Norcott tells us why Radio Four is no longer funny

29 May

Where Did I Go Right? How The Left Lost Me by Geoff Norcott

When did comedy on BBC Radio Four become no laughing matter? And why has Labour lost the working class?

If Geoff Norcott were writing this review, he would now drop in a deadpan joke, just to reassure the reader, or readers, that he is not about to go all portentous on us.

He sounds nervous about not being funny enough often enough. For a comedian, this is a good fear to have, though at a personal level it must also get wearing.

There are laughs on almost every page of Norcott’s memoir. “I laughed out loud – Andrew Gimson, ConservativeHome” will not shift a single extra copy, could indeed reduce sales by suggesting that no decent, left-wing member of society would want to be seen dead reading this book.

All the same, I laughed out loud. And since I never quite believe recommendations of this kind – for it is more than possible that the reviewer is given to over-statement, or is trading favours with the author, or else has absolutely no sense of humour – here is a passage by Norcott himself.

His father, a one-armed trade unionist, has become seriously ill, and the family have gathered at the hospital, braced for bad news:

The consultant breezed in. You might think “breezed'” is already a verb loading the bases for bias but there’s no other way of describing it. She was in her early forties, seemed to be sporting a recent suntan and bore no hallmarks of someone about to deliver the kind of sombre news she was there to impart. As she checked the notes she seemed to remember the context and did a tilted head sad-face which reminded me of Jennifer Saunders in Absolutely Fabulous when she feigned melancholy with her daughter Saffie. 

She started with a decent level of gravitas, “So I’m afraid to say it is late-stage pancreatic cancer.”

We all stopped, breathed in and looked at one another.

Then, after a brief pause, the consultant added, “It’s the same cancer Patrick Swayze died of.”

I stared straight at her. It was such a bizarre thing to say. I didn’t know what she was getting at, whether she’d said that to shed light on the condition or if she was suggesting we, as a family, should be proud that our dad was going out with a relatively high-profile cancer twin. Meanwhile, Dad was staring so hard at the woman I was convinced he was about to turn the air blue.

“Who the fuck is Patrick Swayze?” he eventually asked, never especially up on pop culture.

“He’s the one from Big Trouble in Little China,” my sister explained.

“No,” I interrupted, “that’s Kurt Russell, he just looks like Patrick Swayze.”

If you enjoyed that passage, you will enjoy Norcott’s book. If not, not.

But this book is not just enjoyable. It also explains, without portentousness, why comedy on Radio 4 has stopped being funny, and why Labour lost the workers.

For Norcott is a comedian who alone among his trade, decided to come out as a Conservative. In this memoir he describes his journey, as Tony Blair would call it, from a dodgy South London council estate to voting Tory.

Looking back, he detects twinges of small-c conservatism even his his childhood. At the age of 11, he goes off to school, leaving his mother in her dressing gown, “smoking and gasbagging” with the other mums, who are sitting on the stairs adjacent to her front door:

“When I got back at 3.30 p.m. she was still sitting there, still in her dressing gown. I was livid.”

He remarks that this experience “has left me with a lifelong distrust of dressing gowns”.

He was certainly not ready to come out as a Conservative, but he does already have a “pathological fear of poverty”. His parents have got divorced, which makes their finances more precarious, but he admires the work ethic of his stepfather.

This, palpably, is the way to escape poverty, as long the state doesn’t take most of your money in taxes and hand it out to the idlers on the estate who sit around all day in their dressing gowns, getting more money from inactivity than they would from an honest day’s toil.

But I have slipped into preaching mode, which Norcott never does. His conservatism is more a matter of intimations than of moral certainties.

Those belong to the Left. His parents took every chance to reinforce the prevailing narrative that the Tories “don’t give a toss about normal people”.

Something about this doesn’t quite fit. Norcott, born in 1976, goes to Rutlish School in Merton Park, and while he is there, a former pupil becomes Prime Minister.

At the 1992 General Election, the Conservatives run a successful ad campaign addressing the charge that they don’t care about normal people:

“What did the Tories do with a working-class boy from Brixton? They made him prime minister.”

Norcott is not exactly a Major fan:

“Like most people in Britain at that time, my view was that I didn’t mind him. He inspired an almost ideological level of ambivalence.”

Yet when Major comes to speak at his old school, it turns out there is more to him than that:

“The staff at Rutlish, like at most teaching faculties, were overwhelmingly left wing. Coming off the back of the Thatcher years, they were quite open in their contempt for the Tories. And yet, on the night Major came, it’s fair to say he surprised everybody by charming their leftie pants right off them. ‘What an honest man,’ they eulogised. It was also noticeable that he had a particular effect on the ladies. Before his affair with Edwina Currie became public knowledge, the last thing you’d have had Major down as would’ve been a ‘playa’, but the female staff were disturbed by how charismatic they found him… As my mate Michael put it, having met him, ‘The bloke’s a fucking unit. He’s got shoulders like a cupboard.'”

Norcott observes that the Labour candidate, Neil Kinnock, “seems a bit of a pillock”, for example by saying “We’re all right!” in “a preposterous American accent” at “a needlessly glitzy and self-congratulatory rally in Sheffield”.

It is also harder, Norcott remarks, to become Prime Minister if you are “bald, ginger or Welsh”, and “Kinnock was all three”:

“I’m not saying those aversions are morally justifiable but part of the Conservative mindset is understanding the public as it is, not as you wish it to be.”

In the mock general election held at his school in 1992, the year Major astonished the pundits by winning, Norcott ran as a Liberal Democrat.

Not long after this, his mother loses the use of her legs, he has to spend a lot of time looking after her, and his predicted grades at A level slump.

Goldsmiths College, whose recent alumni include Damien Hurst, Blur and Tracey Emin, offers him a place to read English if he gets two Bs and a C.

He astonishes everyone, including himself, by getting three As, but goes to Goldsmiths anyhow, where he finds the corridors “full of toytown revolutionaries trying to save Cuba, whales and rainforests”, while “a lot of the people I knew back in Mitcham were still busy trying to save themselves and their families”.

For the first time, he realises that he is “properly working class”. When people look down on him he feels chippy, but when they are supportive he feels patronised.

He has one or two strange jobs in advertising, veers into becoming an English teacher, almost by accident starts a parallel career on the comedy circuit, and gets married to the love of his life, who suggests, when he has gone full-time as a comic and is casting around for new material, that he could make some jokes about becoming a Conservative.

Which he does. The joke is that he is the only Conservative comedian. The entire trade is monolithically left-wing, which is one reason (though he doesn’t bother, or is too tactful, to point this out) why Radio Four has ceased to be in the slightest bit funny (though I admit it may have started to be funny again: I reach with desperate agility for the off button whenever a supposedly comic programme is about to be aired).

We are being told what to think. Instead of being invited to laugh at the world as it is, we are instructed to hold the right opinions about the world as it ought to be.

The objection to the progressive package deal is not that the opinions are wrong, but that they are compulsory.

Puritans can’t bear the theatre, its frivolity, immorality and unpredictability. They yearn to shut it down, and somehow they have managed to shut it down on Radio Four, crushed beneath a leaden layer of self-censorship.

The subversiveness of comedy – which usually includes the absurdity of the comic, the willingness of him or her to look ridiculous and make jokes at his or her own expense – has been supplanted by a uniform and monumentally dull moral certainty.

Self-righteousness is not funny, but why waste one’s time getting into a row about it, when the only effect is to make one’s opponents more self-righteous.

As the 2015 General Election approaches,

“In the circles I moved in, it seemed it had been universally decided that no one agreed with austerity and unconvincing head of sixth form Ed Miliband would surely become leader of the world’s fifth largest economy.”

Instead of which, the Conservatives under David Cameron win an overall majority of 17. “WHO DID THIS?” Norcott’s right-on colleagues scream.

“11.3 million people,” he wants to reply, but is “hesitant about throwing sarcasm into an already febrile environment”.

The media devote a lot of attention to the “Shy Tory” phenomenon, but in Norcott’s view they overcomplicate the matter, for

“all that really happened was people had seen the increasingly vengeful moral certainty of the Left in full view since 2010 and had wisely decided to keep schtum.”

Norcott is not particularly keen on Boris Johnson, and says almost nothing about him in this book: “He’s not my kind of politician.”

But one cannot help reflecting, as one reads this account of the awakening of a South London Conservative, that one reason for Johnson’s success is his unrivalled ability to mock the solemn rule of virtue which the self-righteous hypocrites of North London are determined to impose on us.

Why did the BBC broadcast untrue claims about ConservativeHome?

20 Jan

This morning, on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Michael Burleigh – the eminent historian of the Third Reich – was introduced for a discussion of the future of Trumpism after Trump. Out of the blue, he announced he didn’t really want to talk about that, and launched instead into an exposition of a somewhat peculiar personal theory about British politics.

A hijack, he claimed, had taken place in the UK via a three-pronged assault identical to that seen in America. First was “dark money and rather sinister ideological think tanks”, second came entryism, “the way in which the equivalent of Africanised bees have invaded decent political parties, so you can see that in the Tea Party or ConservativeHome or other similar movements in this country”, and “third, last but not least, the role of fanatical talk radio”. All this produced a “populist” force which he went on to link to “various anti-lockdown movements” and which he lumped in with “the group of nutters who believe that coronavirus is transmitted by 5G masts or worse”.

Oh dear.

Obviously, this isn’t true. Indeed, just about every discernable ‘fact’ asserted is untrue.

ConservativeHome is a media outlet, not a “movement” of any sort. Hence we feature in the Today programme’s own round-ups of the press on a regular basis.

We aren’t the equivalent of the “Tea Party” or any “similar movement” in this country or any other, but a site with a great reputation, established over 15 years, of expert analysis and insight on conservative politics and the Conservative Party.

Our readership encompasses millions of people, ranging from Conservative members, MPs and ministers of every ideological stripe and tradition, to large numbers of people of many political alignments and none, who are simply interested in reading great writing about politics. The idea they or we are some form of “invader” or entryist force is bizarre and baseless.

As Burleigh was espousing his own conspiracy theories and shoddily trying to draw associations with Covid conspiracy “nutters”, he somehow failed to notice that it is our columnist, Neil O’Brien MP, who is currently the most prominent and vocal Westminster critic of those very people.

I don’t know how we came to feature in his imagination as some sort of sinister entryist campaign group, but – rather by definition – logic and facts are not required components in the architecture of such constructions.

He isn’t alone in finding it hard to reconcile electoral events which he dislikes with his firmly held beliefs about the world, and apparently genuinely buying into elaborate and outlandish theories which seek to explain away the discomforting clash between the two. In recent years, various other eminent public figures, armed with good reputations and media clout, have wrecked the former and misused the latter in a similar way, particularly since the 2016 referendum and 2019 General Election.

Burleigh isn’t the only one at fault. It was odd – to say the least – to hear the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme giving him a national platform to go down the rabbit hole in this way.

It’s bad enough to have a formerly serious historian wibbling on air, but worse that the BBC failed to correct, challenge or even try to balance it for the benefit of listeners. Martha Kearney’s reply to the section which misrepresented ConservativeHome was simply to say “Well that’s a very particular characterisation of populism” – a characterisation which was then implicitly accepted for the rest of the discussion.

We often hear about the BBC’s commitment to accuracy, and its fretting about political misinformation, but this morning it failed its responsibilities and its audience on both fronts. A correction and apology is clearly due; we have contacted Today to request exactly that, but have so far received only a vague “we recognise you are concerned” reply, in keeping with the Corporation’s familiar tradition of non-apologies. We’ll be pursuing it further.

In the meantime, if you would like to enrich your mornings with a daily dose of top-notch news, opinion and analysis – no licence fee required, no peculiar celebrity ramblings involved – you can sign up to our mailing list here.