By Neil Archer
On 29 March 2018 the UK was officially half way to Brexit. No one yet knows what Brexit actually means. A British Prime Minister who campaigned against Brexit exhorts her fractured nation to get behind Brexit. Is Brexit a joke, or a reality beyond laughter?
To mark this self-evidently momentous moment in our national history, a discussion on this subject took place at London’s Museum of Comedy. Entitled ‘Comedy, Populism and Brexit’, and co-ordinated by Brunel University’s Centre for Comedy Studies Research, the event drew on a series of talks by myself, political commentator and stand-up comedian Ayesha Hazarika, Ellie Tomsett, co-founder of the comedy and gender research network Mixed Bill, and Simon Weaver, Senior Lecturer in Media and Communications at Brunel.
Part-seminar, part stand-up, the discussion raised both some big laughs and some bigger questions about the role of comedy in the contexts of Brexit. How can the use of jokes and laughter challenge populist sentiment, or reinforce it? Is there a role for satire in taking on Brexit and its adherents? How might we understand pro-Brexit comedy? Does comedy bring us together, or divide us?
As Simon Weaver showed, the structure of Brexit is inherently a comic one. As a populist reaction it has been seen as a rejection of neoliberal globalisation, mobilised as such by right-wing proponents who see Brexit as an endorsement of neoliberal globalisation. Weaver’s call for more comic discourse in response to Brexit was an invitation to comedians and comic writers to disentangle the logical inconsistencies of EU withdrawal.
This exists in some sense, even if it is perhaps best exemplified by ex-pats such as John Oliver. Who is listening to such comedy though? One of the points made by Ayesha Hazarika, whose perspective comes from inside parliament and the UK news media, is that the respective sides of the Brexit debate are only listening to themselves. Comedy and political satire is in this respect a kind of ‘echo chamber’ which reassures affiliates of particular positions. The supposed ‘shock’ of Brexit was the response of an elite media and political class who could not understand the popular vote, because they had no idea who ‘the people’ were.
Hazarika responded in part to Ellie Tomsett’s argument for comedy as a type of affiliation, in which audiences, be they in live venues or across digital media communities, articulate their responses to Brexit in comic fashion. This is an important tool for popular dissent; though what, as was asked later, do we make of such humour generated for Brexit? And as highlighted by both Hazarika and myself, how wary should we be of affiliation if it separates as much as it unites?
As I suggested in my talk, focusing in this case on film and television comedy, all comedy is populist from one point of view; it’s just that Remainers assume theirs is the right point of view. Can anti-Brexit campaigning and comic discourses simply ignore the claims and circumstances underpinning the vote to Leave? Perhaps the troubling elephant in this particular room was that what makes us laugh is subjective rather than universal, and that confronting the divisive contexts of Brexit – rather than just shoring up the two opposing sides – is beyond the work of humour. Still, as I pointed out, the ability to laugh at yourself and your own viewpoints is sometimes the first step towards mutual understanding.
In any case, the discussion, like the Brexit negotiations, goes on. You can read the full text of my talk below. Thanks to all the panellists for providing me and everyone else such interesting food for comic thought, and thanks especially to Simon Weaver and Sharon Lockyer for inviting me along. And special thanks to Daniel Skentelbery and Dr Maria Flood for suggesting I look at This Country and Soft Border Patrol, respectively.
Not Walking, But Drowning (Is Brexit Comedy Possible?)
There’s a great moment in episode one of BBC3’s hit comedy This Country when Kurtan, one of our guides to this particular plot of British rural life, is extolling the benefits of the annual Scarecrow festival. It’s great for the village, he says. It’s the one time of year when everyone can get together and pretend they don’t hate each other.
Speaking via the only semi-fictionalised contexts of socially disenfranchised middle-England, this opening salvo in one of the BBC’s post-referendum comedy series felt unnervingly to the point. While it might well be that there are as many grey as black-and-white areas in the Brexit landscape – and I’d like to think about these shortly – the EU referendum felt to some extent like a line drawn between ideological viewpoints and feelings that accept no mediation.
Kurtan’s straight-faced comment hits home in fact because pretending we don’t hate each other may be an apt evocation of a time before Brexit, but one no less illusionary than this village’s display of social cohesion. Living as I do on an international and predictably pro-Remain academic campus in the middle of the largely pro-Leave Staffordshire, not far from the briefly-dubbed ‘Brexit capital’ of Stoke-on-Trent, my own dismayed response to the EU referendum was compounded by a pervading sense that as a country we were irrevocably divided. And while I had recently completed a book looking at comedy and British national identity, I suddenly found myself without a clear idea of what comedy should do in response.
I was made aware of this recently when watching Aardman’s latest film Early Man in my local Vue cinema in Newcastle-under-Lyme. Nick Park’s film, somewhat inappropriately, has been discussed as a Brexit allegory. In the film, a tribe of lowly-but-honest Stone Age Brits resist a pointedly French Bronze Age invader, by challenging his team of narcissistic continental individualists to a game of football. From my own admitted perspective as a pro-European and generally cosmopolitan film scholar, I saw Early Man, like much of Aardman’s work, as incorporating all representation into its carnivalesque and parodic sensibilities. Yet at the same time, I could also see its inherent parochialism. Looking around the cinema, as Dug and his team showed the pampered pros of Real Bronzio how football ought to be played, I wondered how differently the film was possibly being read. I left the cinema feeling slightly depressed. Had I just sat through an inadvertent ninety-minute propaganda film for Brexit?
I have no desire, I should add, to wallow today in a pro-European pity that some might reasonably say is simply hard cheese, sour grapes, or maybe just desserts. I’ll come back to these culinary matters later. For now, I want to say my Early Man viewing experience – one I also have watching This Country, or the recent return to Royston Vasey on the part of the League of Gentlemen team – was an important one, in terms of what it reminded me regarding the connection between film and television comedy, production, and issues of power. Especially with popular film, which is most often the fruit of years of development, context is more immediately significant to interpretation than its production intentions. Early Man would still be with us if Leave had had 2% more of the vote and Brexit had never happened. In which case, would the film become something else? The sort of harmless fantasy of British underdog spirit that our cinema has been trading in for decades? Probably. But without Brexit I would have never entertained the idea that the film could be seen as anything else, even if, in all likelihood, potentially anti-European sentiments could be stirred by it. If ignorance is bliss, I would of course have been happy to have had it this way, by definition it would not have occurred to me that things could be any different. But it would still have been ignorance.
During the year or so following the referendum, then, the questions I asked myself changed. From the indignant and incredulous ‘How did this possibly happen?’, I started to ask myself ‘How did I not notice this happening?’ Did I prefer not to see it? Or was I just swept up in a general mood to the extent that I couldn’t possibly see it coming? Like anyone of course who thinks of themselves as both rational and reasonable I don’t like the idea of being ‘swept up’ by anything. I suggest though, and this is more than just some sort of middle-class Remainer’s guilty soul-searching, that I need to entertain the idea that I was. And most importantly for this event’s concerns, comedy had a role to play in this.
In particular, and for the sake of generating discussion, I’d like to raise some questions about how we understand comedy and populism. However we might define the latter term, it always seems to me largely coloured – like comic discourses themselves – by particular cultural, political and intellectual distinctions, and above all questions of power. Whatever different ways we might identify populism – as, say, a broader mobilisation against the forces of globalised neoliberalism, or alternatively, as a catalyst for ethnic or religious nationalisms – it often tends to imply a ‘people’ from whom the speaker (especially if they are an academic) is removed. ‘Did populism cause Brexit’? Maybe – though this willingness to position the Leave vote’s 52% majority as riding the wave of a ‘populist’ tide begs the question what the other 48% were doing. Were we walking on water? Or just looking on from the side of the boat (the Titanic in this case)?
There is I think a danger in assuming that, just because a certain comic discourse targets all that the liberal and cosmopolitan mind holds to be abhorrent, that it is therefore immune from the more populist connotations of other ‘incorrect’ practices. Looking at a range of English comic films and television shows since the start of this century has indicated how prevalent the image is of the demonic or deranged rural or provincial ‘other’ (forerunners, even, of This Country’s shambolic horde). Grotesque representations of village or other ‘local’ constituencies, drawn as much on the archetypes of British horror film, abound – Edward and Tubbs, of course, in The League of Gentlemen; the vegetable-protecting village mob in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit; the satanic NWA in Hot Fuzz. All emerging during the New Labour era, from one view these exaggerated comic depictions inscribe a line between their notional viewers and the place they will not go. If we ‘get the joke’ here, by definition, we identify ourselves on the other side. We cannot be ‘them’; that is why ‘we’ laugh at them.
While in fact researching an earlier book on Hot Fuzz, I came across what struck me as a hilariously literal review of the film by the Daily Mail’s Christopher Tookey. When the villains of the film are uncovered, Tookey complains, ‘there is no real attempt to make their motives or methods believable’. But what really riles the Daily Mail’s critic is that Hot Fuzz jettisons the possibility of real satire or perceptiveness in favour of ‘an attack on the much-maligned burghers of Middle England’. The film in turn becomes another example, for Tookey, of the British media’s obsession with exposing the ‘supposedly sleazy realities that lie behind respectable facades’.
Tookey’s swipe at Hot Fuzz in particular, and the targeting of Middle England more broadly, now seems significant, for the simple reason that there is no real mediation between his views and those of the film, along with its implied ideal viewer (which may be someone like me). These particular burghers within the terms of the film deserve to be maligned, but they are grotesques. And like any other comic form, as Tookey’s review shows, the film’s representations divide. Whatever we might think of his opinions, Tookey is correct to imply that a film like Hot Fuzz is limited in terms of its ability to speak either to or about its objects of comic derision.
This is an important reminder that comedy, in the more visible mainstream at least, is shaped by certain expectations of what is feasible or acceptable to engage with, or indeed deride. Yet these frameworks for what can be articulated are slippery, especially when the supposedly fictional subjects of comic derision, and the notional ‘universality’ of a certain comic perspective, disavow their very specific political and partisan viewpoints. Of course such viewpoints form a vital basis for the energy and acuity of satire, the right to mock. The issue though is where the lines are drawn. As Andy Medhurst has discussed in his work on the comedian Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown, his career of profane humour that frequently targets minority and marginalised constituencies, has strong appeals to its audience’s sense of place and shared culture. Medhurst no doubt challenges some readers’ limits of acceptability by asking us to engage empathetically with a comic whose act, at the stage show he recounts, involved telling any hypothetical asylum seekers in the audience to ‘fuck off home’. But so much humour, from whatever political position, is always implicitly telling someone else to fuck off, because it is established around a shared understanding of culture or belief. It never occurs to us, subsequently, that there is anything intrinsically violent in doing this. It is just ‘common sense’. But Medhurst’s comparative point about Chubby Brown’s fans is that they feel exactly the same.
Where the hell, then, do we go from here? Maybe the point is more where and how comic discourse is directed. Jonathan Swift famously remarked that satire ‘is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everyone’s face but their own’: one reason why it arguably changes very little. When the mirror is turned on the bearer, though, it might have an effect. Another quote, this one from the old working-class comic in Trevor Griffith’s 1975 play Comedians: ‘We’ve got to get deeper than hate’. The medicinal properties of comedy are frequently extolled, though I suspect too much comedy, at least in popular film and TV, is more like a headache pill than an inoculation or a vaccine. Blasting the spectre of ‘populism’ or decrying 17 million fellow Britons may only set up other spectres as its mirror-image. As I think a show like This Country does so assuredly, there is scope for comedy to target the troubling allusions of its troubled constituencies, while also compelling us to understand its disillusionments. But it is also crucial that those implied ‘others’ to This Country’s comic subjects – the entitled and altogether reasonable viewer, looking on like an anthropologist – also has the wicked comic gaze turned upon him or herself. If not, those of us who think we walk on water will, I suspect, find ourselves drowning in self-righteous hate. And that, frankly, will not get us anywhere.
As something of a late thought, but turning finally to one very direct attempt at Brexit comedy, could we learn something from a series like Soft Border Patrol, the Northern Irish mockumentary about a special trans-national guard, set up to monitor the new political but physically non-existent border between the EU on one side and post-Brexit UK on the other? What is so distinctive about Soft Border Patrol is its resistance to confronting Brexit or its causes, but rather its strategy of taking it as a given of the near future (the show in this respect is as much science fiction as faux-documentary). The targets of its gently absurdist comedy are, instead, the bureaucratic processes of trying to police a border that does not physically exist: as the show’s refrain has it, ‘We’re here to patrol the border, and then let you through’. As such, its approach is not to take sides, but to comically undermine the feasibility and practical logic of Brexit itself as a political and administrative process.
Soft Border Patrol
Admittedly, it is in part mainland Britain’s status as an island that has shaped its willingness to remove itself from continental Europe. In Brexit-majority England, the absence of these porous borders between us and the rest of the EU denies the regular everyday contact that might make such comedy of incongruity and collision possible. All the same, Soft Border Patrol throws up an interesting option for Remainers to explore Brexit through comedy: rather than constantly look back in bewildered anger, we should look forward to a possible and bewildering future – and then maybe some sense might start to prevail.