John-Paul Stephenson

Interview: Steve Nallon #3 – ‘Have you ever met a northern woman?’

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Steve Nallon, best known for impersonating Margaret Thatcher in Spitting Image, is touring in the comic play Cissie & Ada: A Hysterical Rectomy, based on the northern housewives played by Les Dawson and Roy Barraclough in the 1970s and 80s.

In the first part of our interview, Steve talked to John-Paul Stephenson about the Cissie and Ada stage show, and then explained what is wrong with modern comedy in the second installment. In this third and final part, Steve brings the themes together to discuss Les, modern comedy and…political correctness.

JPS: So, you say that modern-day comedians are not loved, and that no-one will bother to make a drama about them as they have with Kenneth Williams, etc. I suppose it’s about exposure too because the likes of Les Dawson had their own shows, in contrast to two minutes at the microphone on Mock the Week

SN: Les represented a world which you could argue no longer exists. The fundamentals and the values are still there. One of the things he said was “We had nothing, but we had love.” You don’t get the impression that there’s lots of love coming out of Mock the Week.

People have been telling me that the CIssie and Ada stuff just leaves you with a smile on your face, and much of modern comedy doesn’t do that. It leaves more of a smirk, rather than a warm feeling.

There’s a line in Cissie and Ada when Ada says, “You know, last year when you had one of those hysterical rectomies.” You could argue that this is offensive because you’re talking about something that is very private to a woman, and you don’t want to make fun with it. But, that’s what many women say; it’s real, and it’s not meant in any offensive way.

Les had wonderful use of language, he played characters and was a wonderful pianist. He wasn’t like Bernard Manning, who was just a gag man and those from The Comedians [‘70s  TV stand-up show produced at Granada in Manchester], who just came on and did gags, Les was a well-rounded comedian.

At the end of his career, Larry Grayson didn’t go on stage with jokes; he went on with attitude. Ultimately, that’s a good comedian; not to go on with gag, gag, gag – they go on with an attitude that people find funny. Much of Les Dawson’s comedy was in language, which was just wonderful and that was comedic in itself.

JPS: Thinking about the issue of vulnerability, which you raised, a lot of contemporary satire on TV and radio seem to come from Oxbridge…

SN: The comedians who came from Manchester, Johnnie Hamp who produced The Comedians, were an aberration in British comedy because the Oxbridge comedy tends to have ruled. The BBC have been crying out for what they would call ‘blue-collar comedy’. In some ways, you had it with The Royale Family, which I think is wonderful.

I heard Les interviewed with a feminist comedian who was talking about the role of women in society and how it was a patriarchal society. He just looked at her and said “Have you ever met a Northern woman?” From his point of view, the domestic world was a matriarchal society. It’s run by the women.

The comedy which came after Les was much more political and social, but when you look at his work it was all about people and relationships at a domestic level; he never understood political comedy at all. He never understood gender politics in comedy.

JPS: Society has changed a lot since the 1970s.

SN: I’m socially very liberal, so in one sense I’d describe myself as a libertarian. Politically, I don’t like people telling other people what to do. I haven’t smoked in my life, but telling other people not to smoke seems to be a fundamental loss of freedom. Equally, I don’t like “You can’t say this about somebody; you can’t say that about somebody.” And also, get a sense of humour!

I saw a programme about homophobia that featured a clip of a football crowd chanting to the Brighton fans, “I can see you holding hands.” I didn’t know what was wrong with that. If it was something horrible about AIDS, that might be homophobic, but I thought, ‘Let’s get back to a society where there’s a little bit of freedom and a bit of banter.”

JPS: Liberty sounds, and is, a great idea, but it can be exploited at the expense of others…

SN: There needs to be some banter. I know Jon Gaunt, and I’d go up to him and say, “How are you, you fat bastard?” He’d call be a name, and then we’d sit down and have a chat. People looked at us and wondered what was going on. I’ve known Jon for a long time now. I don’t agree with his politics at all but I’d happily call him a ‘fat bastard’ and he’d probably call me a ‘Yorkshire cunt’.

JPS: It’s what sociolinguists would call ‘positive politeness’. It’s about transcending the conventional boundaries of communication actually strengthens the relationship.

SN: I think that’s true. I read on the Internet someone had told Tony Abbott, the guy who’s just been elected as PM of Australia, that an Australian soldier had been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. Abbot apparently said, “Well, shit happens.” That is, to me, not a nice thing to say, but it’s sort of the truth, and much of language hides the truth.

My father was schizophrenic, and rather than say “mental health issues ” I’d say he was “crackers”. People would say that you can’t say that nowadays but I’d say it was far more honest. Possibly because I’m from the North, I don’t like to hide behind certain things.

I think it will change. Jerry Sadowitz walked on to The Comedy Store stage in London and said, “Nelson Mandela: what a cunt.” Thus ending ten years of political correctness.

JPS: You can criticise political correctness, in favour of what people say is honest speaking, but some people actually do want to be racist. It’s not about the words, but the feeling and invective behind them.

SN: Some would refer to the ‘Paki shop’, but that’s not something I would be comfortable with. I’m not quite sure they are being racist when they say that; it’s just the way people refer to the corner shop. It’s the intention behind the line.

I think it’s a mistake when comedians say “It’s just a gag”. But, no matter what the joke is, there’s something going on in it that’s making a point. A joke is the truth in disguise. It may be a nice truth, or it may be a nasty and vindictive truth, but there is a truth to be found there.

JPS: The Newcastle-based comedian Lost Voice Guy, who himself has cerebral palsy, wrote about offensiveness in comedy, and how anyone going to a Frankie Boyle or Jimmy Carr gig should know what to expect and be prepared to be themselves the butt of jokes if they want to laugh at others.

SN: Jimmy Carr Is a brilliant technician at the making of jokes. What he does, which is what many comedians do, is hide behind the mechanism of the joke.

JPS: You can’t objectify offence…

SN: Tom Lehrer sang a song called “I’ll Hold Your Hand in Mine”. As the song progressed, you realised that he’d chopped off the hand of his lover and killed her but he’d kept hold of the hand. And the end of one of his shows a man came up and told him he had been really offended by that because he only had one hand! Lehrer said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t do my show if I have to think that there may be someone with one hand in the audience. I’ve just got to do it.”

My attitude is, if you’re offended, don’t be. Just be less offended!

If you go into stand-up clubs in the last few years, it’s become far more offensive about Muslims, about gays, about whatever. It’s actually freer now than it used to be, but you can’t do that stuff on television. The really interesting comedians are never going to get on television because they’re doing some dangerous stuff. The audiences are loving it. Even Mock the Week and other shows barely touch the surface.

I like both forms. I like the dangerous stuff, and also the warmhearted nostalgia that Les is playing with. Women love the show because – and I know after doing Thatcher for all those years – they are really interested in how a man can become a convincing woman. Les and Roy are convincing. Cissie and Ada sound like two real old women talking. With a bit of lipstick and a wig, Les looked like many women I was brought up with. When people get dressed up for the Rocky Horror show, it’s just a man in a frock; you’ve got to become a character to do it properly.

Cissie and Ada: An Hysterical Rectomy is currently touring the UK, including Salford Lowry (5 November).