The craving to belong to a persecuted minority, and conviction that one actually does, are salient characteristics of the modern Left, and Geoff Norcott sends up such humourless types by describing himself as the only Conservative comedian.
Like most jokes, his claim is an exaggeration. But it is a good way of puncturing what he calls “the towering moral pomposity” of some members of the Left.
On The Mash Report on BBC2, Nish Kumar introduces Norcott as “the voice of Conservative Britain” who can “tell us where the Labour Party is going wrong”. Yet Norcott, a lightly bearded man in a black tee-shirt, looks at first sight like any other modern comedian.
That is part of the joke. So too is the fact that Norcott’s lines, though not unfunny, are not of greater comic brilliance than those of his overwhelmingly left-wing contemporaries. He just takes aim at different targets, such as John McDonnell:
“He’s the shadow Chancellor and he doesn’t even like money. That’s like putting a vegan in charge of the barbecue. Great, everybody’s getting grilled red peppers tonight. No lamb chops for anybody. That’s how socialism works, basically.”
When Norcott came out as a Conservative, there were suspicions he was just rebranding himself, in order to stand out from the crowd of conceited Lefty comedians, and find work on every occasion when the BBC wishes to demonstrate impartiality.
But he presents his allegiance with a kind of tactful understatement. He does not want everyone in the audience to get up and leave. So he will say to a large crowd:
“I voted Conservative at the last few elections. Have we got any Tories here? It seems demographically unlikely, but let’s go with it. Three and a half thousand people, seven Tories. Let’s go with that. I mean voting Conservative is like buying a James Blunt album, isn’t it. You know in fact millions of people have done it, but weirdly you never meet them.”
Here is a man who enjoys seducing hostile audiences, and who says in interviews that “a reluctant laugh is a wonderful thing”. In an earlier stage of his career (he is now 41) he worked as a supply teacher, and as he told the wonderful Lloyd Evans in a recent interview for The Spectator:
“A classroom is a dangerous place. They’re young kids. Some of them throw stuff. They’re looking for an adult figure. I felt teenagers are quite basic creatures, they can be easily led. If they think you look sharp, they’ll give you a level of respect. So I always used to wear a good suit, tie, clean-shaven. And being a strict teacher, it made them happy, not initially, but once they’d bounced off you a couple of times, to see where the lines were, they just relaxed, you could see them relax, ‘OK, this guy’s going to control this environment.'”
There speaks an instinctive Conservative, or at least conservative, who knows schoolchildren crave authority and find anarchy unsatisfying. He grew up in a political household on a council estate in Sutton, on the southern edges of London.
Both his parents were disabled, a point he sometimes makes in order to confound those Lefties who imagine that Conservatives want to persecute the disabled. His father was an ardent trade unionist, who sat on Labour’s National Executive Committee, while his mother stood for the local council as a Liberal Democrat. Young Geoff disapproved of those neighbours who appeared to be making no effort to get on in life:
‘”I was quite judgey about the kids that didn’t go to school and weren’t trying to better themselves. I remember one day particularly I came home from school and my mum was still in her dressing-gown, and I said, ‘For God’s sake! Get dressed! Achieve something with your day’, although she was a hardworking woman.”
He disapproves of anyone wearing a dressing-gown during the day. One imagines that he regards Oblomov, Goncharov’s great novel about a man addicted to wearing a dressing-gown rather than leading a life of action, as a tragedy rather than a comedy – which perhaps it is, though the first hundred pages are some of the funniest ever written.
The young Norcott was sent to Rutlish School, whose most famous old boy, Sir John Major, returned to the school while he was there, turned out to be a more impressive figure than his Spitting Image puppet suggested, and proceeded, to the headmaster’s displeasure, to play to the gallery: “When I was here, I didn’t work much, I didn’t pass many exams, and now I’m prime minister.”
Norcott declined, in his interview with Evans, to take the fashionably dismissive view of Theresa May:
“I watched her have her coughing fit [at the party conference in October] and everyone was saying, ‘The last thing you want is pity.’ And I thought, ‘Why? Why is the last thing you want pity?’ In modern politics people want to feel something, more than anything. That’s true with Trump, true with Brexit. They just want to feel something, and maybe watching this woman who is trying to execute something very difficult, trying to hold together her cabinet, with all these things falling apart around her, I just have a hunch it might play out OK for her.”
One might add that voters sometimes warm to an implausible leader, who comes through the field and wins an unexpected victory after being written off by self-important pundits who turn out to be cut off from public opinion.
It seems to me that if comedy doesn’t work out for Norcott, he could have a future as a political commentator of unusual perceptiveness, who understands that everything is in flux, and that contentions which are correct at one point may be mistaken at another. As he put it towards the end of 2016 in a piece for The Independent, after Kate Bush had surprised people by describing Theresa May as “wonderful” and “the best thing that’s happened” to the UK for a long time:
“I’ve had my own experience of this ‘coming out’ as a Conservative stand-up comedian. The main difference is I’m not at all famous and my comedy hasn’t spent several decades interwoven into the psyche of the nation. When I expressed my voting habits, no-one had formed a view of me which I could disappoint. I did run it by my ‘fan base’ (Malcolm) and he was absolutely fine with it.
“If Kate is worried – and I doubt such mortal things trouble her – I’m sure other entertainers will be similarly nonplussed. Comedians were very decent with me. Some were disappointed, but artists of any kind tend to prize ideas over ideology…
“What about the idea that people’s political identities might be fluid over their lifetime? Mine was. I voted Labour in 1997 and 2001, Lib Dem in 2005 and Tory since then. The journey has admittedly been moving steadily right, but who’s to say I won’t lurch back towards socialism in old age? (Me, plus everything I’ve learned, plus reason, common sense and my mortgage.)”
In the 1880s, when the serious-minded wife of an Oxford don suggested to Lord Randolph Churchill (father of Winston) that Conservative supporters who had joined the wildly successful Primrose League, set up in memory of Benjamin Disraeli, were in need of some solid political education, the noble lord replied: “No, the only way is to amuse them: they’re quite incapable of anything else.”
That too was an exaggeration, but many of the greatest Conservative leaders have in one way or another been capable of giving vast amusement to their followers. Norcott declines to follow in their footsteps, for he says he is only interested in “the glory bit” of politics.
That is not true. He is interested in many other bits of politics too, and takes a realistic view of them. But to be even more addicted to telling jokes is for a Conservative, unlike a Lefty, no disgrace.