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14 November 2022

How Peter Kay changed British comedy

The beloved Bolton comic, now going on tour for the first time in over a decade, became a national phenomenon for his nostalgic reflections on working-class culture.

By Fergal Kinney

In a well-publicised speech to a London seminar in 1999, Prime Minister Tony Blair proselytised about asking those “who traditionally may see themselves as working class” to join a “new, larger, more meritocratic middle class”. During those early New Labour years, however, the Bolton comic Peter Kay – born in 1973 – became a national phenomenon through sitcom and stand-up work that was almost exclusively a nostalgic reflection on traditional working-class culture. Comfort food for a changing nation, Kay was rewarded by becoming the UK’s highest-grossing stand-up comedian by 2010. His catchphrases and routines have endured in popular memory.

This month, when Peter Kay announced his return to live performance following a 11-year hiatus, it was a headline bulletin on the BBC News at Ten. Kay had previously withdrawn from all planned stand-up and television projects in 2017 for “unforeseen family reasons” that remain undisclosed. For most of the past half decade, he has been sighted only sporadically and briefly at charity fundraising appearances. When tickets went on sale on Saturday 12 November, up to two million people reportedly joined the digital queue for tickets in Manchester alone, and the O2 Priority app crashed. The arena tour’s scheduled August 2023 end date has now been extended to at least July 2025.

“I’m very much into comedy. I always studied it,” emphasised Kay in a 1997 TV interview at the dawn of his career, citing unfashionable figures like Ronnie Barker and Victoria Wood as formative influences. In one of his first live performances, he beat better established performers such as Johnny Vegas for the 1996 North West Comedian of the Year. Kay’s technically dazzling stand-up would be honed by dictaphone recording and scrutinising each of his own club sets. A coveted 1998 Perrier Award nomination was followed by sitcom commissions.

Ricky Gervais’ The Office is often praised for pioneering a naturalistic, mockumentary format, but 2000’s That Peter Kay Thing did the same 18 months earlier. Drawn from Kay’s lived experience working in motorway service stations and bingo halls, he would often perform as multiple characters – his real gift was privately tyrannical all-round entertainers.

In response to this comeback, Kay has been celebrated as “big-hearted” – a reputation largely built on his sentimental mid-2010s sitcom Car Share – yet his finest work was anything but. Phoenix Nights (2001) observed a fictional working men’s club in decline. Darkly funny and often shockingly blue, it has never been repeated on British television nor licensed to streaming services. The cast member Daniel Kitson broke ranks to (correctly) label a plot line about migrant workers “lazy and racist”, while co-writers Dave Spikey and Neil Fitzmaurice publicly fell out with Kay in a dispute over writing credits. In 2001 Channel 4 had to issue an on-air apology after Kay unflatteringly named a sex-offending fire-safety officer character after a real-life Bolton professional with the same job role.

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[See also: When did “The Crown” get so boring?]

Kay’s work broke through at a strange time for class on British screens. As Nathalie Olah observes in her book Steal as Much as You Can (2019), programmes such as Ground Force and Changing Rooms were exercises in purging British homes of their working-class signifiers. Peter Kay, with his relentless reminiscences on televised darts, package holidays and Blackpool end-of-the-pier performances, won immense public affection doing the opposite. His only major ad campaign was for John Smith’s bitter, and it’s easy to forget that his celebrated “garlic bread” routine was a reflection on Britain’s fast-paced culinary evolution and those left behind.

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In 21st-century British comedy, the default binaries have become the twin poles of personal confession and “saying-the-unsayable” shock and awe. Kay does neither. His early 2000s “Mum Wants a Bungalow” tour, with its machine-gun fire of traditional punchline jokes, was a back-to-basics moment for British comedy. Defying the previous two decades of alternative comedy, Kay dealt in a formal traditionalism that would lay the foundations for the unlikely comeback of prime-time stand-up in the form of the Saturday night comedy programme Live at the Apollo.

Like the populist who can campaign but not govern, though, Kay’s campaign for real comedy would deliver diminishing returns. His 2010-11 tour broke records – performing to 1.2 million people – but as the comedy website Chortle has reflected, “spotting what he’s actually used before and what simply feels like you’ve heard before is a fool’s errand”. Kay’s distance from the raw material of everyday working life showed in what could often felt like steely brand maintenance.

In 2019, Alexei Sayle criticised Peter Kay for a perceived “money obsession”, mourning that “one thing we could never have realised when my generation of stand-up revolutionised comedy was what a huge business it would become”. Perhaps apocryphal, stories of Kay’s alleged skinflint tendencies are legendary within entertainment.

Some of this is reflective of a vacuum created by Kay’s intense privacy. Rarely ever granting interviews, the extent of available knowledge on the performer is that he lives with his wife Susan and family in Lancashire. Outside of a friendship with broadcaster Danny Baker – whose father he portrayed gorgeously on screen in the 2015 series Cradle to Grave – Kay is notably distant from showbiz contemporaries. Success for Kay on his infrequent chat-show appearances is leaving the studio without a single revelation gleamed, instead preferring anarchic moments that can land as dominating and exasperating. Kay gives nothing away.

The last time that Kay toured, Labour was in government and represented the majority of seats in his native north-west. You’ll hear little about these changes in Kay’s set, though. With comedy that could be claimed by both left and right, it is a reflection of the sentiment’s universality that Kay signed his recent public thank-you to fans with “PS: Matt Hancock is a proper bell-end”. What might Kay’s new material look like? Only ticket-holders are likely to find out soon. Kay has granted no press allocation, while the lucrative streaming and home entertainment market is unlikely to get a glimpse until the tour is completed.

In this chaotic moment, it is hard to predict what will happen in two years’ time. But whatever else happens, we can be sure of one thing – in the summer of 2025, Peter Kay will be in a packed-out arena, cracking the kind of jokes you might think you’ve heard somewhere before.

[See also: The sick satisfaction of torturing Matt Hancock on I’m a Celebrity]

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