Opinion: Did Jim Davidson Really Deserve Such Harsh Reviews?

I noticed last night that Jim Davidson had retweeted my Evening Standard review of his Edinburgh Fringe debut. I was surprised as I gave him a very qualified three stars. Then I read the reviews in The Times and The Guardian and saw that they had given his attempt to reinvent himself as a more benign banter merchant a rather more brutal, unforgiving two stars. I guess my review was one of the better ones.

It was an extremely hard review to write. While I would not say he was racist, homophobic or misogynistic, he was just horribly old fashioned and felt out of place at the Festival. I don’t know how his shows are selling mid-week, but the press night was a Saturday night and the venue was packed, but maybe not with the kind if people you might see at James Acaster, Josie Long or Nish Kumar. I’d just come from Nish Kumar, which made an interesting contrast.

After the reviews appeared Davidson had a whinge on Twitter about “lefty critics”. And as supportive fans pointed out, he had a standing ovation. How can a show that gets a standing ovation receive two stars? That feels pretty insulting to the people that have enjoyed it so much.

The problem is that comedy is so polarised. There is comedy as ideas and art – the kind of thing lefty critics (I thought I was one of those until that Retweet) like, and then there is comedy as purer, brasher entertainment. Edinburgh is used to the former rather than the latter, although that hasn’t held back the likes of John Bishop, Peter Kay and Jason Manford, who have all picked up Edinburgh Comedy Award nominations.

The problem with Davidson is that, as critics of every stripe probably agree (though some grudgingly), he still has the skills and the talents of an excellent stand-up. He can land a line on a sixpence, he can hold your attention with a story. He has an ear for a phrase and can clearly do characters, even if some of them make uncomfortable viewing for liberals. And in No Further Action he really has a compelling story to tell – his experience of being hauled in as part of the post-Savile Yewtree investigations despite being innocent.

I found this part of the show fascinating. In fact if he had spun it out for an hour I might have even given him four stars. It was the shabby stand-up that bookended it that spoilt the night. Yet even here Davidson seems harshly judged. Of course he probably knows by now that there is something wrong with doing an Asian accent, but he does it because it is funny. Wrong maybe, but he is not the only one. There are plenty of politically correct comedians who do the old trope about their Asian accents sounding Welsh. 

Davidson also did a joke about sending the missus to have a tooth out without an anaesthetic to save money, which is remarkably similar to a joke Ivor Dembina is doing in his Old Jewish Jokes set about a masked robber asking a member of the public if he saw his face and the man says, “no, but my wife did”, so that she gets shot. That is every bit as wife-bashing as Davidson’s gag. Davidson also did a joke about fat women. There was a more right-on comedian the other night who told a joke about a fat woman breaking some furniture and I doubt if he will be picking up two star reviews. Incidentally, there was another curious overlap – both Davidson and Mark Thomas in his new show have riffs which skewer the British judicial system in a strikingly similar way.

Davidson’s difficulty is the baggage he brought with him to the Fringe. He was probably fighting a losing battle with the lefty critics from the start. If his tickets keep selling I don’t think he will be too bothered. But I keep thinking that if only he could have curbed more of his old school asides and truly reinvented himself they really would have had no choice but to have been more generous with their stars.

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