90s Comedian

Tuesday 8th October 2013. The weather’s turned. The evening is cold and drizzly. I’m out to see the comedian Rob Newman at the Theatre Royal, Wakefield with Bernard Docherty. Expectation is half of the fun. But the pre-match pint is a disappointing glass of Theakston’s Best (supposedly) Bitter (tepid dishwater) in the Elephant and Castle over the road from the theatre. The elaborate tiled exterior of the Elephant – baring the defunct Warwick & Co Brewery name – defies a spirit level. There is an illusion of slope. It looks drunk. Which, I suppose, is apt. It’s my favourite pub in Wakefield’s city centre, even though the beer on this occasion was disappointing. Last time I was in there (when I’d been to see Britpop trio Chris Helme, Mark Morriss and John Power at nearby Warehouse 23 on Smyth Street) they had Masham’s better brewery on tap – Black Sheep. But the surroundings almost make up for the deficiency in the booze. The Elephant and Castle drips with Victoriana. History is ring-stained into the original table tops. Glazed tiles. Gas lamp fittings. The orchestrated dividing walls create a sense of cosiness. There are brass elephants adorning the bar and original mirrors (why should lettering be so evocative?) with out of date advertisements on them. There is my namesake Gilbert Lodge’s (no known relation) place at the counter marked with a plaque. Across the road in Wakefield – home to the Mulberry Bush that the exercising convicts used to go around – all the Category A murderers are tucked up with their nightmares behind Clarke’s brewery. Karma postponed but still pending. Trains come and go through Westgate train station.

The Theatre Royal with a nod – ironic? Serendipitous? – to London’s West End, stands on Drury Lane. It is of a comparative date to the Elephant and Castle. It’s easy to imagine Dan Leno or Charlie Chaplin tipping up at Westgate, having a quick Sherbert before crossing over the road and hitting the music hall stage. (The name ‘Theatre Royal’ comes not from any regal association – George III didn’t sit in the dress circle cheering on the Widow Twanky – but dates back to the 18th Century when – in the wake of the Licensing Act of 1737 which aimed to restrict satire by putting censorship into the hands of the Lord Chamberlin – Royal Patents were granted which allowed drama to be performed at recognized playhouses. These auditoria were often given the name Theatre Royal).

It is the smallest Frank Matcham theatre to survive the wrecker’s ball. And it is remarkably small. From the street to the apron of the stage is something like forty feet. The stalls consists of eleven rows of seats. Should I ever finish my Symphony for Spoons I feel that even I would have a chance of selling it out. Matcham’s architecture – hugely overlooked by comparison with other Victorian architects whose work is still in evidence – is rampant. A mix of styles that had only one purpose – to impress. The Theatres constructed in this boom period – from 1890 through to 1916 – (approximately two hundred of them by Matcham in the UK) were dripped in opulence to make the working people who mostly lived in rented terraced houses, and who paid to see acts feel like they were special, if only for one night. Matcham would have fitted in well in Las Vegas. His is the architecture of escapism. Of fantasy. He was also responsible for the County Arcade in Leeds – another recent restoration after decades of neglect. In the mid-20th Century the theatre endured the post-cinema purgatory shared by many others – including, as mentioned elsewhere in my blog, Barnsley’s own Theatre Royal – being first converted into a cinema and then a bingo hall. It wasn’t until 1981 that it reopened with its original purpose restored. The theatre now has Yorkshire playwright John Godber as artistic director.

Rob Newman became famous during the shoegazing scene. Together with Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis, Newman and his (then) comedy partner David Baddiel formed (on radio and television) The Mary Whitehouse Experience (running between 1989 and 1992). This was a time when comedy was being hailed as the new rock n’ roll. Before cooking, or home improvements became the new rock n’ roll later in the decade. These were the early days of comedians selling out stadiums (Newman played a sell-out show at Wembley on the back of The Mary Whitehouse Experience). Way before Peter Kay’s Bungalow tour or Michael McIntyre’s ludicrously and self-satisfied chuckling comedy road show. Newman fitted the new look of comedy well – long flowing raven hair and a fragile introspection shattered with sudden bursts of comedic frenzy. It felt like he should be playing bass in the band Ride or Spaceman 3. He had the rock star looks twenty years before Russell Brand. But while Baddiel – significantly less funny, notably more pompous – has walked an established route and has comfortably ensconced himself amongst the Guardian-reading intelligentsia as a thinking man (or woman’s) funny (sort of. Maybe) man, Newman has largely disappeared from the mainstream. To flog unashamedly the rock and roll comparison, Newman is stand-up’s Syd Barrett. Or Lee Mavers. Baddiel, on the other hand, is more akin to Daniel O’Donnell. Or Michael Ball. Though he’d probably reference Leonard Cohen. Or somebody deep and meaningful. And boring. Take your pick.

I’m not sure what Newman does can be called comedy anymore. Not in the sense of simple entertainment. There can’t be many stand-up routines come with a suggested reading list (http://www.robnewman.com/reading.html). Certainly he’d look out of place sandwiched between Bernard Manning and Frank Carson on 1970s stand-up TV show The Comedians. But Newman is a man who’s patently and passionately curious about the world he lives in, and the fame he had in the 1990s serves as a vehicle for that passion. It gives him a platform, from which he uses comedy in such a way that makes you think a bit more. He’s like one of those cool teachers you encountered at High School, who suddenly made a dry subject not only interesting but relevant. Who opened your mind to how amazing information can be.

I get the feeling that Rob might just save the world through comedy. If there enough people to listen. Frank Matcham’s little theatre is a long way from sell out mobs chanting catchphrases at Wembley. A long way from mass hysteria. Newman has gone from banana skins to the inherited characteristics of biological populations over successive generations. But is that necessarily a bad thing? That’s not to say someone slipping on a banana skin can raise a titter. Or that Del Boy falling down some cellar steps can’t be humorous as well (just ask Stewart Lee). But evolution can also be funny. Because comedy is  profound and can tackle a variety of subjects – not just mother-in-laws and garlic bread. Because it is the truth – or a juxtaposition of the truth, or confrontation with the truth – that we find funny. In many ways this a natural growth of the modern satirical/alternative comedy that ushered in Rob and his cohorts in the late 80s and early 90s. Satire is a symptom of this deeper examination of the truth. It uses that humorous cynicism to tackle broader and more profound subjects.

That said, Rob follows a traditional path in at least one way – comedians love a costume. From Chubby Brown’s multi-coloured suit and aviator hat, Max Miller’s baggy suit and plus fours and Charlie Chaplin’s bowler and cane. Because despite his radical tendencies and political activism, Newman is no different. On stage, he vaguely looks like he’s attending a Steam Punk convention – bringing off a slightly toned down Victorian appearance that would fit in well in the saloon of the Elephant & Castle back when the advertising on the mirrors are still peddling Warwick & Co’s oyster stout was still relevant. The bulging waistcoat conceals a clockwork brain he’s got tucked into his duodenum. Or middle-aged spread. One of the two.

After the interval the seats have thinned out a little. Which is insulting. As an aside Rob treats us to an impromptu song on ukulele. Even so, this is not Frankie Boyle or Johnny Vegas. There is no fear on the front row. The customary staples of the Stand-up are absent. Rob isn’t going to ask you what your name is, what you do for a living, or the relationship between you and the person sat next to you, and then rip the piss out of you. Though say that you’re into intelligent design and the atmosphere might change. Ah, irreducible complexity, ey…?

Sit down next to me…

From a conversation overheard in the Old Number 7 pub, Barnsley. A poem.

‘I once shit on a tortoise,’ he blithely said.
This pulled me up short, and, mid-slurp, turning my head,
I looked across the bar to locate the voice
Of the man who’d divulged defecating on a tortoise.
Two tables away the interlocutor sat –
This shameless soul who had, he claimed, once shat,
Though I had yet to clearly ascertain why –
On a Chordate of the order Testudinidae…
He was an ordinary looking bloke
Made interesting only by the words that he spoke –
Certainly you would never have guessed from his face
That he’d ever dropped his guts on a reptile’s hard carapace.
A Barnsley football top, blue jeans, shaved skull,
Disreputable trainers and an exceedingly dull
Delivery, and yet the content of his talk
Had caused me to abandon my pint of Blonde and gawk.
Now, not known for their speed, this was hardly a feat
Of precision bombing, not hard to complete
I supposed – no need for careful arse/eye coordination –
But somehow the exploit caught my imagination.
‘Have you really shit on a tortoise?’ I asked.
A smug grin, you could see that he basked
In his dirty deed’s highly dubious fame –
That he was proud of his boastful scatological claim.
‘I did,’ he confirmed, ‘and, what’s more, I’d do it again.’
For fuck’s sake, did this mucky bastard have no shame?
‘But why?’ I was duly compelled to enquire.
He put down his glass, and his voice getting higher,
‘In protest, my friend,’ he firmly disclosed.
‘Against Blair and Bush and the supposed
Weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.’
So that was it – a remonstration in reptile and cack…
Peaceful and visually effective – albeit slightly absurd –
One man’s defiance, delivered with a tortoise and a turd.