Some things are predictable about the Edinburgh Fringe: it’ll rain, the ticket prices will have crept up again, by the end of your stay there you’ll have seen enough good stuff to not mind the hole in your bank balance and that someone will have a whinge about just how ‘lefty’ the whole thing is.
This year, the honour of providing that final ingredient falls to Mr Peter Whittle, writing in the Daily Telegraph under the oh-so-arch headline ‘Edinburgh Festival to feature smug Lefty Tory-bashing. Again. Yawn.’ This is the first time Mr Whittle’s work had crossed my radar, so I took the opportunity to have a skim through his Telegraph back catalogue. It’s something I’d strongly recommend doing yourself.
Mr Whittle, we are told, is the founder/director of The New Culture Forum. The good news is, that if Peter Whittle’s output is anything to go by, the New Culture will be poorly-written, ill-researched and predictable. Oh yes, he’s that good. When an online article straight-facedly carries the tags ‘Smug lefty comedians’ and ‘Smug lefty Radio 4’, genius is at work.
We could leave aside the school-boy factual howlers, well documented by the commenters on the original article, but given they serve to demonstrate just how heavily rooted in genuine research Mr Whittle’s work is, they are worth running through:
1) Starting an article with the words “The Edinburgh Festival looms…”, when it is published a mere twelve days after the start of The Fringe (which I assume he means).
2) “Richard Smith, Nick Doody and Stephen Carlin (who they?)”. Well, in one case, who they indeed. No-one seems to be able to trace a Richard Smith performing at Edinburgh. Does he mean Arthur Smith (who, thanks to researching this article, I know now went to school up the road from my house)? He’s not performing at Edinburgh, but he does have a brother called Richard – although he’s a doctor, not an anti-Cameron comedian. Oops. Oh, and we were lucky enough to catch Nick Doody’s show as our last before leaving Edinburgh and he certainly deserves no ‘who he?’ tag. Whilst Whittle has made me laugh almost as much as Doody, it has been for quite different reasons.
3) Introducing comedians by the names of ‘Marcus Brigstock’ and ‘Mark Steele’. Swap an ‘e’ and you’ll be there, Peter.
But enough of this easy point scoring. The central premise of Whittle’s article is that comedy (or, as he spells it ‘comedy’) is dominated by lazy, leftist, populist performers, who are interested only in attacking the Tories, or attacking Labour from the left. In his words: ‘For ‘cutting edge’, read smug, predictable, Leftish.’ This raises two questions: is it true, and should he/we care?
In response to the first question, I think Whittle is, whilst not wholly wrong about a slight leftwards bias, wrong about its nature and its dominance. In my experience of the Fringe this year, certainly the majority of the comedians I saw could be described as left-leaning, but that is at least partially through my own inclination to seek out politically aware comics whose general point of departure I’m likely to share. Now that’s almost certainly laziness on my part, but it’s my holiday, so I’ll do what I want. But even so, whilst I can’t claim to have seen any right-leaning comedy, there was plenty of non or barely political material to be found, and very enjoyable much of it was too: Stephen K Amos, Lucy Porter (quick dig at Jim Davidson and other Dubai tax evaders aside), Helen Keen, Ginger & Black, Paul Merton, The Boom Jennies. You don’t have to go and see shows called Is the Daily Mail Dead Yet (although you should). If there are no good centre-right comedians emerging, then that’s the centre-right’s problem. Perhaps if they didn’t have to put up with people like Whittle savaging their entire profession, more would lean that way. Or maybe its that people who make their living from observing the absurdities of the world tend to work out that those absurdities arise from the preservation of existing power relationships and prejudices. Or something.
But leaving such excuses aside, the truth of the matter is that Whittle is deliberately picking an easy target in the Edinburgh Fringe. Whilst there are big names there, the bulk of comedy at the Fringe is from lesser-known performers who aren’t in the mainstream and who certainly aren’t dominating comedy in the UK. When Mark Steel, Mark Thomas, Stewart Lee, Richard Herring, Jeremy Hardy and Marcus Brigstocke are playing nationwide arena tours including sell-outs at venues such as the O2, maybe Whittle will have a point. But this circuit, and almost the entire TV comedy output being dominated by broadly non-political comedians such as Michael McIntyre, Jimmy Carr, Ed Byrne and Al Murray (OK, I know Murray is sort of political, but as Richard Herring points out, a lot of his audience doesn’t seem to ‘get’ the irony). The Fringe is, by comparison, a real minority pursuit – as is Radio 4 comedy, Whittle’s other target. But even in Radio 4 land, most of the comedy output is of a pretty non-political nature. It would take true McCarthyite zeal to find leftist bias in ISIHAC or Just a Minute, although in Peter Whittle we may have the man for the job.
Whittle claims that the current crop of comedians fails to tackle what he considers to be the major issues of the day, thanks to their political prejudices. To be more accurate, he thinks they fail to tackle them because some of them don’t come to the same conclusion as he does. Why don’t they tackle Islamic fundamentalism, he whinges? Well, if he bothered to go along to see Marcus Brigstocke’s [sic] show God Collar, Whittle would find that a substantial part of the show is taken up with Brigstocke berating Muslims for (direct quote) “putting their women in bags”. This has, unfairly to my mind, earned him a two-star review in The Guardian. And he certainly wasn’t the only ‘lefty’ comedian to raise the issue. But I suspect that when Whittle talks about Islamic fundamentalism he means bombing those uppity Arabs, rather than female emancipation. And why don’t they satirise the environmental movement? Well, many do, particularly of its more ridiculous fringes. But perhaps the reason why ‘leftist’ concepts like environmentalism and multiculturalism aren’t that funny is because they are based on boring things like science and reason. It’s concepts such as bigotry, blissful ignorance and the whole world view of The Daily Mail that are funny, simply because they are grounded on such hilariously basic miscomprehensions.
So, Whittle’s complaints are based on a highly selective choice of what counts as dominant comedy. But even if he was right, should we care? Nope. The Fringe receives practically no subsidy (and what it does it will re-coup many times over in increased tourist revenues), so why should Whittle have any say as to what goes on there? In many ways, the Fringe is the free market at work – except it isn’t, because allegedly no-one makes any money, so it really ought to shut up shop. On Radio 4, as a license-fee funded organisation, Whittle has a right to an opinion (or a reckon, as David Mitchell would call it). But given the vast majority of BBC broadcast comedy is non-political, it would seem a little unfair if it did not transmit at least a little left-leaning comedy, especially as there is (according to Whittle) an awful lot of it.
Of course, Whittle represents a little cog in the wheels of what he and his ilk self-style as the ‘culture wars’. Feeling that it has won the economic battle, sections of the right are mightily peeved that they have ‘lost’ the battle of culture. Culture, in this instance, means a lot more than just comedy – or indeed painting, sculpture, theatre, film or opera. It is a Trojan horse for how society functions – and so long as anyone other than Jim Davidson and Mike Reid are pulling in crowds to comedy shows, there are those who believe that we are only one step away from a sandal-wearing, compulsory-abortion caliphate. It ought to be a laughable point of view, but the sad truth is that two key members of Boris Johnson’s administration subscribe firmly to this world view: Munira Mirza and Anthony Browne. This latter sits on the New Culture Forum’s Advisory Panel, along with the man who will probably be the next Education Secretary, Michael Gove MP. Be, at least a little bit, afraid.
However, if all the proponents of this world view are as ill prepared to put across their arguments as Peter Whittle, civilisation as we know it may yet survive. According to Mr Whittle
Much of the laughter these people generate is of the hollow kind one hears when an audience is determined to laugh simply to make a point, to show that it is onside.
I’d love to see his evidence for that assertion, as it certainly wasn’t backed up at any of the ‘lefty’ gigs I went to in Edinburgh. My advice to Peter Whittle is to buy himself a train ticket and attend a few Fringe shows. As for myself, the next time I’m watching Brigstocke, or Boyle (who isn’t really left wing anyway), or Doody, or anyone else of their ilk, my laughter will be that much harder: I’ll be thinking of Mr Whittle’s disapproving, why-oh-why face.