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How Half Man Half Biscuit have forged a career mocking middle-class idiocy

In a world in which chav-baiting is the norm, Nigel Blackwell nails the grotesqueness of the caring, sharing BoBos: the bohemian bourgeoisie.

It took me four decades to learn the lesson that meeting your musical heroes is a dish best sampled cold, with a long spoon, alone with an imaginary conversation in a locked room. Thus, ever since I first became a fan of Half Man Half Biscuit some twenty years ago I have nurtured my adoration in private, indulging only with my husband – a fellow fan, and the fine fellow who first introduced me to HMHB (Nigel Blackwell, genius; Neil Crossley, bass and vocals; Ken Hancock, lead guitar; and Carl Henry, drums) on road trips.

The principal reason I love them is for their supremely clever and funny lyrics, but also because listening to HMHB is like finally having an enjoyable experience of punk, which I pretended to like forty years ago in order to get my first writing job. They are punk with a sense of humour and a sense of perspective, both of which are surely essential for anyone over the age of 12 if they are not to appear an asinine ass-hat of the highest order.

Paul Du Noyer summed up HMHB well when he wrote: “The songs of their leader, Nigel Blackwell, suggest a very real world of people too educated to be on the dole but too luckless or lazy to be anywhere else. They take a witty revenge on the drivel of popular culture, without denying their fascination with it.” Blackwell is a troubadour of minor trouble, a chronicler of chronic dismay, a misfortune-teller, whose world-view – like that of those other seers of savage amusement Shena Mackay and Joe Orton – can easily overlay one’s own small world the moment one comes to appreciate it.

As we set out on our car journey from Brighton to Bristol last week to see my first HMHB show, the sky was blue but quickly became pleasingly overcast (“Opinionated weather forecasters telling me it’s going to be a miserable day/Miserable to who?/
I quite like a bit of drizzle,/so stick to the facts” – “A Country Practice”), we saw one magpie (sorrow) and a chip of road flew up to mar our immaculate windscreen. I spotted bragging lorries – A PASSION FOR LOGISTICS – and needy vans – HOW’S MY DRIVING? – a yuppie flat development courtesy of Bray & Slaughter and signposts to places with a dolorous, menacing feel: Warninglid, Cowfold, Slaugham, Wantage.

HMHB have been around since the mid-Eighties, breaking up briefly after their first single, citing with typical deadpan drollery “musical similarities”: probably another way of saying none of them could be arsed to turn up. (Fearless front-runners of inertia innovation, they once turned down the chance to appear on The Tube, because Tranmere Rovers were playing on the proffered night.) Despite this maverick apathy they have managed to knock out 14 albums, in the course of which Blackwell has somehow steered a path between being a silly child and a grumpy codger – both with too much daytime TV watching time on their hands – and has emerged as the cleverest, funniest man in British pop.

In a piece for the Social Issues Research Centre, the anthropologist Kate Fox recently wrote, under the heading “The benefits of negative gossip”:

While we would not wish to dwell disproportionately on the 5 per cent or so of gossip-time devoted to criticism and negative evaluation of others, it is important to recognise that such gossip is not just a verbal form of “gratuitous violence”. It is not pointless or unnecessary, but in fact has a perfectly reasonable purpose, and clear social benefits . . . Negative gossip also promotes social bonding between the gossipers. By criticising someone else, we are affirming the values and opinions we share with each other – emphasising what we have in common, cementing our friendships, building alliances.

HMHB have built their fiercely loyal following on div-dissing ditties about the long-lost likes of Ted Moult, Rod Hull and Dickie Davies. The gloriously nasty “Bastard Son of Dean Friedman” starts with the lines “Well I heard a lovely rumour that Bette Midler had a tumour/So gleefully I went to tell my friends . . .” before even mentioning the titular tit. “Upon Westminster Bridge” contains the quatrain: “Oh help me Mrs Medlicott/I don’t know what to do/I’ve only got three bullets/And there’s four of Mötley Crüe”. “You’re Hard” is simply a long list of those we have loathed, from Jimmy Nail to Lenny Henry, and is all the better for it.

But these entertainments are fluffy dice dangling above the roaring engine of the righteous social criticism that makes HMHB so special. “Never not knowingly giving offence” might be their USP, and when they hit their target it can make you wince and hoot at once. In a world in which chav-baiting is the norm, Blackwell nails the grotesqueness of the caring, sharing BoBos: the bohemian bourgeoisie. And, in an age when “diversity” has been used as a cheap bagatelle blinding us to the vile fact that, the social mobility of the late 20th century reversed, rich dim children are outshining bright poor children academically before both sides stop believing in the Tooth Fairy (make the best of that shiny coin, baby chavs, because it’ll be the last reward you ever get), there is a pleasing whiff of the if . . . finale about their best work:

They looked at my postcode
They asked me to speak
It was then I decided my prospects were bleak
Well it may be through goose rule
It may be through God
But one day there’s going to be blood on the quad
Me in the belltower and blood on the quad.

"Blood on the Quad”

Outside Goldsmiths’ coughing up blood
Turner Prize judge gasps “Christ that’s good
Leave it as it is, it’ll get first place
We’ll call it A Full Shift at the Coalface”
Oh well you’re neither a Stuckist or a YBA
And you’re no longer a miner as of today . . .

“If I Had Possession Over Pancake Day”

HMHB have two speeds/stances: stand up and snarl and sit back and sneer, giving their work a pleasing chiaroscuro of chippiness. Blackwell has an uncanny knack of fingering first-time offenders long before they become the usual suspects. He predicted today’s bed-wetting chart-botherers in 2000’s “Look Dad No Tunes”: “My life is comfortable/But I don’t want that image for my band/Inside, I’m reasonable/But I’ll make out they just don’t understand . . ./Somebody’s knocking on my door/It’s the boy from over the road . . ./I think we’d better let him in/I heard he’s got a theremin!”

He is thrilling when he goes for the jugular of those sad sacks for whom the simple act of spawning has become the ultimate virtue-signalling, and the extraordinary manner in which, parallel to the demise of religion in this country, it sometimes seems like every middle-class child is treated as a mucky messiah. “Is your child hyperactive/Or is he perhaps a twat?” HMHB wonder aloud in “Surging Out of Convalescence”, before urging caution in the naming of brats in “Breaking News” – “Don’t be calling him Fred or Archie/With all its cheeky but lovable working-class scamp connotations/Unless you really do have plans for him to spend his life in William Hill’s/Waiting for them to weigh in at Newton Abbot” – and finally threatening a spouse with the ultimate indignity: “I’m gonna feed our children non-organic food/And with the money saved take ’em to the zoo” (“Totnes Bickering Fair”).

By the time we get to Bristol I’m overexcited at the prospect of hearing the Biscuit classic “Paintball’s Coming Home” (in which the lifestyle of a couple of know-all bell-ends is dissected – “They buy soup in cartons, NOT IN TINS! . . ./They’ve got nothing but total respect for Annie Lennox . . ./They didn’t choose their cat, their cat chose them/And what do you know: it’s got its own website’’ – to the tune of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”) live. I’m not disappointed. Somehow all the fuming and fulminating has produced a huge fountain of fun, and the crowd dance around having the time of their lives.

Despite the knowingness and media-obsessed modernity of HMHB, there is something quite affecting about the idea of the four men packing up their instruments afterwards and after a bit of beer-drinking setting off to a new town to tell a new set of people about another set of people, like medieval mummers. They are, as Du Noyer nailed it, “flintily incorruptible”, never surprised in shame or compromise; it’s like they made a conscious decision long ago to sell as few records as possible and in the process became realised – and successful – to an extent most musicians can barely imagine. I felt honoured to see them.

But I still don’t want to meet them.

This article first appeared in the 03 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Germany's migrant crisis

Credit: The Bureau/Film4 Productions/British Film Council
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Lean on Pete builds on the proud history of horses in film

Cinema’s equine love affair is in no danger of dimming.

The mane attraction in cinemas next week is Andrew Haigh’s film adaptation of Willy Vlautin’s novel Lean On Pete, the story of a teenage boy and the horse he rescues.

If there’s any justice, audiences will gallop rather than trot to see it. Anyone who hasn’t read the book could be forgiven for expecting an inspirational, uplifting tale. Maybe, like the kid in Carroll Ballard’s beautiful, dialogue-light 1979 film The Black Stallion, the hero of Lean On Pete will train his four-legged companion to be a champion racehorse. But that isn’t how things turn out. Not even close. Haigh’s picture has more in common with Au hasard Balthazar, Bresson’s plaintive 1966 study of the sad life of a donkey, or Ken Loach’s Kes. Boy and horse help alleviate the other’s loneliness and suffering, at least in the short term, but they reflect it too.

That’s also the role of the horse that 15-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis) finds tied up in Fish Tank, and attempts to liberate. As its title suggests, Andrea Arnold’s 2009 drama is not short on nature metaphors; there’s also a dog called Tennents, and a carp that meets a sticky end. To be honest, the horse is probably pushing things a bit. Don’t you see? It’s really Mia and she wants to set it free because she herself yearns to be emancipated! Yeah, yeah, we get it. But such objections count for little next to the sheer physical might of a horse on screen. There’s no getting around it. Did you ever see a horse that didn’t exude awesomeness, magnificence and film-star charisma? They’ve got what it takes.

Trigger was first out the gate. Though when Olivia de Havilland rode him in The Adventures of Robin Hood, he was still going by the name Golden Cloud, which sounds uncomfortably like an obscure sexual practice. Roy Rogers coughed up $2,500 to buy him, then changed the animal’s name when his co-star Smiley Burnette remarked that the beast was “quick on the trigger.” It stuck. Trigger and Rogers first appeared together in 1938 in Under Western Stars. Down the years, other horses sometimes stood in for him, so estimates vary as to how many appearances the horse-formerly-known-as-Golden-Cloud actually made. You’d need a photo finish, though, to tell the difference.

A horse plays a vital part in Valeska Grisebach’s recent Western, a tense and mysterious study of German labourers working in Bulgaria. The title demands at least one horse, I suppose, as well as the various macho stand-offs that occur in the course of the film, but its presence introduces an air of nobility and calm amidst the general lawlessness. “Horses make everything alright,” says a character in Willy Vlautin’s most recent novel, Don’t Skip Out On Me, and you’d have to agree. When the horse in Western is imperilled, you know trouble is a-coming. Look what happened in The Godfather.

Horse sense tells you these creatures have got to be respected. In the sort-of Bond movie Never Say Never Again (essentially a second adaptation of Thunderball, made possible due to complicated copyright reasons pertaining to the original novel), there’s a nasty stunt in which a horse leaps from a great height into the ocean, hitting the water upside down. There was a furore about it at the time of release in 1983 and it tends to be excised on those rare occasions when the film is screened today. Quite right, too. The filmmakers’ cavalier attitude toward animal safety really takes the Seabiscuit.

Equine enthusiasts aren’t short of cinematic opportunities to indulge their passion—everything from National Velvet and International Velvet to War Horse, Phar Lap and The Horse Whisperer. Among the various incarnations of Black Beauty, allow me to flag up the 1994 version, adapted and directed by Caroline Thompson, the pen behind Edward Scissorhands. Sadly it has no trace of the stirring theme music from the 1970s television series (surely a contender for greatest TV theme ever) but there is ample compensation in Alan Cummings’s gentle Scottish lilt, which gives Beauty’s internal monologue the ebbing rhythm of a bedtime story. Human roles are shaved bare but David Thewlis gets the sweetest moment, when Beauty steals his doorstep sandwich, gambols about with it victoriously, then showers him in a confetti of crumbs.

Jockeying for position with all these movie horses, though, are some that don’t exist anywhere except in the imagination. I’m referring, of course, to the invisible ones on which King Arthur rides through medieval England in Monty Python and the Holy Grail while his servant follows nearby, clapping together two halves of a coconut shell. This was the ultimate case of necessity being the mother of comic invention, since the budget wouldn’t stretch to actual horses. It’s just a shame that when Arthur later encounters three fabled knights, their catchphrase turns out to be “Nii!” rather than “neigh.”

Lean On Pete opens 4 May. Western is on release.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.