Reviewers of my novel Where’s Sailor Jack refer to my northern, or even my Lancastrian, sense of humour. I don’t mind that. They must mean Lancastrian because Yorkies are not known for cracking a joke or a smile, the estimable Joe Root aside. But my county, which can lay claim to Frank Randle, Arthur Askey, Ted Ray, Eric Morecambe, Eric Sykes, Ken Dodd, Les Dawson, Victoria Wood, Caroline Ahearn, Lee Mack and Peter Kay, along with countless others, clearly has something different going for it. I wish I really was that funny, or even be able to tell you what they have, hard as I’ll try.
It may well be that the southerner hasn’t had the benefits of the northerner’s disadvantages, as someone once said. I can’t full agree with that though. Life in the north is not grim, it’s friendly and cheerful. What happens in our lives is what matters to us. When people are asked what is meant by northern humour, the words most often used include warmth, sympathetic observation and self-deprecation. I can recall Arthur Askey towards the end of his life explaining how the lack of love for their characters put him off the Monty Python team. I’ve never liked the humour of embarrassment and feel similarly about The Office. My spoiler alert for any reader of this who hasn’t read my novel is that at no point will they find any misunderstandings which lead to shame-faced discomfort. I’ll have had the narrator yell out, “He’s behind you,” well before that point is reached. I’ve lived seventy years and have not found such awkward situations actually happening in real life, apart from when some self-anointed practical joker contrives one. The odd practical joke can be funny, but there aren’t many odd enough.
There are many southern comedians I enjoy. I used to love Ben Elton’s political rants, and Blackadder was brilliant. Yet the trite attempts at humour by some of the right-on guests of a programme like The News Quiz rarely make me laugh and the inane titterings of the audience are unthinkingly patronising. Even the self-deprecating southern stand-ups always seem to have to tell us how well and often they have satisfied their many lovers before starting on their patter. Lancastrian John Richardson has no need for that. I suppose to be fair, Ricky Gervais is excused from this criticism too. Bob Monkhouse was enormously funny with his quick fire quips in the Ted Ray Does the team think? tradition. His best, “People laughed when I said I wanted to be a comedian. Well they’re not laughing now,” is one of the great all-time jokes. But he couldn’t manage warmth. Londoner Micky Flanagan’s out-out routine is both observational and funny. He’s getting warmer but for me still falls at the needing to prove himself as Jack the Lad hurdle. Tim Vine’s one liners are fantastic, Michael McIntyre deserves his mega-stardom. But there’s not warmth oozing out of the screen.
There are exceptions. David Mitchell does manage self-deprecation very well, having had the good sense to team up with Lee Mack in Would I lie to you? Victoria Coren’s beautifully waspish comments are never unkind, and I think she has genuine affection for the likeable nerds on her clever quiz programme. Neither of them is Peter Kay though, leaving me splitting my sides as I fall off the couch. Warm, observational and self-deprecating, yes. But it’s that sense of the absurd that’s the clincher with him, such as when he went outside Jonathan Ross’s set and started pushing over The Gherkin building. Eric Morecambe had that visual comedic genius too.
And what about across the Atlantic? Bob Hope and Jack Benny certainly had better gags than Al Read in my youth. Today it’s a Canadian, Katherine Ryan, who I find their funniest. Canada counts as the north, doesn’t it?