Would we have been rolling about in laughter if James Callaghan had won the election in 1979?

Peter D`Sena  

Image © Ingo Hoehn

Peter D’Sena wonders if Callaghan had won

the election of 1979,

would so-called alternative

comedy and its associated forms of popular

culture have had a very different

genesis, trajectory and influence.


“Ladies aaaand Gentlemen!”, bellows the compere. “Please give a warm welcome our headline act tonight: the one, the only, Jim Davidson!”

It’s a Saturday night in March 1983 and in a new West End club (let’s call it the Comic Shop) the atmosphere is hot, sweaty, smoky and slightly claustrophobic.  Our hero struts on and, as this is ‘Sit Down’ comedy, he perches on a stool, Perry Como style, in order to start his routine.  A heckler in the crowd drunkenly berates the leader of the opposition (Willie Whitelaw), but even his jibe about the nation’s big, bushy browed soft target falls on deaf ears – the age of political apathy of the ’70s, has by this time grown apace and the passive audience quickly hushes this would-be participant down.  And why shouldn’t they?  The opposition is becoming merely ornamental.  After all, inflation is down into single figures; the labour party seems to be in internal harmony, especially after buying the loyalty of the Liberals and preventing the formation of a splinter group (the would-be SAP); and labour’s deputy leader, Tony Benn, not only seems to be a credible complement and successor to Callaghan, but also likely to capture a greater margin of victory in the general election called for a few months time.  Even for the few who are bothered to politicise, there seems to be more to laugh than cry about.  Dr Owen’s tactics of submarine diplomacy, in 1982, proved enough to prevent the quirky Argentinian leadership from taking the Falklands; Callaghan has pulled back from schmoozing with the new president – the B-list actor, Reagan and distanced himself from Star Wars; and the death of Brezhnev has opened the door to the possibility of a socialist-dominated Europe moving closer to reciprocal agreements with the new Soviet leadership.  Unemployment, which had been a threat in the late ’70s, seems to be turning around, so much so that a TV show called Boys from the Black Stuff won’t be taken beyond its pilot.   The show with a character called Loadsamoney looks to have much more potential under Labour than Yosser Hughes.  This is an age of parody rather than post-modern irony, and in the media the closest thing to conflict is the TV ratings war, where it’s a close call between Blind Date and Fantasy Island

So, what is there to laugh at tonight?  Clearly much of the same old stuff.  Davidson starts his routine safely: “An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman walked into the pub … blah, blah, blah …”  Ten minutes after that we get the signature stuff with Chalky White heading the cast list of the mocked. Notably, our headliner isn’t gonged off by our unalternative audience, rather he leaves to cheers after two encores. He is the ultimate Sit Down and certainly the best of the (usually) male only bill.  But the Comic Shop’s days are numbered, as crowds aren’t normally this big and by the end of the year it turns back into a disco, the closure deemed necessary after the brief, unsuccessful experiment to showcase comedians who, rather than crack one liners, instead made lengthy observations about figures people had neither heard of, or cared about. (Just for information: the speediest recourses to the gong were for one man who droned on about some nobody called Ian MacGregor and another called Jerry Sadowitz, who seemed to think it was funny to abuse anyone and everyone, including national icons.)

Counterfactualism is a fascinating intellectual tool and, not unimportantly, can be fun, if not necessarily funny.  Looking at just this one aspect of popular culture – comedy- creates more than a debate, even with its gross generalisations, speculations and Whiggish conclusions about shifts from a post-war Carry On culture to, arguably, our present, self-satisfied, nuanced levels of engagement with politics and satire.  It also encourages an interrogation of the relationships between humour in public spheres, expressions of individual and institutional political correctness and incorrectness and constructions and the treatment of the ‘sociological other’.  Other bloggers could, with equal or greater validity, have chosen to focus on music, sport, the theatre, film, TV and so on.  But my view is that in its broadest sense, humour can affect people’s everyday lives, interactions and interpersonal dynamics.  We all should know how humour can clothe remarks which cause casual humiliation, through racism, sexism and so on and so forth.  And so I present the question: is it possible that without Mrs Thatcher’s victory in 1979 and the consequent and deserved intellectual and moral outrage against her policies and actions, that the politicisation of comedy would not have happened in the same way, pace or scale as it did and, importantly, permeated into our day-to-day behaviour?  Maybe that didn’t happen anyway.  Whatever – Ben Elton, Jo Brand, Arthur Smith, Paul Merton, Mark Thomas and Eddie Izzard and all the many other alternative comedians who graced the large and small venues in the 1980s, would still, obviously, have existed, but maybe not as successful comedians feeding off the contexts of class division, protest, growing inequity and Mrs Thatch.  It is possible that the political sustenance of their observations, particularly in the case of Thomas, would have been quite different, though perhaps, like Elton, he would have quickly shown comic adaptability.  For others, especially most of the Oxbridge crowd, many of whom (some thought) made their fleeting appearances on the alternative scene to tick another box, political contexts were of passing interest to their acts rather than critical to their well starred careers.  Certainly, the early rewards, in the 1980s, from that curious barometer of corporate comedy – the Perrier Awards – went to those players in the scripted funniness of the Footlights.  Twenty years on and into the reign of Blair, apart from the Perrier’s name change, the tradition of exclusivity seemed to continue: in both 2001 and 2002 no female comics were even shortlisted; while in 2009 only white males performing at the Pleasance were nominated.  Two points proved, I think: about the elite – plus ça change; and for real alternative comedy – it has been successful at remaining alternative (as epitomised by Attila the Stockbroker).

One comedian of the day famously used to claim that his and others’ acts would die once Mrs Thatcher lost office.  But regulars in the audiences in the ‘80s would say that alternative comedy both grew out of and developed into a phenomenon far bigger than one formed mainly around her or her regime.  Neither were the venues just excuses for places with Spitting Image-style scenes heavily laced with booze (though they could be boozy).  They were not always, but they were sometimes places of political resistance in degrees, and certainly defiant discourses, in a Britain where inequity was becoming less surprising, more prominent and less tolerable every day.  Not everybody might have realised all of that at the time, but now they are probably among the people who say, when they see a middle-aged comedian on the One Show or hosting or judging on some game show or other: ‘I remember him or her when (s)he used to be funny’!  Funny … they would probably be saying that no matter who had won the election in 1979.

Peter D’Sena is Discipline Lead for History at The Higher Education Academy, York.  Between 1982 and 1996 he heckled his way around most of London’s ‘alternative’ comedy circuit.

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