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Upper class wits

IT'S hardly a new story.

Clockwise from left: Miles Jupp, Jack Whitehall, Tom Palmer and Tom Stourton, and Miranda Hart represent a new wave of posh comics … have the toffs taken over the laughing game?

The Beano had the Bash Street Kids clashing with the Posh Street Kids. The Young Ones had Scumbag College versus Footlights College. It seems we never tire of the comedy of posh boys versus the oiks. And at the moment the toffs, as in so much, would appear to be on top. At the start of this year when Bob Mortimer commented on the prominence of privately educated and Oxbridge types in comedy it became the stuff of newspaper page leads, supplemented by big pictures of Jack Whitehall and Miranda Hart (both privately educated). Headlines told us that the posh boys - throw in old Etonian duo Tom Palmer and Tom Stourton - have taken over comedy. Oh yes, and Monty Python - Oxbridge graduates again - have reformed to play live this year.

The argument goes that we have arrived at what you might call the Mumford horizon. The point at which British comedy, like British music, like British acting - like British politics, for that matter - has become the plaything of the upper classes. Comedy is often built on basic oppositions. White/black. Gay/straight. Male/female. Feminist/sexist. Telling rape jokes/not telling rape jokes. And in the UK, posh/working-class is one of the principal dialectics. Them and us (define yourself as you will).

And so Mortimer - a Middlesbrough boy, son of a biscuit salesman - said of his contemporaries with high-end educations on their CV: "You meet them and some of them are funny, some of them not so funny. I find it hard to believe that they are … the funniest people on Earth." There speaks a redbrick graduate (Sussex and Leicester).

But let's take 30 seconds to examine this proposition that posh boys now rule the comedy roost. Actually, 10 seconds may be enough. Who are the big names on the comedy circuit at the moment? Yes, Whitehall and Hart might get a mention. But so would Peter Kay, Sarah Millican, Mickey Flanagan, Kevin Bridges, Frankie Boyle … none of them, if memory serves, Oxbridge types. Then again, neither are Whitehall (a Manchester Uni drop out) or Hart (an alumna of the University of West England, Bristol). And remind me, what's the biggest sitcom in the country at the moment? Oh yes, Mrs Brown's Boys. Its writer/performer, Irishman Brendan O'Carroll, is not a Trinity man. He left school at 13. Hmm. Is this "comedy is now the plaything of the ruling classes" line a little overplayed?

You can read the history of British comedy as two distinct, class-based streams. There are working-class comics who were raised in the music hall and working men's clubs and who once aspired to headlining end-of-the-pier shows in Blackpool (the Roy Chubby Brown tendency, you might say); and then there's the upper-class comedy crew, which gave us everything from Terry-Thomas to Python to Radio 4 panel shows and now a bunch of man-boys who are amusing us with their sense of privilege.

Once upon a time the two streams didn't cross over, but ever since 1980s alternative comedy (thoroughly redbrick in background and intention) fostered a comedy club circuit, the two have increasingly fused. Because there is a thin line between love and hate, eventually the alternative comedians started inviting old-school comedians on to their shows. They now appear on the same stage. For proof, take a gander at the brochure of this year's ­Glasgow International Comedy Festival.

In the end, then, I'm not sure crude classifications get us too far. And something like Mrs Brown's Boys raises the most important dialectic in comedy. You know: The funny/not funny one. (No, I'm not a fan of the sitcom.)

Class is not an indicator of comic potential. Or, for that matter, a reason for pre-emptive judgment. Just ask Janey Godley, the "absolutely working-class" Glaswegian comedian whose daughter, Ashley Storrie, is following in her footsteps (via a private school education).

Godley says: "If you tell half the country they've not to like somebody because they're middle-class, that's like telling people you've not to like people on Benefits Street. It's the exact same rule."

And so it comes down to this. Some Oxbridge ­comedians are funny. Some are not. Same with working-class comics. End of story.

Well, actually, not quite. Because Mortimer's point was slightly subtler than newspaper headlines sometimes allow. His argument was not that Oxbridge types are usurping comedy and forcing everyone else out. But he does believe the opportunities offered to them are greater than those whose backgrounds - and maybe more importantly, accents - don't mark them out as being au fait with Aristotle's theory of comedy (and there's a crass generalisation for the sake of a vaguely comic punchline).

"With the Oxbridge comics," Mortimer told The Times, "the broadcasters seem to say, at some point, now I trust you to do a documentary, you can be the voice for a maths show, or ­whatever. I don't think we're ever considered in that way."

So let's talk to someone who is. Miles Jupp could easily qualify as one of those posh comedians. Public school, Edinburgh University, Balamory (umm, maybe that isn't totally relevant). He has done a few voiceovers in his time. "I did a documentary series about Harrow. I presume they wanted a posh voice that had a little bit of cynicism in there as well. I found that quite an eye-opener."

Jupp has some sympathy for Mortimer's viewpoint. "Someone like Clive Anderson does serious broadcasting and so does Sandi ­Toksvig and I suppose they're Oxbridge people who are allowed to be silly and they're allowed to be serious."

And while Mortimer may be from Middlesbrough, he also trained as a lawyer, Jupp points out. Intelligence does not come up with an income bracket or an Oxbridge ­education attached.

But the fact is that regional accents on ­British telly and radio are still more absent than present. And it's not so very long ago (2006, in fact) that Radio 4 listeners were up in arms about the introduction of Neil Nunes's deep Jamaican tones to the task of continuity announcements.

Here is something that speaks - literally - to how our culture may be predicated along class lines. Who gets to talk? Broad Glaswegian tends only to get a look-in on news reports, and when Kevin Bridges is on Live At The Apollo. "I don't know if it's based on testing," Jupp says. "I'd watch Kevin Bridges fronting anything."

We are edging towards a bigger picture here - and it's about control. As Tommy Sheppard, director of Glasgow International Comedy ­Festival, points out, the question to ask is not who is on stage but who is doing the booking. Who runs the industry? Who runs broadcasting? And what comedy arises as a result?

The shorthand goes: Oxbridge types get jobs in broadcasting, book other Oxbridge types and a virtuous circle is complete. The oiks only get in as long as they don't rock the boat. "It must be the case," suggests Jupp. "It's like raindrops following a path raindrops have already gone down. If you're in that system, that sort of thing may happen without you actually pushing for it."

And perhaps this is the fear that's really at the root of all the reports and think-pieces in newspapers and on comedy blogs like Chortle. It's that increasingly we will see a monoculture developing. Posh boys with sharp elbows and mates who are BBC producers increasingly edging out alternative voices, other classes. "The arts are in danger of becoming the preserve of the privileged," journalist Bruce Dessau, a long-time writer on comedy, suggests.

It's a compelling idea. If it can happen in politics and acting and maybe music, then why not in comedy too? But what is the evidence for all of this? The only figure I can find is one arising from a Freedom of Information request from 2008 in which the BBC revealed that over the previous two years, of the 7401 people appointed to the organisation some 5% came from Oxbridge. That doesn't reveal how many already had jobs in the organisation, of course, and certainly as recently as 2012 the then outgoing ­director-general Mark Thompson reportedly said he was "disturbed" by the high number of Oxbridge graduates working at the BBC - particularly at management level.

The perception is that there is a similar weighting in the rest of the comedy industry. Sheppard suggests as much. Reel off a list of successful blue-collar acts and he points out what they have in common other than their origins. "All of those acts have a very broad appeal. They are commercially viable and marketable. They may all be working- class acts, but they're all run by middle-class agencies in the main, run by public schoolgirls and boys.

"The decisions as to who gets the breaks, who gets booked, who gets sold, who gets presented to the market, that's not democratic. And the reason they're happy to put on the acts you're talking about is because they have broad commercial appeal. I don't think they make any great artistic judgment. If somebody sells, they get booked."

Sheppard's argument is that in effect the comedy that works these days - on TV, in clubs - is basic observational comedy. "The stuff that's become mega by and large is very simple stuff. Classic timeless humour that might be a bit more raunchy now than it would have been 30 years ago. But if you compared the routines on Live At The Apollo with Bob Monkhouse or Ken Dodd, what's to pick? The faces are ­different, the clothes are different. But the essence of the humour is very similar."

In other words, the distance between Jack Whitehall and Kevin Bridges in terms of their class origins may be huge, but their comedy is drawing on the same techniques.

So, does that mean it's not the posh boys on stage but the posh boys in the offices we should be worried about? Or the comedy that said posh boys commission? Is there a gatekeeper class? And if so, what effect does that have on the comedy we see and hear? Do they police criticisms of the political system we live within, so that even when attacks get through they come from those who went through the system? Like, say, Armando Iannucci, writer of The Thick Of It, someone who was inculcated within the system he criticises. (Iannucci is an Oxford graduate, isn't he?)

It's an interesting conspiracy theory but, as ever, the comedy undermines it. The Thick Of It seems to me a more coherent and compelling attack on the political system under which we live than 100 newspaper op-ed columns. It's also funnier.

Here's another question. Is it different in ­Scotland, where, frankly, posh boys like Miles Jupp stand out? "It was a very different world for me," he admits. "Going to do stand-up in Glasgow the first time was scary." Perhaps with a little of the arrogance of youth it turned out fine, and now Jupp actually likes that he is often very different to the acts around him in Scotland.

That, Sheppard suggests, is simply down to the fact that Scotland has fewer posh boys to go around. "They don't run the country to the same extent as the Bullingdon Club does down south."

Still, one of the reasons ­Sheppard is in favour of a Yes vote in the ­Scottish referendum is that it might shake up - open out - the commissioning process for television, because it's not happening otherwise. "There's nobody taking the decision to say, 'This is worth supporting. This is worth investing in. We will back these people artistically and we will work with them to create good-quality broadcasting that will stand the test of time, that is not another cut-down reality show or cut-down panel show or God-awful exploitation of a good stand-up'."

But maybe there is a much simpler explanation for the comedy we get to see. Comedy in the UK, says Godley, is run by talent agencies. There are, after all, only a few - Avalon and Off The Kerb spring to mind - representing the vast majority of successful comedians in the country. "Comedy on telly has nothing to do with class," Godley believes. "It's to do with the agents. That's why you get two people from the same stable interviewing each other. And some of those agents own their own TV companies and they use their own comics."

If that's the case, it suggests that this is not, in the end, a class story. But it may be a cartel story. In which case it's not about who has the money, it's about who people think will make them money. And that, let's face it, is not a new story either.

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