Laugh Like you Used to

Our writer finds some proper British comedy.

Southsea’s Gaiety Theatre in Portsmouth isn’t quite the ‘end of the pier’, as the old trope goes, but it is on a pier; looming over the shimmering Channel Sea this brisk Thursday evening – while paddle-boarders drift beneath the wooden boardwalk and Fitbit enthusiasts cascade down the wide Victorian promenade.

From the outside, it’s the picture of coastal serenity, but inside The Gaiety, the mood is voracious and indignant. Because underneath the stage lights, Jim Davidson is addressing his audience: ‘I don’t know about you,’ he booms at the crowd, ‘but when I turn on the telly, there’s a lot of comedians who I don’t find very funny. What we’ve got here tonight… is proper comedy.’

There are no prizes for guessing who Davidson is alluding to here. In recent years a new generation of TV-friendly comics has arisen, one which bears a striking resemblance to the ‘alternative comedy’ scene of the 1980s. Comics like James Acaster, Joe Lycett, Sara Pascoe, Nish Kumar et al have become near-on household names peddling a softer, ‘better’ kind of comedy. In their version of stand up, out-and-out gags seem to play second fiddle to likeable personas and agreeable politics. Jokes about Hinge dates and Conservative Party policy sit side-by-side, and they are able to apply this across a variety of forms; from sold-out theatres to panel shows, travelogues, sitcoms and branded content deals. Despite their leftist credentials, they are undoubtedly the ‘in crowd’ of British comedy. 

Whereas going to a Jim Davidson show is, in itself, something of an antisocial act. Davidson is surely one of the more disreputable characters in post-war British culture, a man who sends shudders down the spine of left-minded Britain. His most famous character is that of ‘Chalky White’, a fictional Caribbean man with a crudely drawn accent who becomes the butt of endless racial stereotypes. Modern comedians often talk about ‘punching down’, and Davidson has built a career on it – a motif best exemplified when he cancelled a show in 2003 because there were too many disabled people in the front row. According to a spokesman for Plymouth Pavillions, ‘Mr Davidson cited the fact that a proportion of his act was aimed at disabled customers, and that he would be unable to perform under these circumstances.’

Now aged 69, Davidson has also endured a chaotic personal life, struggling with cocaine and alcohol addictions, five failed marriages, being accused of (and half-admitting to) domestic abuse by his ex-wife and being questioned by Operation Yewtree. He also gave evidence at the trial of cocaine dealer Brian ‘The Milkman’ Wright, acted in a Peter Greenaway film and was thrown off reality cooking show Hell’s Kitchen for using the term ‘shirt-lifters’.

Aside from this show, his latest venture is an unlikely foray into subscriber media. Jim has brought the Red Scare model to the back-end of cable telly with his USTREME channel, where for £47 per annum, you can indulge in his personally curated content. Tonight at The Gaiety, there is a big promotional push for USTREME taking place. There’s a pamphlet under every seat and huge screens showing trailers for the channel. Its slogan is ‘laugh like you used to’ – and Davidson appears to have bought up the catalogues of his contemporaries, many of whom are now departed (Jethro, Freddie Starr) or simply unbroadcastable (before the show starts he assures the crowd that USTREME is the ‘only place you can watch Roy Chubby Brown on telly’).

Thumbing through the USTREME promo material are perhaps the highest concentration of men in short-sleeved shirts seen outside of a Mormon convention. They sit, pints at their chests; sporting Blue Harbour jeans, brown suede boots and unseasonal poppy lapel pins. Some of their wives have come along, too, all sparkly cardigans and freshly-blown hair. The table seats at the back are laden with huge pitchers and ice buckets of brown ale. This is a drinking crowd, evidently, and before the show begins Davidson alludes to some trouble in the crowd the night before. ‘Anyone who turns up drunk will not be admitted,’ declares the e-ticket.

The first act of the night is Ricky Lane, an old-school Blackpool comic who admits to looking like a ‘fat Harry Hill’. To my surprise, Lane avoids most of the culture war schtick and drops a few killer lines. ‘I met a fella outside… Falklands veteran,’ he announces to the navy town crowd, who erupt into a patriotic cheer. ‘… I don’t know what you’re laughing for, he were a fucking Argentinian.’ It’s a fine joke, and one that represents the best of this dying form; timing, delivery and a cold, anarchic streak running through it.

Next up comes Mike Osman, an impressionist on something called ‘Great British Radio’ and something of a mainstay on USTREME. He produces an excellent Boris Johnson impression, a dreadful Barack Obama one and a very racist Kim Jong Un skit, with the help of a ventriloquist’s dummy. The impersonation itself amounts to little more than old kung-fu movie sound effects, and while most of the audience lap it up, I notice a bit of chair-squirming from some women in front of me. A slightly younger couple a few rows across are emanating a tangible sense of: ‘You didn’t tell me it would be like this.’

After the interval, a moment to restock the beer buckets, come three comics of the old school in quick succession: Duncan Norvelle, Bobby Davro and the infamous Jimmy Jones. Norvelle, a 70s TV star known for his playful ‘chase me’ persona, is up first.

In his day, Norvelle won over primetime viewers with his boyish looks and affected lisp. He was the cutesy, effete one in a world of tankard-holding bigots. In recent years, however, his health has declined. After suffering a series of major strokes, he was paralysed down the left side of his body in 2012. Norvelle appears on stage in a wheelchair, with visible cognitive difficulty. ‘Jim said just come on and do ten minutes,’ he tells the crowd. ‘I said, it’ll take me three hours to get off the fucking stage.’

Despite his challenges, Norvelle pulls off a good set, including a pitch­-perfect Valleys accent. But as his stage time comes to an end, he produces an unexpectedly poignant moment: determined to take a final bow, he makes a considerable effort to stand up out of his wheelchair to perform that most crucial piece of showbiz etiquette. It’s a scene that could have come out of some tragicomic kitchen-sink play, or a music-hall version of Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. Eventually, Norvelle manages it, and the audience respond with their own standing ovation. It’s a touching sight, but it all feels a little queasy and ironic, considering Davidson’s track record with disabled people.

Then, the famously unfunny Bobby Davro comes on and drops the first political joke of the night. Speaking about his time in the ITV jungle, Davro suggests there should be a new show entitled ‘I’m an Asylum Seeker, Try and Get Me Out of Here’ and the crowd roar like it’s the first wobble of a heavyweight title fight. It’s a bad joke, told by an unlikely source (Davro has always been one of the more innocuous acts from that universe), but it appears that people have finally got what they paid for. ‘Go on, Bobby!’ shouts one voice from the back.

Straight after arrives Jimmy Jones, who ups the racism quota to a horrifying extreme. Jones, who built his career playing in working men’s clubs and the old ‘strip pubs’ of south London, has long been considered one of the more controversial turns in British comedy. Like Chubby Brown, he never hosted a prime­time TV show, but sold a bucketload of 18-rated VHS tapes and live tickets throughout his career. His name will be totally alien to today’s comedy fans, but at one point, he was estimated to be the highest earning stand-up in Britain.

Now 85, he is the butt of many a joke tonight (‘Don’t take too long at the bar, because Jimmy Jones has about three hours to live,’ laughs Davidson at one point). Indeed, Jones is so old that he refers to himself as a ‘racialist’ rather than a racist. To clarify, he states, ‘No, I like black people… but I couldn’t eat a whole one.’ Later (with a scant bit of context), he drops a genuinely shocking racial slur in his routine, to a grim and enormous roar from the audience. It’s a disturbing moment that feels really quite illegal, yet it is immediately blasted into dark bathos, as Jones’s octogenarian cackle turns into a deathly splutter and he nearly falls off his chair. Still, he perseveres through another joke about a Chinese man in a brothel.

There is a sense that Jones – an almost-forgotten, unabashed ‘racialist’ – has been set up to do the dirty work here. Ancient to the point of irrelevance, he is near-on retribution-proof, like a dying assassin with nothing left to live for – an anti-woke Jack Ruby. Because despite the show’s promise of relentless offence, it’s actually a bit of a bottle-job on Davidson’s behalf. Aside from Jones’s act and some bizarre references to ‘transvestments’ from Davidson, the majority of the gags are aimed at a third tier of oppression; gingers, Scousers, Geordies, midgets, overweight women and bald men. It’s playground stuff, delivered at a retirement audience.

Indeed, when Davidson’s headline act finally arrives it’s mostly just crude. Dressed in a double-breasted suit with a brightly coloured tie, he appears like the mayor of some godforsaken Kentish village. He goes into some old jokes about ‘picking up birds’ and administering cunnilingus, seemingly written decades before. He launches into a routine about going home with an ‘old woman’, whom he concedes was younger than he is now. Clearly, his cheeky-chappy routine is starting to err. Ashen-faced and with visible shakes, he cuts a reduced figure, his trademark cockiness becoming less and less tenuous. ‘Jim Davidson, arch shagger’ is an increasingly difficult character to buy.

Does any of this prevent him carrying on like a cockney Casanova? Of course not. Young lefties love to make fun of the waistlines, hairlines and pasty complexions of right-wing commentators – but tonight they wear it like a badge of honour. Obesity, hypertension, heart disease, respiratory problems, memory loss, these guys have it all – and they’re not afraid to make jokes about it (‘I’m not white, I’m pink,’ says Davidson on one USTREME video). Although not as quite as geriatric as I assumed, the audience is knocking on, too. There are plenty of creaky gaits and hacking coughs in the crowd, an atmosphere of shortening days.

There is also an overwhelming sense that nobody really cares. Davidson keeps talking about the threat of being ‘cancelled’, but for him, that happened long, long ago – while that term was just a niche coinage in the American academic lexicon. There is no picket line of green-haired anthropology students outside, no complaints from bleeding heart local councillors. The event sits casually amongst the venue’s other listings (an old school UK Garage night, some kind of drag bingo brunch). Perhaps if it were in London it would be different, but it would never happen in London. Really, it just feels like another seaside nostalgia event. A back-to-the-old-world weekender.

Taking a break on the pierside smoking area, it was clear to see that the winds of change were whipping up around The Gaiety. The stalls on the pier no longer just sold sticks of rock and battered fish; but gyros, shawarma, sourdough pizza and bubble tea. The kids on the promenade aren’t spending their pocket money on donkey rides and candy floss, rather e-scooters and sour blueberry vapes. A group of women in hijabs stroll past the venue unmentioned. The forces of globalisation and human flux were brushing up against this strange display of English resentment, and there appeared to be little fightback beyond a few knackered old jokes.

‘Proper Comedians’ might present, to some degree, a dying art. Yet it also reveals a Britain that is dying just as quickly.

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