Monday, 9 January 2012

Christopher Biggins, David Cameron, and Ed "Tourette's Syndrome" Balls - and Captain Fuckbiscuit

I’m not sure I’ve ever met someone with Tourette’s Syndrome. The last time I saw a sufferer on TV was in Stephen Fry’s Planet Word series  The victim was a woman whose affliction caused her to shout out “Fuck! Biscuit!” every few seconds. I was inclined to be sympathetic until she dressed up as Captain Tourette’s and visited a state primary school to shout “Fuck! Biscuit!” at a class of five-year olds.

This, apparently, was in order to give the assembled munchkins an understanding of the condition. I can think of a lot of things five year-olds should be encouraged to grasp, but I would have thought Tourette’s could safely be left on the back-burner for a few years. And I couldn’t help wondering how many of the kiddies went home afterwards and asked mummy for a glass of milk and a fuck biscuit.

Mind you, if Ed Balls had been treated to a visit by Captain Tourette’s as a chubby little goggle-eyed tyke, perhaps he wouldn’t now be behaving like a sufferer in Parliament, where he apparently spends his whole time when Cameron or Osborne are on their feet using the sort of visual and verbal distraction techniques known in cricket as “sledging”.

I’ve always regarded sledging as an unappetising mixture of cheating and bullying, and I think umpires should be allowed to banish players who indulge in it to the boundary for the rest of the innings. It’s slightly more acceptable in the Commons, as I’m not at all sure that permanently distracting Britain’s MPs wouldn’t be a jolly good thing. But given that the present government is trying – no matter how tepidly – to ameliorate the results of Mr Balls’s own disastrous economic policies, and given his refusal to apologise for his own grotesque mistakes, you might think this utter arse of a man might have been sufficiently ashamed to keep his unattractive, lying mouth shut for a bit.

It’s not often I find myself singling out Christopher Biggins for praise, but in today’s Telegraph, he’s quoted as saying that David Cameron shouldn’t have have apologised for describing the Shadow Chancellor as behaving like someone with Tourette’s. Hear! Fuck Biscuit! Hear! (Given how many insults Biggins has received during the course of his career, I think he has probably achieved "expert" status on the subject.)

I can’t remember anyone complaining when David Cameron recounted his anecdote about Health Minister, Simon Burns, backing his car into the Speaker’s official limousine. (Apparently, a furious John Bercow shouted “I’m not happy!”, to which Burns replied, “Well, which one are you then?”) But, weirdly, Burns himself had to apologise to dwarf charities when, on another occasion, he called Bercow “a stupid, sanctimonious dwarf”. Why??? 

A regular commenter on this blog quoted a description of Diane Abbot as sounding like a sulky teenager recovering from a stroke.  Is that insulting to either sulky teenagers or stroke victims? Of course not – it’s simply a brilliant observation, deftly expressed. Many stroke victims speak indistinctly, and many sulky teenagers are no doubt almost as unbearable as Diane Abbott.

There are areas I think we should avoid when it comes to jokes. Personally, I find Ricky Gervais describing people as “mongs” offensive – in fact, most attempts at humour featuring Down’s Syndrome sufferers strike me as tasteless. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because there’s a certain “Holy Fool” innocence about them that makes them seem especially vulnerable. Or because, as a group, they are so physically distinctive that I assume the “comic” is referring to someone’s physical characteristics, rather than their mental capacity. Contrariwise, I remember being torn off a strip by a colleague in the newsroom who (unknown to me) was the mother of a Down’s Syndrome child after I’d called someone a “retard” to their face. I apologised profusely, of course (to the mother, not the retard) – but I never think of mongols as retarded. (By the way, “mongols” strikes me as a perfectly acceptable term, given that it seems a vaguely accurate description of common physical features, and, given that Mongols are, in general, a handsome race with an impressive history.)

There’s no hard and fast rule about any of this, of course. Like most people, I’m weary of the unremittingly casual cruelty of so many panel-based comedy programmes. But I’m also sick of the rest of us having to tip-toe around pre-filtering everything we say on the off-chance that someone, somewhere might be offended. Tough!

There is a world of difference between, say, Frankie Boyle’s unfunny “joke” about Down’s Syndrome victims all looking the same – which invited us to laugh at mongols – and the PM’s remarks about Tourette’s Syndrome, which invited us to laugh at Ed Balls.

After all, If you can’t laugh at Ed Balls, life’s hardly worth living.


  1. I think that you have just put your finger on something that most people of our generation, schooled in the 60s and 70s, struggle with. Part of us - and the bit most of us prefer in ourselves - wants to continue to satirise the ridiculous and objects to attempts to place limits on how we do so. Another part feels profoundly uncomfortable when that leads to tasteless and cruel humour. I have always wanted to think that no subject should be immune from having the piss taken out of it for much the same reason as I object to regulation of the Internet, whatever its excesses.

    And yet I found myself coming over all Disgusted of TW at Gervais and his Mong posts, in a way that I didn't at the Little Britain sketch of Andy in his wheelchair. I've tried to convince myself that it's simply because one is funny and one is not. But it's more than that. I'm not even sure that it's as simple as differentiating between laughing at a syndrome or at a person. I regularly try to imitate Ed Miliband and his speech impediment, yet that I feel uncomfortable that this puts me a little bit into Frankie Boyle territory.

  2. The Labour party has thrown up some distinctly odd people over the years. Remember George Brown and his desire to take the Bishop of Caracas on to the dance-floor? A random selection, say George Brown, Michael Foot, Neill Kinnock, Dennis Skinner, Peter Mandelson, John Prescott, George Brown, Ed Balls, Ed Milliband, all add flesh to a definition of the "Idiot Savant":
    "An idiot savant is a somewhat derogatory term for a person who has significant mental impairment, such as in autism or retardation. At the same time, the person also exhibits some extraordinary skills, which are unusual for most people. The skills of the savant may vary from being exceptionally gifted in music or in mathematics, or having a photographic memory.
    Most often, the savant is a person who suffers from extreme autism. In autism, the idiot savant cannot reach out to other people in a normal way. He or she may find it extremely difficult to express emotions, to communicate through spoken language, or to use inflection while speaking. Severe autistics function best when they have predictable routines." Source: wiseGEEK.

    They are also extremely sensitive. Having minced around with his faithful labrador and Brazilian boy-friend for a number of years Mandelson once threw a hissy fit in Brussells because someone wrote that he was "un homme serieux" which he interpreted as "a serious homo". I'll get back to you on Prescott.

    On the other hand, I would be careful about making fun of Milliband. There is a rumour that he is undergoing an intensive course of electro-convulsive shock therapy [giveaway signs: jerky physical movements, thick speech, dark rings around the eyes, vacuous facial expression].

    Your post [and ex-KCS comment] raises the very interesting point about the post-war shift in the British sense of humour away from gentle irony, sexual innuendo and self-deprecation towards blaring sarcasm and crude point-scoring at any cost.

  3. I remember my mother describign how the audiences at Beyong the Fringe howled with relief at being able to laugh at taboo subjects. I've always thought that - despite everything that came later - that was a sign of performers treating their audience like adults. Now, lour comedians tell the sort of sadistic, sick jokes that gave us a thrill when we discovered when at around the age of ten. What we get now is often simply school playground humour employed by emotionally retarded adults who think cruelty directed at the vulnerable is dead grown-up.

    As for Miliband - does he have a speech defect? I just thought he had a truly horrible voice. To me, he always sounds like someone doing an unconvincing impersonation of someone else.

  4. This is probably irrelevant, Psychologist, but Damian Thompson at the Telegraph is interesting about David Cameron and George Osborne's cruel sense of humour. He - a privileged posh boy himself - reckons it shows a contempt for people they consider to be "losers". This ties in with my previous comment, as they sometimes remind me of sneery sixth formers being nasty to those who aren't quite as rich or clever as them - they've just never lost the habit.

    It's an interesting point you make about the changes to old-style British comedy. I will return to it in a separate post.

    As for "idiot savants", I'm not sure I agree. Certainly, it woudl be hard to categorise any of the people you mention as savants: some of them were certainly idiots (Prescott, definitely). One thing that gets on the nerves of parents of autistic children is the assumption that most of them have unexpected talents, when the truth is that there are only ever about 30 autism sufferers across the world who have been identified as savants at any one time. I very much doubt that the Labour Party has included any of them in its sorry ranks. Aspergers sufferers, certainly, which is often characterised by inappropriate behaviour due to an inability to read what's going on in other people's minds. I have a feeling Ed Miliband may be at the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum where Asperger's sufferers can be found - because he does appear to be utterly unaware of the effect of his behaviour on the rest of us.

    I wrote recently about my sense of embarrassment over Miliband's performance as Labour leader. I now realise that what I'm experiencing is pity!