Working class Pt. 2 The Arts.

There’s been much written in recent times about it being harder for working class artists to break through in their field. From problems with a lack of much needed money to gain access to education, to a general feeling that many of the fields are now being dominated by the privileged. I.e. those with money (or their parents money) to spare.

It’s not new the prejudices against the working classes in the arts. Over centuries it has been debated that Shakespeare didn’t write his own work because he was of too lowly a standing. To me the idea it was written by someone of nobility is ridiculous. Why would a noble in all their comforts have to strive to produce the best they could? They can just fall back on being…err…noble.

I think it’s certainly worth noting that just recently we lost two working class giants of their craft in David Bowie and Alan Rickman. Bowie himself left school with little qualification but did attend one of the many now eradicated 60s art schools. Rickman received sponsorship and a scholarship to get him started. All great supportive avenues for us ordinary folks to gain access to arts, now all gone.

On a personal level as a comedian I’ve certainly seen a hell of a lot of class bias in my own industry. Sometimes it’s prominent critics who hear a northern or working class voice and immediately dismiss whatever is being said as “club comedy” A now derisory term invented by a London based, self anointed comedy policeman. It’s a weird term as much comedy comes from and is created in clubs. Sure I understand that comedy designed to please those on a night out isn’t perhaps best suited to a festival going punter. But if that comedy does turn out to actually rock a festival crowd with laughter then surely it’s of some merit somewhere along the line? According to many critics absolutely not. And who is it we find most adept at this type of comedy? That’s right, working class comics. Because it was a working class crowd the comedy was created in front of. Yeah…but what are the working classes doing at an arts festival? This seems to be the notion behind such thinking.

In an attempt to not be judged as just a “club comic” I personally now write social and political comedy or satire as it can be known. How many working class voices have you heard over decades on telly or radio tackling that stuff? No, it would seem some forms of comedy are only to be uttered by those folks in the middle. What would a working class person know about the real issues? I was actually told once by the head of BBC comedy North, and I quote, “Look there’s a lot of good stuff here but you’ve got a wall of Oxbridge school tie to get over before anybody will look at it.” Do we hear a lot of working class voices on BBC Radio 4? Well I suppose sometimes we do, but usually they’re not being spoken by working class artists.  All this does beg the question what would someone from Oxbridge know about the vulnerability of life at the bottom. Or as we would call it, “the real issues.”

It used to be different.  The working classes were celebrated on TV and radio in the 70s and 80s. But for every Boys From the Black Stuff there’s now a Shameless. For every Alf Garnet there’s now Mrs Brown. We’ve been moved sideways in our portrayals from pathos to panto and nobody seems to have noticed it happening.

But it’s not all a negative picture we have here. My dad and many others were always ready to offer the advice for anybody wanting to study the arts, “You need a trade to fall back on.” Bizarrely as I head off to do a degree in Drama and Script this year I do have a trade to fall back on…the performing arts.

The problem with such thinking is those with something to fall back on will invariably fall back on it. If those coming from a more comfortable background can always opt out and go home, then home is where they will go. Working class kids can’t just up tools and go home. That’s actually their greatest asset. Once they enter the arts with nothing to fall back on…they are home.

Once you do find that home I would pay little attention to those outside performance or writing or music or busking who try to justify their existence by intellectualising the game. Art doesn’t come from the brain, it’s from the heart. That’s exactly what your audience will pay for. It’s an expression of joy and awe. Speak up, stand up…shout at the teacher.


Working Class. Part. 1. The work.

So I did a gig last night that was really badly organised, not my type of audience, was graft from start to finish and didn’t pay nearly well enough, but as they say, “beats working for a living.” If only you knew…

I am from a working class background. Prior to entering working life as an apprentice printer I was pretty much forced to attend Boys Brigade meetings every Friday evening while my mates were out playing chap door run and setting off fireworks. The reason I was made to do this from about age 8-16 was my mum insisted it would help me find a job. She was actually right. Not everything in the BBs was bad but there were certain things that my then blossoming “problem with authority streak” found pretty hard to stomach. The captain of our squadron of around 60 teenage boys was obsessed with winning a thing called the drill cup. A competition in which BB squadrons from all over Scotland did formation marching to prove how brilliantly potentiated young Nazis they’d make. So marching up and down in formation every week for an hour was standard. Yee fucking Ha! It wasn’t so much this I had the problem with but the lengths this insane BB captain was willing to go to win the bloody thing. There was a very fat lad in our group who had a tendency to waddle when marching that didn’t meet the standards required of our glorious Capitan. So every week he was made to sit on his own at the side while the rest of us marched for an hour. Dreadful I know. You can imagine the humiliation the poor guy went through. Had he went nuts with a shotgun one week I would’ve been totally on his side. I heard later in life that the Capitan who subjected this young man to this weekly torture went on to have a massive nervous breakdown. I was delighted.

So I reach 16. Much to my chagrin my dreams of being a drama student are now thoroughly suppressed and the path of hard realities of my working class destiny have been well and truly drummed into my skull. You can romanticise all you like about  Billy Elliot but had he grown up in my town someone would have broken his fucking legs.

I got an apprenticeship as a printer. Not a bad achievement as a month before the careers advice officer at school had been determined to get me on a YTS (Youth Training Scheme) These were essentially forced labour for dole money with no prospects of employment at the end. Myself and my fellow factory fodder were so amazed at said careers chap enthusiasm for these schemes that we were convinced the government were paying him a small bonus for every teenage scalp claimed.

Printing isn’t a bad job but I was in a very specialised line of it. Essentially this meant I’d be highly but very specifically trained and finding similar work elsewhere would’ve meant leaving the country.  Essentially my fate was to spend the next 50 years in the same factory. Fuck that!

Day one at work was interesting. The first man I was introduced to (for to me that is what they were as I was a boy) grabbed me bent me over a table and pretended to bum me. Awesome I thought…this is going to be just like school. Also much to my amazement I discovered that all apprentices taken on over the past five years had been in the Boys Brigade. Which I now realise was kind of like a junior Masons.

I wasn’t a bad printer and prided myself in my high level of output. Factory work like anywhere is littered with bad politics but that suited my ever-growing problem with authority. Eventually this was put to a decent cause. There’s a lot of bad chemicals associated with that job.  Above all our printing presses was a ventilation system for removing the cancerous ozone that the ink drying system produced. Ozone smells like see air. If you can smell it at work this is a bad thing. Our particular ventilation system had been built not by experts in this area but by the factory engineers who were employed mainly for general repair. Bit’s of it were genuinely held together by Sellotape. Needless to say the start of everyday at my work smelled like a day trip to Blackpool.

So after much argument, harassing my union rep and coughing fits the management finally rescinded their cancer master plan and proper ventilation engineers were brought in. They were horrified at what they saw.

So the day comes to start installing this life saving equipment. What happened next may leave you stunned at our managements general disregard for human life and safety. Then again if you worked in a factory in the 80s…probably not.

To install the ventilation a scaffolding had to be built right over my printing press. This meant men were to work directly above a large piece of moving machinery. As the guys were setting up I reassured the workmen the machine would be stopped while they worked above it. That’s when a spotted a certain disconcerted look come on their faces. “Actually mate we’ve had to reassure your boss we’re willing to work above the press while it runs. ” One of them tells me. “Are you fucking mad.” Or something along those lines I replied. Eventually I find out that their boss has reassured our boss it’s ok to work like this and it’s on that condition their contract has been secured. Please understand if they or anything should have come off that scaffold into about 4 tons of moving bits the results would have been deadly.

“Not a problem I reassure them.” And once they were up on the scaffold I nonchalantly dropped a spanner into a bit of the press where not too much damage would be done. Back this up with a story about how it had fallen off the scaffold and disaster was subversively averted.

Knowing what I now know about life for working folks nothing about this story amazes me. But I am happy in the knowledge that some of the guys I used to know still work there. I hope they appreciate that clean air.

PS  Oh…and yes we did win the drill cup.