Wednesday, 1 July 2015

John Noakes and the Spirit of the Braying Mob

Excuse me if this isn't polished or even interesting. I don't have any careful arguments to weave and, even if I did, I'm not sure I have the care and attention needed to weave them. I guess I'm feeling a bit dejected with the world. I've been working hard all month trying to communicate with the world but the world doesn't seem all that interested in talking to me. Well, screw the world. I can at least talk to myself or, if I'm lucky, some other lone intellects out there that don't belong to a marketing scam robot or some Chinese plastics company intent on filling my comments with spam.

I wanted to write about John Noakes who, you might know, went missing (but was thankfully found) yesterday and I wanted to write about him without using the word 'celebrity'. I despise that word, which has to be the curse of our age. It has been elevated to the point that to possess 'celebrity' means that you're a special kind of person, worthy of special treatment and to be judged against lower moral or artistic standards than the rest of common humanity. For example, I was searching last week for a publisher and I came across one who advertised their interest in humour. You should know how rare that is for UK publishers, who largely take no interest in humour unless it's disguised as some postmodern pastiche of Polish pork butchers in the 1300s. This publisher therefore caught my eye, until I read that writers would have to pay to have their books published. There was, however, an exception. In the case of 'a celebrity', the publisher would be very interested in discussing an advance and contact.

It's a sign of how the world has become. Yet the truth is that people who are celebrities tend to be the dullest among us. To be a celebrity is different to being a writer, a musician, an actor, painter, poet, illustrator, inventor, sportsperson, or even a politician. It's why the very best writers, musicians, actors, painters, poets, illustrators, inventors, sportspersons, and politicians live ordinary lives. They don't wish to live like a celebrity. To be a celebrity simply means that you have fame and, really, there's nothing less interesting than a person famous only for having fame. The other day The Times dedicated a double page spread to Alan Titchmarsh, one of the dullest men on the planet and it was amazing how many dull things the dullest man on the planet had to say in what was, predictably, a very dull article. Yet still: he's famous and because he was famous, he even had his face in full colour on their colour supplement.

Welcome to the UK, 2015. For those that have: here have more. Those without, we want you to have even less.

Last weekend witnessed another visible demonstration of celebrity when Kanye West took the stage at Glastonbury. He walked out thinking, perhaps, that celebrity would do most of his work for him. It didn't. It was a risible performance, highlighting the fact that this was one of the least enjoyable Glastonbury weekends in quite a while. All the excellence was to be found well beyond the headline acts. Patti Smith produced the performance of the festival but I also enjoyed, as you might expect, the show put on by FFS on the last night, which was largely ignored by the media. The media were too busy talking about The Who, who did what The Who have always done but didn't do it with much swagger. The fact that they refused to allow the BBC to broadcast their set was small minded, greedy, or both. In future, no act should be allowed to headline (or otherwise) at Glastonbury if they make non-broadcast a condition of the performance. The question wasn't so much who but why? Why were The Who performing at Glastonbury? I think it was simply because they're a world famous act. They have 'celebrity'.

I arrived at the beginning of this week reflecting, yet again, on how celebrity is ruining our culture. If you're not a celebrity, then you're obviously nobody, and perhaps it's because of the problems associated with being a nobody that an otherwise excellent band like the Fat White Family (a bit blues, a bit Velvet Underground, a lot The Doors) have to resort to the tales of the sordid excess in order to get noticed and then heard. The same is true of writers, actors, artists, comedians. To get noticed, you must doing something in excess. You must run out on stage whilst Kanye West is performing. You must paint your work in your own excrement or blood. You must write your book whilst sitting in a cupboard for ten years and never seeing daylight...

Then John Noakes went missing.

I can't think of many people who have meant as much to me as John Noakes. Yet to describe what he did is to skirt around the phrase 'celebrity'. He was, of course, a TV presenter, which usually is a job that amounts to very little. Presenters are usually celebrities. Vernon Kaye and Claudia Winkleman are both celebrities but I can't honestly tell you of a single discernible skill either of them has to make them worth the money the BBC pays them. Cut their wage to a sixth and you'd still find people equally adept at fronting that kind of show. I'm serious. I fail to understand why the BBC think it important to pay millions to people who are merely presenters. A disembodied robotic voice could link segments together almost as well... Did I say 'almost'? Well, I meant to say 'better'.

Yet Noakes wasn't simply a presenter. He was an accidental comedian. In fact, when I think of what I like in comedy, I think about those qualities that Noakes embodied. He was relaxed and slightly unprofessional in a way you can perhaps see in the very best comedy. You see it in the Marx Brothers but also in Robin Williams or Steve Martin. Noakes made mistakes and allowed people to see his mistakes, a bit like Stewart Lee does when he highlights a mistake and weaves it into his set. Noakes was a clown but doing serious work in the very same way that Clive James would always use humour to make a deeper point. Yet beyond all of that, Noakes was simply likable and so very and utterly human. He was the best uncle many of us have ever had with any degree of regularity in our lives.

When he went missing yesterday, I was upset. I don't know why. I'm not ashamed to admit that when I tried to explain it to somebody later on, I actually found myself getting teary eyed. I didn't realise how much John Noakes meant to me. He must have meant a lot because I even used Twitter to look for updates. Perhaps I wanted to find other people who shared my upset and I was genuinely heartened to find that there were others just like me. It reminded me that not everybody on Twitter is a hate filled troll.

Yet there were, predictably, a few others who saw it as another opportunity to make cheap jokes about the disappearance of an 81 year old man suffering from Alzheimer's. They are the people who made me quit Twitter or, at least, have minimal contact with social media. They are the always-looking-for-a-laugh narcissists, who are always at your elbow playing everything for laughs. They're the Colin Hunts of the online world who give a bad name to anybody who has ever tried to make people laugh for a living.

I suppose what I find irritating about them is that I could easily be one of those people myself. When I first used Twitter, I used it as a way of writing jokes and being 'witty'. Yet you soon find it's an insatiable medium. Your best material is stolen by others and the many of the people also in the business of being funny are quite happy to steal their material from old joke books. People who aren't serious about comedy seem unable to stop trying to be funny. Serious comedians are often described as sulky and miserable when they're not on stage but that's because people assume that to have a comedic outlook on life means that you're always 'up for a laugh'. In my limited experience, it's quite the reverse. It's why I despise Twitter. It's also a place where you're always encouraged to be that little bit more edgy. When I write what I write about real people, I don't mean to hurt them. I write knowing there's a distance between my writing and the chances of their reading what I write. Twitter is very different. Your words too easily end up in their timeline, seen by their eyes. Twitter magnifies the venom and I quit the moment I realised this. I quit the moment people began confusing my comic creation with the real Richard Madeley.

Others didn't share my concerns and still don't. Twitter comedians are no comedians in my eyes. They're precisely the people I didn't want to become when I was growing up. What I wanted to be was some latter day John Noakes, who was a free spirit, fascinated by the world but never to the point of pretension. He was funny but never to the point where it would begin to wear on you. He was balanced pretty evenly in that place where the best human beings exist: good natured, interested and, above all things, simply humane.

It's why his disappearance yesterday upset me. Not because John Noakes the celebrity had gone missing. It was because I remembered John Noakes as simply the best example of a generous, witty but unashamedly joyous spirit there was when I was growing up. He's one of the best examples of our kind and of a better age, before Twitter exposed us all to the vile psychopaths who hurt people in the name of humour. I'm now at the stage when I actively despise people who try to be funny on Twitter. They're little more than piss-soaked mongrels howling at the heels of the braying mob. Yesterday reminded me that they're still out there seeking their celebrity. And the sad truth is: one day their excesses might become so great that they might indeed find it.


  1. I agree with you entirely here. I'm all for making jokes about controversial topics but it's only truly funny when you're punching up not down. Mocking a man with dementia just isn't funny, mocking a self obsessed wealthy celebrity or hypocritical politician can be funny if it's done right.
    It's one reason I could never get on with Little Britiain, it made fun of the weakest among us, working class girls, the poor and unfortunate.

  2. Thanks Stephen. You're exactly right. Punching up is precisely the point I've always made about comedy. You remind me now how much I utterly hated 'Little Britain' and seemed to walk around being the only person who could see how insulting it was. In fact, I remember writing this about it years ago when it was at the height of its fame. I think it's pretty indicative of the BBC that they invested so much into Little Britain and why I think the BBC is largely out of touch with the rest of the country. That's not to say I don't suppose the license fee but I wish they'd use it better.