Five Minutes with… Simon Evans: On Comedy, Conservatism and a hand-written letter from Alan Clark
Simon Evans is a stand-up comedian, actor and writer.
Hi, Simon. First of all, thanks for talking to us. We love your work – and particularly enjoyed your new radio special, Simon Evans is Right (thoroughly recommended; available here).
You touch upon several themes in the programme, including what it is that makes comedy material or a comedian “right wing”, punching up/down, and the seeming lack of right wing voices in British comedy…
Yes, I suppose I was testing the idea that comedy should be meaningfully espousing one view or another, and if so, how? It has certainly struck viewers that there is a left wing bias in a lot of broadcast comedy. Or rather, and this has really thrown it into sharper focus, a pro-remain bias. That is what has made the present situation feel rather ridiculous, that comedy now seems to be a weapon of the establishment to ridicule the masses for their unevolved and easily misled political views. Only certain types of human frailties – instinctive distrust of foreigners for instance – seem to get lampooned, while other equally risible ones – blithe indifference to the true agenda of vast supra national bureaucracies, for example – are not so frequently targeted.
In the programme you mention comedians “punching up”, for example at a Duke. Do you think the aristocracy still has any power? My feeling is, since Blair’s constitutional reforms, they have been replaced by a new very wealthy middle class – Guardian readers, BBC producers, Remainers – and that is where ‘Establishment’ power is centred.
I agree, and not only the aristocracy. The Church for instance is a very soft target. I was on a podcast recently where the host invited me to ridicule the notion of Heaven as understood by Christians, and of course I was happy to do so, able and relaxed while doing so, because the Church have absolutely no power to take revenge on me whatsoever. They are dying in front of our eyes, beautiful churches in France being demolished, or in this country usually turned into arts centres and so on. The idea that this is in any sense anti-establishment is almost grotesque though I suppose paying attention when the Archbishop of Canterbury has views about refugees is only supporting that view. But though it hardly needs saying again, one would think, certain other religious institutions seem to escape the notice of our satirists. Power has very much moved on and there is often a lag between the comfortable targets that we have learned to see as worthy of satire from the days of Monty Python almost, losing their authority, and comedy losing its inclination to punish them for it.
I often see prominent cultural voices glibly say things like, “Conservatives aren’t funny”. What do you make of that statement?
Well, some Conservative MPs are certainly capable of being funny. James Cleverly has landed a couple of punches on Twitter lately that any comedian would have been proud of. And many Labour MPs are not remotely funny. And there is a certain kind of earnestness to the likes of Paul Mason and Owen Jones that robs them of a sense of their own ridiculousness, and exposes them as unfunny in that sense. But there is also a tradition of conservative voices being witty, and murmuring devastating put downs to their trusted companions, but maintaining an air of seriousness and composure when it matters. John Cleese put it well when he said that there was a world of difference between serious and somber, and no excuse for the latter, but I think many people who don’t share conservative politics can be apt to confuse the two. Whether they deserve the epithet or not, Tories have traditionally tried to give the impression that they take responsibility. It does not always come off, of course.
How related do you think a person’s politics is to his or her sense of humour?
People from the whole length of the politics spectrum, from one end to the other and at all points in between, are very capable of being funny and in all modes. Surrealism is not the province of the Left – it still infuriates many of them that Dali was a huge and vocal supporter of Franco of course. But nor is dry understatement that of the right. I think Francis Wheen would call himself left wing and he is as dry as they come. Nor are one side or the other any more or less likely to be cruel. The in group/ out group thing just shifts to accommodate the target, or rather, the reverse.
Given that comedians are small businesses and stand-up is highly competitive, why do you think so many comedians are – publicly, at least – left-wing?
One must resist the temptation to mind read and project. Many of them probably regard the banks and big business as being problematic and I do agree there for what it’s worth, and a lot of their politics may grow from that, however distorted the idea is that socialism will cure this. I think a certain libertarian streak runs through most comedians but many would not see that as contradictory to their demands that Amazon and Apple pay their fair share of taxes, or that residential property residing in the hands of fewer and fewer landlords and homeowners is destabilising society and breaking the social contract. I don’t think they are hypocrites, necessarily. I do think that a certain amount of group think does tend to dominate in any large institution, too. And you will tend to listen to the well thought through views of an elder of the tribe, when he shares them with you over a pint.
Do you think the BBC, and broadcast media in general, should do more to showcase different political perspectives? Do you think the criticism that BBC content – creative content: comedy, drama – is dominated by a left-wing, pro-EU worldview is valid?
I’m afraid I do rather, yes. I really do hesitate to criticise the BBC because I think it is a valuable bulwark against Americanisation of TV – the endless ads, the naked bias – but you can’t ignore it forever. And already in the BBC we have something like the USA, with most of the programming being of a CNN/MSNBC type bent, and then something like Mrs Browns Boys slapped on to the schedules like Fox News to “balance” it out.
Others have said and I agree that we may be seeing temporary “over correction” – it is true that if you watch content from even twenty years ago it often looks absurdly sexist, for one thing. And I still think the news and current affairs output is pretty good. But I think large parts of the country – of the electorate – do not currently feel that they see their views reflected back at them, their world view shown affectionate embrace by the comedy and drama departments, and that is going to hurt their pleading for special treatment. If people really start to believe that Orwellian levels of would be thought control are visible – and there are mutterings of that kind – then the BBC is in real trouble. There is so much alternative media available now that even men and women of my parents’ generation can and will abandon it and get their content elsewhere.
I used to work a lot in broadcast comedy. At the weekend, I was in Stockport. The worlds of New Broadcasting House and Castle Road in Stockport seem so different – and audience figures suggest that much comedy simply isn’t connecting with people outside of the M25. Do you agree? If so, what do you think can/should be done about that?
I haven’t been in Stockport for a while but I believe you. Live comedy, as Dominic Frisby and I discuss in my programme, is very nearly a free market and it will respond to what people want. If the BBC continue to try and steer the agenda, rather than let themselves be steered, then the tension will break, the line will snap. People will stop watching. People in Stockport will go and see the comedy they like and they will watch the comedy they like on Netflix and You Tube and gradually the country will stratify more and more. This is unlikely to lead to civil war in and of itself, but it’s not binding the people together, it’s not offering the knitting together that it used to and could again, if the will were there.
Obviously, we’re a Conservative site, and a lot of people in Conservative politics read us, so: which Conservative politician (living or dead) do you most admire and why?
That is a tricky one. I admire many, with varying degrees of comprehension. I did admire John Major, very much, for doggedly pursuing compromise and workable solutions despite being endlessly lampooned as a grey man, and never seeming to mind that he didn’t get the credit he deserved, especially for Ireland. And of course for the shadow cast by his predecessor. His current views on Brexit may be slightly askew from mine but unlike Tony Blair, for instance, I feel he has chosen to speak for entirely legitimate reasons. And obviously one could point to Churchill and to certain achievements that, if allowed to, would render further argument futile. But I think I will go for Alan Clark, for emerging from another vast and deep parental shadow, treating the whole thing with a certain appropriate disdain, speaking with unexpected authority on military history whenever allowed to do so and writing the single most amusing and entertaining account of political life I have ever read, and being kind enough to respond good naturedly in his own hand writing when I wrote to him and expressed regret that he had not landed the job of writing Maggie’s memoirs. Needless to say, he shared my regret!
Alastair Campbell tells a magnificent story of taking his wife to Saltwood [Clark’s castle]. He’d asked Clark to tone it down. First thing Clark did was usher them into one of the many dining rooms to show them his “prized possession” – a sword which he lifted from the wall and handed to Campbell’s wife. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” Clark drawled. “A personal gift from General Pinochet.”
And, on that note: thanks, Simon – it’s been a pleasure.