As the light began to fade, I saw two sisters in their fifties skip-dancing by the Blackpool Tower in the style of Morecambe and Wise. I went over to them and told them I was researching a book.
“Oh,” said one of them smiling, “and there was me thinking you’d talent-spotted us.”
“We’re available for casting,” her sister said, laughing.
I asked whether they had a view on whether Blackpool comedy was offensive.
“I certainly do,” she said.
“Ooh, she’s very opinionated,” said her sister, “you can be spokesperson.”
“Comedy is exactly what it is,” the spokesperson sister said. “It makes you laugh. It doesn’t make you laugh because it’s prejudiced, it doesn’t make you laugh because it’s dark or rude or anything like that, it makes you laugh because you’re a human being and when you’re laughing, you’re laughing at yourself as much as the comedy. Because all comedy is human – it’s human language and it’s human antics and it’s what we all get up to, whether you want to admit it or not in this age of political correctness.”
I asked what political correctness meant to her.
“Political correctness is being aware of cultures and society around you and not stepping over the line of deliberately upsetting other people,” she said. “But comedy doesn’t deliberately set out to upset people, it sets out to engage people and make the barriers of that political correctness less blurred, so you’re all laughing together.”
I suggested that there were a lot of jokes directed towards women that could be seen as offensive or demeaning.
“I’m a woman,” she said, “and I laugh about it. I recognise within the comedy the fact that we can all behave like this at some time or another. It doesn’t mean that I’m an unkind person or that I’m nasty or anything like that, it means that I’m an ordinary human being that’s capable of laughing at the smallest things in life, which makes the bigger things easier to deal with.”
I suggested there might be a continuum between attitudes towards women promoted in music hall comedy and deeper prejudice and abuse.
“Well,” she said, “when I was being abused by my husband, none of it started it as a joke, and a joke would have just been the excuse for the behaviour. It’s not the catalyst, it’s the excuse for the behaviour – I don’t think it makes the behaviour normalised or anything like that.”
“There are obviously grey areas,” she went on, “and I mean if you’re looking at jokes about, say the slave trade, that’s a little bit too difficult, because it affected people directly, so that’s really difficult for those people to listen to jokes about it. But equally, I’ve been abused and I can still laugh at a joke, and within that laughter, you learn to deal with your own pain in your own way, and it’s more therapeutic than sitting down in front of a therapist years later. And society has the danger now of removing itself, because of political correctness, from the ability just to have a really good laugh and a chuckle and just to let it go.”
“Comedy is escapism, isn’t it,” her sister said. “It isn’t supposed to be taken seriously. But there are cultures in the world that don’t get comedy and especially don’t get British comedy.”
“We’re all eccentric at one level of another,” she went on, “and I think that’s what a lot of people don’t get. And I think that the more people that come into the mix, the more difficult it is for them to understand that because of their cultural backgrounds, because what we laugh at in this country, people in other countries might look at it and think ‘why are they laughing about that?’”
I asked whether that meant it was the responsibility of the people who came to the UK to learn more about the customs of the country.
“If I go and live in France,” she said, “I’d learn about that culture, about the expectations, what’s accepted behaviour and what’s not accepted behaviour, but you also want to influence the behaviours that are accepted and the norms, because society has to grow, hasn’t it?”
It seemed to me that she had set out beautifully a model for an integrated, multicultural society, where people who came in were expected to learn about and adapt to the culture, but where at the same time the culture was open to being influenced by those who came from outside.
“I think we’ve lived through a curve haven’t we,” said her sister. “We’ve gone from like where women couldn’t do anything: we didn’t have the vote, we were treated like second-class citizens, and then you had the Suffragettes and now we’ve come through to like empowered women who are independent, work and so on, so we’ve travelled that journey haven’t we?”
“But,” she went on, “there are lots of areas of society that are trying to keep women from speaking out, from having an education, from mixing with the men, from having to do all the different things.”
I asked who she meant.
“Well,” she said, “certain areas of ISIS, interpretations of various texts, whether it’s the Bible or Catholic. Various religious beliefs.”
“Does comedy have an influence on that,” her sister asked her, “or is it so far removed from it that it has no influence?”
“I think if ISIS engaged in comedy,” her sister said, “women would have more of a say about following men, what dress they had to wear and all the rest of it because the comedy would challenge the authority.”
“Now you’ve got stories coming out from the First World War,” she went on, “of views written by German and British soldiers and the views are remarkably the same, because at the end of the day, they’re human beings. And when people saw the humanity in that situation, they got up and played a game of football on Christmas Day and gave a dying soldier a drop of their water, even though he was the enemy. And I think that if you don’t have the ability to look outside the box, which I think is what comedy is, then I think you lose that ability to have that kind of reaction to things, and you’re more concerned about stepping over the line, so you don’t.”