“You Northerners are just naturally funny aren’t you?” people say, citing the rich comic heritage that comes into their heads- from Hylda Baker and George Formby, Gracie Fields to Victoria Wood, Peter Kay to Les Dawson and Johnny Vegas.
I look at them in a po faced way and say “But no aspects of human life are natural. All identities are performances that become identities through being repeated according to theorists like Judith Butler”. People edge away then, suspecting that there may be something in this allegation that doing a Doctorate in comedy sucks all the joy out of it…
I am questioning everything that we think we know about Northern Englishness and comedy. But sometimes it feels like strangling a kitten. Isn’t it a great thing for part of the country to be known for its warmth, friendliness and humour?
Yes- but what if that humour doesn’t translate into as many comedy awards as for people from other regions who are more likely to be recognised for the way they play with form and innovate? Only ten per cent of the big Edinburgh comedy awards have been won by comedians from the North of England for example. Only ten per cent of the guests on Have I Got News For You have been from the North of England (and Ross Noble accounted for a big chunk of those appearances).
It’s not that Northerners aren’t visible in comedy though. The two strongest strands of Northern stand-up are the Everyman or Everywoman voice and the Surreal Outsider. Firmly in the Everyperson category are Peter Kay and Jason Manford, Sarah Millican and Victoria Wood- some of the most popular comedians of modern times. Then in the Surreal Outsider category we have Ross Noble and Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer. But it can be hard for performers to be recognised if they don’t fit into these categories.
I also don’t accept that there is a particular quality to Northern humour. On the live circuit I encounter every type of comedian you could think of. But there are certain qualities associated with Northernness that then get entangled with the humour that makes its way onto the telly and the radio.
One way to success as a Northern comic? Be working class. There is still often an automatic association of a Northern voice with a working class one- no matter how many people you see coming out of Booths (the Waitrose of the North) carrying one of their bags saying “Preston not Heston” or “Cumbria not Umbria” and filled with Balsamic vinegar and pesto.
Another way is to be lower middle class- that is, to be between classes in such a way that your cultural homelessness makes you well placed to comment on the quirks of everybody else. Alan Bennett does this, Al Read did, and of course Victoria Wood (despite many of the obituaries in Southern newspapers describing her as working class purely on the basis of her Northernness). The BBC also finds many a use for the Northern poet because they’re able to make a high-brow medium like poetry sound more accessible- simply with a well-placed flat vowel. Radio 4’s main poetry presenters are Liverpool’s Roger McGough and Barnsley’s Ian McMillan – with Simon Armitage popping up very frequently (and the occasional appearance by the likes of me).
George Bernard Shaw said that England was the only country in which someone could make others despise them simply by opening their mouth- he was referring to the cultural snobbery that still attends to class as read by accent. Ever since public schools promoted Received Pronunciation as the acceptable form of standard spoken English and the BBC took this on when it started in the 1920s, the Northern accent has been the voice of the comic and the lower-status. Leeds poet Tony Harrison famously railed against this in his poem “Them and Uz” – remembering his school teachers trying to change his voice: “You’re one of those Shakespeare gives the comic bits to” and designating poetry as not for the likes of him.
It is commonly not quite recognised that there is still a lot of snobbery around a Northern voice. Teesside’s Steph McGovern has had to fight battles in her job as BBC Breakfast Business reporter – from bosses who told her accent made her sound stupid to viewers writing in asking her to have elocution lessons. Academic Katie Edwards found that fellow academics would mock her Mexborough accent and so then surveyed others with regional accents. Interestingly the men tended to keep and strengthen theirs but the women would lose them in order to be taken more seriously.
So- it is in some ways an advantage to have an accent in which you’re not taken seriously if you’re a comedian. But nowadays, with the admiration for Stewart Lee’s innovations with the stand-up form and prizes available for those who are seen to be going beyond making people laugh to be recognised as “comic artists” then I would argue that a Northern accent is a disadvantage. There may be a double whammy of this if you’re a woman. There has been very little academic attention paid to Victoria Wood for instance, despite her virtuoso skill and technique, whilst Sarah Millican’s determined quiet radicalism on the subject of the expectations placed on women, is often lost amid comments about her earthy, bodily humour.
Meanwhile for those male Northern comedians whose physical qualities remind people of the Working Men’s Club comics of the seventies like Bernard Manning, then they have to fight to be recognised as doing something different. As Justin Moorhouse said recently, he’s a fat Northerner with a gruff voice- people are going to think of Northern club comics. It is a frustration though. The comedy circuit now is a very different place from the sexist, racist arenas depicted on seventies telly shows like The Comedians and the Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club. Often, despite their focus on entertaining people, Northern comedians can be a voice for sections of the population who feel far away from the socio-economic booming vortex of London. A voice asserting the particular identity and history of the resistantregions- only for that voice to be denigrated by metropolitan comedy critics making the perennial insulting association between lower social class and lower intelligence.
The feeling of being seen as stupid was one of the things that rankled most with the 25 Northern stand-up comics and poets I’ve interviewed for my PhD. Also of being stereotyped and pigeonholed as unmodern and behind the times. But at its best, stand-up can be a place to showcase the true diversity and potential of the modern North, in a way that’s far more real and resonant than the top-down place making of the Northern Powerhouse.
From Blackburn Muslim Tez Ilyas and Geordie Hindu Rahul Kohli, navigating the terrain of racists and rude boys, to Skelmersdale’s Jackie Hagan and Bolton’s Sophie Willan talking back to stereotypes about working class women, from Geordie Gavin Webster to Hull’s Lucy Beaumont taking on stereotypes about their home regions and turning them on their head, from Manchester’s Lemn Sissay providing an alternative narrative to the white Indie kids of the city and Ismaa Almas speaking up for a Bradford behind the headlines- there is power and resistance in the comedy and poetry of the North and it might help hold the key to something new emerging from our post-Brexit landscape…
Kate Fox. @katefoxwriter