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.
Picture: IWM Art
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The art of Wyndham Lewis is hard to love but impossible to ignore

Spiky and unlikeable, the painter was blighted for years by his flirtations with fascism.

In the early years of the 1930s the painter, novelist and social theorist Percy Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957) passed beyond the pale and has remained on the wrong side ever since. His crime was to write a series of books sympathetic to totalitarianism – as he saw it, man’s last, best hope against both the mass killings of communism and another world war. In 1931 he described Hitler as “a man of peace” but when he went to Germany in 1937 and witnessed Nazism at first hand he realised just how wrong he had been. His recantations came too late, however, and he has subsequently always been tagged as an apologist for fascism.

It did not help that Lewis had a spiky personality and an iron-clad amour ­propre that led to fallings-out with numerous friends; he also liked to goad the liberal elite and in particular the Bloomsberries. If you can judge a man by his enemies then Lewis ranks highly: Sacheverell Sitwell called him “a malicious, thwarted and dangerous man” and Ernest Hemingway described him in A Moveable Feast as having “the eyes of an unsuccessful rapist”. E M Forster, though, was more nuanced, discerning in him “a curious mixture of insolence and nervousness”.

If it was hard to like Lewis, so, too, with his pictures. There is almost nothing in his entire output that is conventionally beautiful but there is, on the other hand, much that is questing, innovative, unsettling and rebarbative. This was intentional: Lewis wanted his art to be “metaphysical” but not to offer the comfort of “sensuous impressions”. In short, he was a strange man who produced strange paintings.


TS Eliot (1938). Picture: Durban Art Gallery / Bridgeman Images

Lewis the artist is remembered largely as the prime founder of vorticism, Britain’s only true avant-garde movement. Born in 1914, vorticism sought to reflect the dynamism of the modern world through angular, fractured, urban and machine-based imagery. It proved to be a short-lived movement, becoming another victim of the First World War. Yet Lewis continued to paint and although in the 1920s he turned to writing (of his peers, only David Jones could match him in facility in both spheres) because he felt that modern art’s promise to transform society had failed, he returned to painting in the 1930s – partly out of financial necessity – and stayed with it until a pituitary tumour left him blind in 1951. Vorticism, he said, represented only “a little narrow segment of time, on the far side of the war”.

“Wyndham Lewis: Life, Art, War” is a standout exhibition of his work being held at Imperial War Museum North in Manchester – in Daniel Libeskind’s suitably striking vorticist building – because Lewis was an official war artist for both the British and the Canadians (he was born in Nova Scotia). The show, however, includes the full range of his art: apprentice work at the Slade – from which he was expelled – his experiments with a cubo-futurist style, the formation of vorticism, the war, his career as a portraitist and as an abstract artist, and the odd, historic-mythological paintings to which he turned in an attempt to re-establish his name. It is the biggest such survey of his work in over 60 years and shows a unique and uncategorisable artist.

Among the exhibits, which include a selection by fellow radical artists such as David Bomberg and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, are three of Wyndham Lewis’s (he dropped the Percy) most notable works. The first is The Crowd (1914-15), the purest example of his vorticism, showing a schematic metropolis – part Fritz Lang and part Mondrian gone wrong – crawled over by tiny, rudimentary figures. A flag and men with banners suggest this might show an insurrection but it is nevertheless redolent of Lewis’s belief that modern man was at heart a dehumanised automaton driven by base passions.


The Crowd (1914-15). Picture: Tate, London 2017

His major war painting A Battery Shelled (1919) shows the descendants of those figures, now recast as insect-like gunners, scuttling to safety while under bombardment: Lewis served in the Royal Artillery at Passchendaele and had direct experience of such terror. He renders smoke, ground, explosions and men as a series of broken and reconstituted planes while three naturalistic Tommies passively witness the scene. When it was exhibited at the Royal Academy neither its enigmatic nature nor its avant-gardism appealed to audiences that wanted something more seemly and obviously commemorative, and the painting was embarrassedly offloaded by the war art committee to the Imperial War Museum.

Postwar it was as a portraitist that Lewis was most significant. Based on high-quality draughtsmanship, his portraits, often of members of his writers’ coterie, including Edith Sitwell and Ezra Pound, manage to combine a modernist style with intensity. The most perfect example is his 1938 portrait of his friend T S Eliot. For all the poet’s brooding presence this is less a psychological work than an icon. The painting caused a rumpus on exhibition because of a supposed phallus painted in the fanciful screens behind the sitter. Amid the furore, Walter Sickert, gallantly if erroneously, described Lewis as “the greatest portraitist of this, or any other time”.

At the end of this eye-opening show, though, it is Eliot’s judgement that still seems most accurate: “A man of undoubted genius, but genius for what precisely it would be remarkably difficult to say.” 

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

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