Thursday, 12 March 2015

Death of a Clown

Whether engineered or not, "punchgate" looks like a convenient opportunity for the parting of the ways between Jeremy Clarkson and the BBC. Though still popular with young boys, Top Gear's healthy foreign sales, like Clarkson's increasingly desperate attention-seeking, are a clear sign that the vehicle is now running on fumes. While the Beeb might try and refresh the cast, like Last of the Summer Wine, it might equally just cut to the chase and create an entirely new series where ageing men are set ridiculous challenges in which pratfalls and hilarity ensue, like Last of the Summer Wine. The cast are obviously rich enough to retire, while writing gigs in the Tory press will satisfy the urge to take the ego out for the occasional spin.

In historical terms, Jeremy Clarkson successfully recycled and combined two particular strands of British humour: the casual bigotry of The Comedians, which had provided an "authentic" working-class contrast to the whimsy of middle-class comedy in the 1970s; and the sarcastic tone and overt political content of 1980s alternative comedy, which he repurposed to misanthropic ends long before the graduates of The Comic Strip started moaning about the Mansion Tax. Of course, the comedians of the northern club circuit in the 70s were never truly authentic, in the sense of reflecting their audience. Their reactionary "plain-speaking" reflected the comedians' own position as small businessmen: anti-government, anti-tax, pro-golf etc. Politically, they were less representative of the punters than the lunchtime strippers.

Born to a small businessman and a teacher in Doncaster in 1960, and starting out as a journalist on local newspapers, Clarkson was very much a product of the same milieu, albeit with middle-class pretensions - hence the private schooling. In many respects, he is far more representative of "Middle England" than Nigel Farage. If the UKIP leader is a de haut en bas populist who appeals to the social and geographic margins that regret the end of the twentieth century, Clarkson is a right of centre Tory loyalist who is comfortable with big capital, hierarchy and abroad (the Chipping Norton set are instinctive supremacists, not xenophobes). As an ideologist, Clarkson helped maintain the fiction of political correctness as an external imposition, particularly in the form of health and safety "gone mad", at a time when big capital was pushing for greater regulation as a deliberate strategy for the car industry. We have much safer cars today for the same reason we have fewer manufacturers and more automated factories.

British comedy has traditionally relied on innuendo and puns. This produced a range of styles in the twentieth century as comedy migrated from the stage to radio and TV, from the mock-offended (Frankie Howerd) through the befuddled (Tommy Cooper) to the cynical (Les Dawson). Arguably the most successful variant was the tease, the comedian who threatened to cross the line into outrage but never quite did, its most famous exponent being Max Miller. The basic dynamic of comedy - that "we" can safely laugh at "them" - meant that the jokes became increasingly vicious as the range of acceptable topics broadened and social tensions mounted from the 1960s onward. This was obvious not only in the "blue humour" of the clubs and the casual racism and misogyny of The Comedians, but in the increasing contempt shown by comics in the 70s for organised labour and the Irish.

Alternative comedy was a conscious response to this bigotry, but it was also a class project. Thatcherism allowed liberal middle class comedians who hadn't qualified for Footlights to indirectly patronise the working class for their material aspirations and ignorance. Clarkson took the political position of the 70s comedians and overlayed it with the style of the alternative comedians of the 80s. His persona was a mix of Lennie Bennett and Bill Hicks - including the hair of the former and the dress sense of the latter. His delivery was modelled on the classic tease, but done in a deliberately laconic, louche manner: mouthing the "n-word", employing ambiguity ("slope"), using "gay" as a derogatory term etc. This allowed a wide range of viewers either to imagine that Clarkson secretly shared their own prejudices or to excuse his flirting as ill-judged but essentially harmless.

It might appear odd that the BBC should take a dim view when he acts according to type. After all, they don't pay him handsomely for his opinion on cars but for his entertainment value. And while the essence of Top Gear is three privileged, middle-aged men playing at being kids again, it is clear that the show's popularity has much to do with the tension arising from the expectation that head boy Clarkson will skirt the border of acceptability. But taking a swing at someone during a tantrum is another matter entirely, even if it is behaviour consistent with a spoilt brat. Stepping over the line into physical abuse is not the sort of thing that the post-Savile BBC can take lightly. The question is, did Clarkson actually land a punch, or is this, in the style of a 1970s stripper on a Saturday lunchtime, just another tease?


  1. Not really on point, but the acceptability of lamping your colleagues has declined. About 15 yrs ago, I worked at a law firm where the annual five-a-side inter-departmental contest reguarly resulted in a punch-up, and a game against clients ended up with physical threats, against them. (Clients weren't too bothered -"our lawyers are more bastards than your lawyers", they told their rivals.)

    Amazing the way less drink and more women have changed things. Probably more competitive now, but technical ability has replaced lamping.

    1. I think your sample is perhaps a little small. I've worked in variety of workplaces over the past twenty years, and at every single one punching a colleague would have resulted in instant dismissal.

      "Annual five-a-side inter-departmental contests" on the other hand generally take place off premises and out of work time. As do works nights out. I doubt behaviour has improved particularly much in those areas. Plus, five-a-sides still don't involve many women, and works nights out still do involve a lot of drinking.

    2. Fair, but I later worked at another law firm where the post room boys had a punch-up on site - no dismissals. A few years later, the same firm dismissed someone on the same day for laying a finger in someone else, even though he had resigned some time ago for unrelated reasons and had about a week of his notice to go.

      I'm not supporting workplace lamping - I am very much in favour of the fact that it has, in my personal experience, become increasingly unacceptable.

  2. Herbie Kills Children15 March 2015 at 11:42

    You did well to not mention Jim Davidson in this article!

    I personally am against this lets fire them culture. I think people should be giving multiple chances and the culture should be one of resolving issues not by firing someone but by getting people into a room.

    I think firing someone should be a rare occurrence. I see a trend that wants to make hiring and firing as easy as saying, get me a coffee (to which my reply would be get your fucking own)

    1. As I understand it, the Top Gear team's contract is up shortly, so I think this will be a case of non-renewal rather than dismissal. The suspicion is that Clarkson's tantrum revealed a desire to sever relations with the Beeb, but to do so in manner that avoids damage to his self-esteem - i.e. he has chosen martyrdom rather than be let go.

    2. Exactly. Effectively the only way Clarkson could have lost out in this furore was for the media to decide it was a non-story and not to report it. This was highly unlikely given that he is both a high profile celebrity and a darling of the right-wing press, who will continue to give him lucrative opportunities to fill column inches with his prejudices.

      @Herbie- the problem is that people like Clarkson who cultivate a certain profile are given much greater leeway than others. He has already accumulated a string of 'misdemeanours' yet is regarded as untouchable by many. To portray him as the victim of a hiring-and-firing culture is ridiculous.

  3. Herbie Kills Children15 March 2015 at 18:33

    "To portray him as the victim of a hiring-and-firing culture is ridiculous."

    I wasn't doing this, simply making a general and universal point.