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
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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue