Britain’s most offensive comedian faces local council bans – here’s why that is not something to support.
Roy Chubby Brown is, for the benefit of anyone outside the UK, a Northern English comedian who might best be described as ‘old school’. At the height of alternative comedy, when the stand-ups of the 1970s were being swept from our screens and our consciousness, Brown – real name, famously, Royston Vasey – built a huge following despite never appearing on TV. The reason for both his huge fan base and the media fatwa against him was due in large part to his ‘blue’ content (‘blue’ being itself a strangely old-fashioned description for unremittingly adult content), but also because he was even then out of time – while alternative comedians could get away with swearing profusely, even on TV, Brown’s jokes were decidedly un-PC – cracks about ethnic minorities, homosexuals, women and what have you, the sort of thing that had them roaring in the aisles in the Seventies but were now seen as decidedly suspect. Brown was as unfashionable a comedian as you could get, but – perhaps as a precursor to current hand wringing about Brexit and Trump – was also hugely popular with working-class audiences who increasingly felt that the opinions of the middle classes and metropolitan chin-strokers were running roughshod over their own concerns and tastes. So he would sell out tours, his live videos were bestsellers – much to the bemusement of Guardian readers – and he has maintained a devoted following to this day. His feature film UFO is widely dismissed as one of the worst British films ever made but was massively popular with audiences who would never read Sight and Sound. For both sides of the Chubby divide, trying to understand the other is much like trying to read a book written in Japanese without any knowledge of the language. Both sides of this cultural divide are amazed that the other exists at all, and both view these alien people with deep suspicion and loathing.
Brown’s live tours have never been without controversy, but it has been rare for theatres to ban him. Recent tours, however, have seen him banned from performing in council-owned venues in Swansea and Newcastle, and he’s now the cause of consternation in Middlesborough – not a place you might think of as the height of middle-class delicacy. But it would seem that Middlesborough Town Hall’s arts venue is this week’s ground zero in the culture wars.
Programming at the venue is down to the rather grand-sounding National Portfolio Organisation (NPO), which ensures Arts Council funding and other financial backing aimed at pushing the right sort of art at people. Clearly, Roy Chubby Brown is as far removed from the right sort of art as you can get. And indeed, Brown’s management claimed that he had been banned from performing at the venue on his next tour. Middlesborough Council admitted that Brown had been refused permission to perform at the venue, ostensibly because his 2015 show had sold few tickets – a commercial value judgement that we suspect is not applied to events across the board – though the real reason seemed to slip through later in the statement when they said that his show is at odds with drives to improve the diversity of the town hall’s programming. ‘Diversity’ in this case presumably stopping at ‘working-class oiks who enjoy rude and offensive comedy’, even though the Arts Council of England’s Creative Case for Diversity specifically requires organisations to “address barriers to wider cultural engagement with their audiences.” I suspect the audience that is Bown’s bread and butter is precisely the sort of people who are not widely engaged with by taxpayer-funded arts venues by and large, and so should at least occasionally be catered for.
It’s not a stretch to think that the people running the theatre would not be Brown’s audience. Of course, they might – almost certainly would – say that it is Brown’s racism and sexism and homophobia that is dangerous, while Brown’s supporters would doubtless say that he is mocking everyone equally and not pushing some white supremacist agenda. I’ve never seen a Roy Chubby Brown show or his movie – he is not, I have to say, remotely to my taste – and so I can’t honestly comment on just how wildly offensive or hateful he is. But notably, in an age where you can be convicted of hate speech for an online joke involving a Nazi pug, he has never been arrested – so there’s that in his favour I suppose.
Anyway, the Middlesborough tale became more complex when new Mayor Andy Brown stepped into unilaterally say that Brown “definitely isn’t banned” and that if his management came back with a few dates, he could be scheduled in for next year. This outraged Town Hall boss Lorna Fulton, who I think we can safely say is not a Brown fan, and who promptly resigned in protest. This is either a principled protest or a spot of throwing toys out of the pram, depending on how you see it – but if theatrical shows can only reflect the ideals of the person in charge of the venue, we should all find that a bit concerning. Everyone is offended by something after all, and if only one side of the cultural divide is allowed to be expressed, that doesn’t feel at all healthy. Today, it’s Chubby Brown. Tomorrow, it might be something that you like, but which local council busybodies don’t.
I’m happy never to see one of Chubby Brown’s performances, but I want that to be my choice. It’s hard to believe that Brown is dangerous – wildly offensive, perhaps, but unless he is literally preaching violent Neo Nazi propaganda or actively encouraging discrimination rather than just performing old fashioned working men’s club comedy on a grander scale, maybe he should be left to get on with it, and the great unwashed who enjoy his crass humour should be allowed to have their few pleasures without being lectured at by their social betters.
2021 update: somewhat inevitably, Brown’s 2022 tour has once again hit snags with local councils. This time, it’s Sheffield that is cancelling him from public performance, as his planned show at Sheffield City Hall has been pulled by the Sheffield City Trust. Trust chief executive, Andrew Snelling, said “we don’t believe this show reflects Sheffield City Trust values. We understand that some people will be disappointed with our decision but we must uphold the standards and values that we promote and expect across our venues.”
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