Interview: Royston Vasey
‘There was a point in 1969 when I had a choice between being a clean comedian or a blue one’, recalls Royston Vasey. ‘And now I’ve made my bed I’ve got to lie in it.’
Vasey, infamous for his stand-up character Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown, admits he has sacrificed a lot for his success as a comedian. Never far away from the headlines – most recently for a scrap with a woman in a supermarket car park – he knows his style of comedy is unpopular with many.
‘My act is adult humour for adult people. I talk about beans on toast, fish and chips, wanking, fucking, betting horses, women and drinking. That’s where my mind goes and that’s what they turn up for. My crowd want jokes they can go to the pub and tell their mates about. I don’t make jokes about paedophiles because I think it’s disgusting, I don’t crack jokes about children in general, I very rarely joke about religion because I don’t train my mind to go that way.’
I ask Vasey whether he writes offensive material purely for his loyal fanbase. ‘People don’t come and see me now unless they’re fans. Years ago they’d come for the bingo and the sandwich and you were thrown on at the deep end. But now because of the reputation I’ve built up they come for me; and if I don’t say something controversial then I’m letting them down, aren’t I?’
So, how did Royston Vasey become Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown? He recalls the night he exchanged critical acclaim for financial gain: ‘When I was just starting out in comedy my manager came to see me and said, “I watched you with the working men’s club audience and you had them eating out of your hand. It was good, but I also watched you do a stag night to 500 blokes and they were crying laughing.”
‘He said to me, “You have a decision to make. Do you want to be a clean comedian, one of another thousand comics trying to get on TV? Or do you want to be a blue comedian where I can get you £1000 a night?” I had no stars in my eyes. I looked purely at the money and thought; I’d sooner have £1000 in my hand than £100.’
Though on occasion Vasey seems regretful about that decision (‘I’ve said things in the past that I’m no longer comfortable with’, he admits), he remains defiant in his approach to comedy. ‘What people can’t differentiate between is what I do and what I am’, he says. ‘I’m a family man with responsibilities and everything else. I have bills to pay and I have staff working for me. When people criticise my approach to comedy they forget that.
‘I get the blame for quite a lot, too. I got the blame for saying things about the Sheffield when it went down – and men were burnt – and the Bradford fire. But I didn’t say anything – it had nothing to do with me at all. Let’s face it, I can’t go around making Frankie Boyle sound like the Archbishop of Canterbury otherwise the venues won’t book me and I won’t earn a living.
I ask Vasey what he thinks of Boyle and his mainstream contemporaries. ‘Some of them are very good – John Bishop’s very funny as is Dara O’Briain – but I look at others and they talk about utter rubbish. People like Russell Howard – I can’t get into him at all. I watch him on Mock The Week and he just doesn’t make me laugh. It’s the same with Jim Davidson.’
Vasey’s own subject matter – particularly his use of racial slurs – is the topic of much debate in comedy. Vasey offers his defence: ‘Look, the word WOG stands for white oriental gentleman; Paki means pride. Now if I can find that out and I’m only a lad from a council estate in Middlesbrough, why can’t these clever, alternative, politically correct bastards find it out and stop having a go at me for saying something that is normally everyday language?
‘I asked a Pakistani woman what Paki meant and she said to me, “It means pride.” So I said to her, “Well, why is there all this fuss about the word?” She said, “Because some people just like to jump on the band wagon and cause trouble. They like to sit behind closed doors and closed curtains and follow like sheep.” People say I’m rubbish, useless, racist, dirty, filthy – but they’ve never sat in the audience. They only say that because their mate down the pub told them.’
By his own admission, though, ‘the bloke down the pub’ is his target audience.
Vasey returns to his native North East in July, a date on his tour he is particularly looking forward to. ‘I love performing in the North East’, he says. ‘Take Sunderland Empire, for example. I’ve played there nearly every year for the past twenty years. It’s the kind of venue you’re exited to perform at; and if I didn’t do well at the Empire I’d be devastated. I’d jump off a cliff.’
You could be forgiven for thinking Vasey, at sixty six years old, may be ready to depart the stand-up world for good; but the death of his comedy pals inspires him to continue performing. ‘I’ve got a photograph on my mantelpiece of Peter Mitchell, Billy Kelly, Jimmy Taylor, myself and Bobby Knoxall. And do you know the frightening part? They’re all gone now. I’m starting to think, ‘How long have I got?’ but I’m still earning a living. We’re doing all right.
‘You’ve got to take each day as it comes. I don’t feel like anyone can hurt me. Nobody can say anything about me that would upset me anymore. It’s like what Max Miller said to Bernard Delfont. Delfont said to Miller, “You can’t come on my stage, at the London Palladium, in front of the queen, and say tossed off. Max Miller turned round and said, “You’re five million pounds too late, Bernard. Go and fuck yourself.”’
Royston Vasey is entering his forty third year in comedy – an impressive feat for any act, especially one as controversial as ‘Chubby’ – has just returned from a mini-tour of Australia (‘I was given a round of applause every night I performed’, he says) and is arguably more popular than ever. But after speaking with Vasey for just under half an hour, talking through his personal difficulties, his dislike for the media and ultimately their dislike for him, I have to question whether his success was truly worth it.
Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown is performing at the Whitley Bay Playhouse on July 1st. Tickets can purchased from the venue’s website here.