My war with Frankie Boyle

When edgy comedy is just bullying.

In the past few weeks, I briefly became a hot topic on Twitter; I was in a couple of national newspapers; I was written about exhaustively on every comedy website of note; and I became enough of a talking point - at least in certain small, Soho-based circles - that quite a few conversations I've had have begun with people asking, "How have you been?" You could say that I've been the centre of attention, which is what all comedians want, in a nutshell. So that's the good news.

The less good news is that I got all that attention by being called a c*** by a better-known television comedian, Frankie Boyle, in a tweet. This word is deemed so offensive that I typed it here with the asterisks already in place, rather than waiting for it to be censored, in case I should upset the feelings of a vulnerable sub-editor. I'm only half-joking.

A fair few people don't even like to look at that word on a page, let alone hear it. Imagine having it applied to you in full view of a large number of your peers by someone so influential that thousands of people will be inclined instinctively to agree without looking into the situation. That's been my month.

Shock doctrine

What I did to occasion the anger of my colleague was to write a blog, some months ago, which had belatedly come to his attention. In it, I remarked on how he had been involved in controversy after making jokes about Down's syndrome and then refusing to apologise to the mother of a sufferer who was in his audience. I wasn't the only comedian to feel uneasy about the impression of our industry that this incident gave to the general public. Several publicly criticised Boyle, feeling that, this time, he had gone too far in pursuit of shock laughs. But, for some reason, it was I who got on his wrong side. I'm reluctant to stir up the subject all over again, but it is a pressing one and I would like to clarify what I was trying to say: not about that comic in particular, but about comedy.

Stand-up has long been regarded as a kind of outlaw form of entertainment that exists somewhere on the boundaries of good taste and likes nothing better than to stray to the other side. This has made it one of the most successful art forms - for want of a less pretentious word - of the new century. And it has managed to hold on to this maverick reputation in spite of becoming more and more mainstream. You can now tune in to shows such as Mock the Week on BBC2 and hear gags that many comics would have shied away from, even in working men's clubs, not too long ago. I think most of us would agree that this is a step forward. We're adults, we know that a joke is a joke, we can choose to watch things or not, and so on.

The trouble is, if you don't draw a line somewhere, what may have started out as "edginess" can quickly turn into mean-spirited bullying of the weakest members of society. What's an acceptable subject for comedy? Those suffering from degenerative diseases? The Holocaust? Rape victims? I've seen all of these subjects covered by comedians in the past fortnight alone.

It is hard not to wonder whether comedy's freedom of speech is as much of a step forward as we thought, especially if all it means is that a largely white, middle-class audience gets to laugh at other people whose lives haven't turned out as well as theirs; or if, in the process, it allows stereotypes to be hammered home that comedy should be breaking down, rather than reinforcing.

Twitter trial

I am as guilty as anyone else of taking on soft targets to get laughs and saying things on the spur of the moment that, in hindsight, sound awful. I didn't intend to vilify the stand-up comic who called me a "coot" (as I paraphrased it to my mother), or anyone else who has let something slip while desperately chasing laughs, as we all do.

I am also aware - as my adversary pointed out - that I've done things that suggest a lack of integrity (advertising cider, appearing on shows that I knew weren't very good and giving a private performance for the Pope, though one of those may not be true).

I think that comedians should have a debate about the limits of their freedom to talk about things that could hurt defenceless people. If there are no limits, then fair enough. But live comedy might end up losing a bit of its faddishness. People will eventually tire of paying good money to see something that amounts to a crude exchange of insults. I mean, if I want to see that, I could just go on Twitter.

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.
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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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