tweet rape “jokes” followed by info on rape survivor fundraisers. Smart clever, ironic, satirical even. Bizarrely, the same stars who appear on Comic Relief to tearfully tell us about projects which help disabled children recover from bullying in school seem willing to effectively hold your coat; giving you the credibility to get TV shows commissioned where you can verbally punch disabled people in the face.

Funny ha ha.

The point is, Frankie, when I see your face, all I see is man who knows better, laughing all the way to the bank. All I think of are children, who become adults, who get beaten to death because celebrities like you normalise stigmatising attitudes through bigoted jokes.

Your way is to follow the path of "never apologise, never explain" and certainly don’t change - because just like Jim Davison, you know there’s enormous amounts of money to be made from misery.

I suppose that’s not your problem though, is it? You just make the mess. You can’t be expected to clean it up.
 

Or, as the original title of Tramadol Nights put it: Deal with this, retards.

Nicky Clark tweets: @mrsnickyclark 

Who's laughing? Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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Is Scottish Labour on the way back, or heading for civil war?

There are signs of life, but also recriminations.

The extraordinary rise of the Scottish Tories and the collapse in SNP seat numbers grabbed most of the headlines in the recent general election. Less remarked on was the sudden, unexpected exhalation of air that came from what was thought to be the corpse of Scottish Labour.

In 2015, Labour lost 40 of its 41 Scottish seats as the SNP rocketed from six to 56, was wiped out in its Glaswegian heartlands, and looked to have ceded its place as the choice of centre-left voters – perhaps permanently – to the Nationalists. But while the electorate’s convulsion in June against the SNP’s insistence on a second independence referendum most benefited Ruth Davidson, it also served to reanimate Labour.

The six seats grabbed back (making a total of seven) included three in the West of Scotland, proving that the Nat stranglehold on Labour’s territory was not quite as secure as it had seemed. There is, it appears, life in the old dog yet.

Not only that, but the surprise success of Jeremy Corbyn across the UK has stiffened Labour’s spine when it comes to insisting that it, and not the SNP, is the rightful home of Scotland’s socialists.

Corbyn was largely kept south of the border during the election campaign – Kezia Dugdale, the leader at Holyrood, had supported Owen Smith’s leadership challenge. But in August, Corbyn will embark on a five-day tour of marginal SNP constituencies that Labour could potentially take back at the next election. The party has set a target of reclaiming 18 Scottish seats as part of the 64 it needs across Britain to win a majority at Westminster. The trip will focus on traditional areas such as Glasgow and Lanarkshire, where tiny swings would return seats to the People’s Party. Dugdale is no doubt hoping for some reflected glory.

Corbyn will present himself as the authentically left-wing choice, a leader who will increase public spending and invest in public services compared to the austerity of the Tories and the timidity of the SNP. “Labour remains on an election footing as a government-in-waiting, ready to end failed austerity and ensure that Scotland has the resources it needs to provide the public services its people deserve,” he said. “Unlike the SNP and the Tories, Labour will transform our economy through investment, insisting that the true wealth creators - that means all of us – benefit from it.”

The SNP has benefited in recent years from the feeling among many north of the border that Labour and the Tories were committed to differing shades of a similar economic programme, that was starving public services of cash and that paid little attention to Scottish desires or needs. But as the Nats’ spell in government in Edinburgh has worn on, first under Alex Salmond and now Nicola Sturgeon, with little being done to tackle the nation’s social problems, patience has started to run out.

Dugdale said yesterday that she “looked forward to joining Jeremy in August as we take our message to the people of Scotland”. That’s not a sentiment we would have heard from her before June. But it does raise the future spectacle of Davidson’s Tories battling for the centre and centre-right vote and Labour gunning for the left. The SNP, which has tried to be all things to all people, will have to make a choice – boasting that it is “Scotland’s Party” is unlikely to be enough.

The 20th anniversary of the referendum that delivered the Scottish Parliament is almost upon us. Then, Scottish Labour provided the UK and the Westminster government with figures of the stature of Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Donald Dewar and George Robertson. That was a long time ago, and the decline in quality of Labour’s representatives both in London and Edinburgh since has been marked. The SNP’s decade of success has attracted much of the brightest new talent through its doors. Young Scots still seem to be set on the idea of independence. Labour has a credibility problem that won’t be easily shaken off.

But still, the body has twitched – perhaps it’s even sitting up. Is Scottish Labour on the way back? If so, is that down to the SNP’s declining popularity or to Corbyn’s appeal? And could Dugdale be a convincing frontwoman for a genuinely left-wing agenda?

There may be trouble ahead. Yesterday, the Scottish Labour Campaign for Socialism – whose convener, Neil Findlay MSP, ran Corbyn’s leadership campaign in Scotland – accused Dugdale of “holding Corbyn back” in June. A spokesperson for the group said: “While it’s great we won some seats back, it’s clear that the campaign here failed to deliver. While elsewhere we've seen people being enthused by ‘for the many, not the few’ we concentrated on the dispiriting visionless ‘send Nicola a message’ – and paid a price for that, coming third in votes and seats for the first time in a century. In Scotland we looked more like [former Scottish leader] Jim Murphy’s Labour Party than Jeremy Corbyn’s – and that isn’t a good look.”

While the group insists this isn’t intended as a challenge to Dugdale, that might change if Corbyn receives a rapturous reception in August. We’ll learn then whether Scotland is falling for the high-tax, high-spending pitch that seems to be working so well elsewhere, and whether Scottish Labour has jerked back to life only to find itself staring down the barrel of a civil war.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).