Opinion: Is Comedy Getting Too Posh?

Totally tom

Oh, isn't the internet wonderful. I wrote and posted this short opinion piece on the rise of poshness in comedy while I was waiting to go to a comedy classical music concert at the Royal Festival Hall which I couldn't help thinking was the most middle class comedy event I'd ever attended. You can read my review here.

When I got home my Twitter feed was clogged up with comments, which just goes to show that class is as much of a hot potato as ever. Dave Gorman seemed particularly heated. It was hard to reply in 140 characters so I've revised my article, clarifying various points. In fact just to underline that the class issue wont go away this morning a survey has been published suggesting that instead of three classes - upper, middle and working – the UK population now fits into seven classes. You can read more about it here.

The survey touched on part of the controversy over my piece. What did I mean by posh? Did you have to have a title? Or money? Or just a good education? There aren't that many comedians with aristocratic connections, though more than you might think and I'm sure more than there are among milkmen. Is it about money? Well, this is mainly what I was getting at. I wrote the piece on the day that brutal welfare cuts kicked in and I couldn't help thinking this would make it less likely that someone without the cushion of financial security would go into comedy.

One might argue that if there are no jobs then people might decide they've got nothing to lose and head from the soup kitchen to the Comedy Store, but I think that this is highly unlikely. When you are that poor you think of your next meal, not the possibility of playing the Hammersmith Apollo in five years.

Or is "posh" about having a good education? Well, yes, partly. The problem here is that it looks like less people will be having a good education in the future. University applications are already down since fees shot up. It was the grammar school system and free university places that did the most for social mobility in the past and gave opportunities to the likes of Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett. Where is the next Alan Bennett going to come from if he can't get a decent grounding in English literature at school or afford a place at Oxford?

Anyway, here is the original piece with a few updates. I doubt if it will please the people who objected to it the first time but at least there are less grammatical errors.

 

I'm writing this in the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall. I'm sitting on the floor because all the seats are taken. Mostly, it seems, by elderly people using the free heating to keep their bills at home down or young people using the free wi-fi. On a day when savage welfare cuts kick in and money gets tighter for the poorest edges of society I can only see the Festival Hall foyer getting busier.

Which makes me wonder what that will do to comedy. There is already a sign that comedy is getting posher. Miranda Hart and Jack Whitehall spring to mind, but there are others on the horizon too. Totally Tom (pictured) picked up a Foster's Award nomination a couple of years back and have a run at the Soho Theatre later this week. They are old Etonians Tom Palmer and Tom Stourton – the latter is the son of newsreader Ed Stourton and descendant of Baron Stourton. Not that Tom Stourton can compete with Alexander Armstrong, who is descended from William the Conquerer, thus making Stourton seem like a pleb.

I'm not for a moment saying that Totally Tom are not funny or that they don't deserve success. Like the other names I mention in this piece, they are more of a symptom rather than a cause. I've seen them and they positively bristle with ambition and confidence as they rattle through different characters in their show. But that confidence may quite possibly come from a good education and a sense that the world is their oyster. Will ambitious comedians whose parents are claiming whatever benefits are still around in the next few years have the same confidence?

In the past there was a case that poverty helped to produce good art. Starving poets and painters in garrets and all that. In the eighties - note, under Margaret Thatcher – the Enterprise Allowance Scheme, around £40 a week which gave small businesses a financial kick start (and, what pleased the Tory government, reduced unemployment figures) was used by twentysomethings as an unofficial Arts Council grant which could top up earnings. I wonder if a few of the millionaire comedians filling our screens may have used this hand-out in the youth (update - Dave Gorman tweeted me to say that he was on the scheme in his youth, though he is not a millionaire filling our screen. Since his Tweet it has been announced that Gorman has a new series on, aptly, Dave, so good luck with that Dave)

This is not to say that comedy hasn't always been populated by the wealthy and or the posh. Fry and Laurie, most of there other Footlights graduates. Even George Formby had a comfortable upbringing because his father was a rich, successful performer. On Twitter I pointed to Bob Monkhouse, who went to Dulwich College, Dave Gorman pointed to Jimmy Edwards, Graham Garden, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Joyce Grenfell, Michael Bentine & Graham Chapman (Dave, I'm not sure about Chapman, according to the recent movie his parents were pretty boring suburbanites, which i think makes him middle class). 

Of course there have been posh comedians in the past. Dave Gorman also suggested that one could pick any type and make a similar argument so I replied by listing five current big working class comics – Gervais, Flanagan, Kay, Manford, Bishop. But this is exactly my point. They came through in an age very different to the one today. Gervais' ambitions were broadened by a free university place. Flanagan had done lots of jobs and adult education before he risked stand-up. Bishop had made some money already and had hit a mid-life crisis when he turned to gags. Kay and Manford both got kickstarted by doing college courses. Would any of these people be able to follow the same path into comedy now? I'm not so sure. 

My argument is that although there have been posh comedians in the past there is definitely a current trend towards the privately-educated and well-raised and it is partly caused by the recession, which is resulting in less social mobility and less ambition. The arts are in danger of becoming more of a preserve of the privileged. The phenomenon has already been noted in acting, where various Old Etonians such as Dominic West, Damian Lewis, Tom Hiddleston and Eddie Redmayne (and old Harrovian Benedict  Cumberbatch) have done pretty well. I should imagine Eton's drama department is somewhat better equipped than the country's damp Grange Hill sheds..

Of course Jack Whitehall is a gifted comedian and after a few years when he struggled to find his own voice, sounding at times like the result of a test tube concoction of Stewart Lee and Russell Brand, he has embraced his inner poshness and made that his selling point. This though in itself is an indictment of life in Britain today. There was a time when comedians would hide their roots. In his early days Ben Elton played up his gobby street creed and kept quiet about his academic ancestor, historian Sir Geoffrey Elton. These days the likes of Miles Jupp and Will Smith do not feel the need to go to de-elocution classes

So where does comedy go from here? Of course it will continue to be diverse. Of course there will be comedians from different backgrounds breaking through. There is a pure, Darwinistic meritocratic element to stand-up and if you do stick at it and you are any good you should be discovered whether you have a silver spoon in your mouth or a Greggs meat pie. But comedians from better backgrounds have a bit of a head start. Maybe they can afford to do a comedy course. Maybe their parents have a big enough house so that they can live at home and work on their material all day rather than have to do a poorly paid job to support themselves and pay for their accommodation. It is not that a working class comedian cannot break through, it just may not be as easy.  

What strikes me most of all is that there was a time when being posh was slightly embarrassing. You might have had money but you would never have any credibility. Now, with Made in Chelsea and the likes of Hart and Whitehall becoming cool those days are over, for the time being at least. These days there is no shame in being posh. Interestingly Armstrong and Miller once suggested in an interview with me that their career had been held back because they were perceived as posh and, presumabkly by extension, not what the viewers wanted. That doesn't seem to be a problem to them any more. In fact they have even called their production company Toff Media. Ironic, of course, but it still feels a little like a swipe at the oiks from Scumbag College.

 

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