I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down: Summertime sadness

A programme full of comedians talking about their worst gigs allows Antonia Quirke briefly to believe that the summertime malaise is at an end.

I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down
Radio 4
 
August is a melancholy month, an antechamber you hang around in, drumming your fingers. Usually Radio 3 is the only station that comprehends this, programming huge wodges of Chopin through the night, letting the Nocturne in C minor go on until what feels like dawn; the notes, as someone once said, “not flowing, but falling – amid rests – like words of existential weight”.
 
Occasionally, the unspellable name of a Slavonic maestro is spoken by the announcer, whom you picture with shirt open at the throat and cigarette clinging to lower lip, followed by a moment of, if not quite silence, that perfectly gloomy, pronounced Radio 3 quiet. And then another bloody nocturne.
 
Usually Radio 4 programmes a tonne of repeats during August but so far this month it has been unseasonably keen, airing rambunctious interviews with the Clash and original plays about Joan Littlewood’s enlivening friendship with a wine baron. But one programme perfectly fitted the August sorrow – comedians talking about their worst gigs (19 August, 4pm).
 
At a coffee shop somewhere, Jack Dee and Jo Brand discussed their toughest moments on stage, a low canteeny clatter in the background contributing to that late-summer, lost feeling of other people being otherwise occupied. Dee said that the moment you start making jokes that begin with the word “anyway”, you are in deep trouble. Anyway stinks profoundly of fear. Brand described once inadvertently making what was interpreted as an outrageously racist joke – her embarrassment complete when she was complimented by the dreaded Roy “Chubby” Brown. She also made the point that no matter how celebrated or experienced, a comedian can still mess up horribly, making comedy the most democratic of forms.
 
“Didn’t Billy Connolly die recently?” she asked in awe, referring to his walking off stage after being faced with persistent heckling from crowds in Blackpool and Scarborough this year. (The inference was that if it can happen to Connolly, it can happen to anyone, so imposing is he as a character and so over-revered, even among comedians.)
 
The one stand-up mentioned who apparently has never died is Peter Kay. A friend tells me that many years ago he saw a thenunknown Kay at Edinburgh and that the comedian walked on to the tiny stage in a completely OTT cloud of dry ice, spluttering through the fog.
 
Even before he had said a word, the mood was hysterically cheerful, and everything from that point accelerated further into the insane good humour of a revival meeting. For some reason, we just have immediate faith that Kay will be funny without any kind of material whatsoever.
 
Back at the café, Jack Dee sounded resigned, thinking squirmingly of past disasters. He said he used to wear a motorbike helmet if he was working his way back through an unappreciative crowd at the Comedy Store, hoping that everyone might assume he was a pizza delivery guy. It was a nice confession and had people around his café table hooting. It sounded almost like September.
Billy Connolly. Photo: Getty

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times