Wednesday, October 28, 2020
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Colourless comedy

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I ENJOY the BBC radio comedy Clare in the Community,* which started in 2004 before BBC comedy was replaced by people calling themselves ‘stand-ups,’ mainly women as funny as a coronavirus cough. 

Clare is a hoot; the writing by Harry Venning is up there with The Men from The Ministry which entertained me as a child in 1962, as a teenager in the 1970s, and recently on BBC Radio 4 Extra. Clare is equal to Chambers, written by Clive Coleman and starring John Bird and Sarah Lancashire, broadcast from 1996-9, and even to Ed Reardon’s Week, the sad saga of an ageing writer trying to survive in competition with the poorly educated young. Clare has something extra: a sense of slight danger. No one could disapprove of a satire about bungling government officials or greedy second-rate lawyers, but Clare is daring enough to ridicule an incompetent, humourless social worker. Social services are ‘woke’ territory and writer Venning is aware that most people secretly feel that some social workers, like Clare, are pompous, smug and often blind to common sense. But that is where the risk ends; Clare is of course white and middle-class and not really very dangerous at all. 

In one episode she goes on a historical re-enactment weekend and struggles to deal with the sexism of the past. Her friend points out that the 17th century wasn’t sexist as ‘sexism wasn’t recognised’. ‘I can’t imagine what life would be like with four centuries of women’s rights just stripped away!’ Clare protests in disgust. ‘Have you never been to Yorkshire?’ her friend replies.

If you really want to cite a place in the UK where women’s rights are out of date by probably twelve rather than four centuries, surely you would say Southall, Tower Hamlets, or even more murky, Rotherham? Any of those would have made the joke pithier.  

‘Yorkshire’ fell flat with the audience, having all the resonance of joking about the weather in Skegness. But joking about any obviously non-white area of the UK would just never be done, even if it would be accurate and get a laugh of recognition and shock, which is what satire used to do. 

With the furious demands for equality ringing in our ears it is increasingly puzzling that it’s OK to demean poor old Yorkshire and its people, stereotyped as backward, old-fashioned and conservative. One might also read into that the tacit implication of rural and white. No one minds that anyone might lamely lampoon white, Christian Yorkshire people, but you must not make any joke which points a finger at a minority group, no matter how well the joke’s skullcap might fit.  

I once messaged a Private Eye cartoonist asking why he’d drawn a cartoon showing a mugging with all three perpetrators white. You used to see similar posters about theft on the London Tube. He said if he put a black character in, he’d ‘just get too much hassle’. This double-think leads to strange contortions, even to what the Left would term ‘racism’. A recent Private Eye cartoon showed a rough graffiti-covered street full of people ignoring social distancing. One group in baseball caps were labelled ‘Bros’ (the plural of ‘Bro’, a fellow black male) but they were white. Apparently, no colouring in is allowed. 

What the BBC recently termed ‘the protest community’ is furious at being bleached out of British history. Historian David Olusoga recently wrote in the Guardian that Africans have been living in Britain since the Roman Empire. This blanking out continues today according to Afua Hirsch, who made herself famous three years ago by demanding that Nelson be pulled off his column. She’s just written a book called On Race, Identity and Belonging on ‘why British history is so white-centred’. 

Things are not working out quite as Afua and her Bros and Sos hope; white British people are now too cowed and intimidated to depict or mention black British and Asian people, for good or ill, taking part in normal British life. Ethnic communities have been so keen to take offence that they have successfully self-excluded. Non-whites have put themselves beyond criticism, but in doing so they have intensified their invisibility. 

*The final series of Clare in the Community was broadcast last year but she lives on as a regular cartoon in the Guardian.

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Jane Kelly
Jane Kelly was a journalist with the Daily Mail for fifteen years. She now writes for the Spectator and the Salisbury Review.

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