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Russell Kane: Why working class people like Boris Johnson

Comedian Russell Kane on March 21, 2017 in London, United Kingdom - Credit: Photo by Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images

“The working class people I grew up with are voting Tory, and the trendy middle class professionals I work with in London are voting Labour. It’s all topsy-turvy.”

I wish this was the warm-up to one of those long, rolling observational gags that have made Russell Kane one of the country’s most successful comedians. Sadly, it is nothing more than his brutally simple assessment of where we are, politically. 

It has never struck me as odd that trendy middle class professionals would want to vote Labour. But what the once predominantly Labour working classes see in a scruffy, entitled, narcissistic product of Eton, Oxford and various right wing media organs, with a litany of insulting and patronising assessments of the working man and woman in his cuttings files, is something I still struggle with.

One poll recently gave Boris Johnson a 16-point advantage over Labour leader Keir Starmer among working class men. How? Why?

“They think they can relate to him. He makes mistakes. He messes about. He’s not PC. He’s not that bothered what people like you and me think about him. He’s a character. 

“Labour are just too worthy these days. A lot of people got the sense with Jeremy Corbyn that he doesn’t really like them, doesn’t understand them, doesn’t want them to get on, doesn’t like the country. Keir Starmer’s got his work cut out repairing all that.”

Twice he cites Margaret Thatcher as a political figure who had a positive influence on his life. His parents eventually bought their council house. He also claims Thatcher was the first world leader to put the environment properly on the map. 

He will not, however, be joining those friends from his childhood in voting Tory, but nor will he be voting Labour. He is a member of the Green Party, even if one of his Perrier award-winning sketches was about two Green Party activists, fully naked, working themselves into a state of high arousal, then breaking off to separate the card and the tin in the kitchen, rising to levels of virtue that have them reaching orgasm without touching each other.

“You have to be able to laugh at your own views. If you can’t tolerate your own position being challenged it weakens you. Do not cancel. I was never against having Nick Griffin on Question Time. Fucking bring it on. I knew what would happen. I mean, where is he now? 

“And Trump. I didn’t want him banned from coming here. I wanted to see him paraded down Regent Street, so the world could see what Britain thought of him.’

Raised in what he repeatedly calls a “ghetto” in Essex, he says he had no idea until he was 17 or 18 that there existed people who lived a different sort of life. “I just assumed that life for everyone was, grow up, smoke weed in the park, get a job in the care home or the shop or the building site, then wait for death. I had no idea there was this other route you could take – read loads, learn loads, do better than the posh kids, earn more money.

“We had two books in the house, my dad’s diving manual, and my mum’s microwave cookbook. I was really bright in primary school, always top of the class, but once I got to senior school, nothing. I get the principle of comprehensive education, the idea everyone should have a good education, but it is not what happens. 

“When they get there, especially boys, it’s about survival, it’s about losing your virginity, trying drugs and who can be the toughest. So my values were inverted from education to social prowess.”

It was after leaving school that Kane discovered the joy of books. “I decided to read my way out of the ghetto. Once I realised it was a tool that could help you advance, that was a happy accident and I used it. I had fallen out with my dad and was living with my nan, and I did A levels through the post. I got the fastest-ever A grade for enrolment.

“Betty Boothroyd gave me my award. Then I got to university and I was the only one to get a first in my degree course.”
I had long known he was funny, but hadn’t quite realised until meeting him just how well-read he is. I did Flaubert to degree level, yet he is suddenly quoting from lesser-known Flaubert novels I have never read.

We share the view that Madame Bovary is one of, if not the, greatest novels of all time, even if he somewhat overstates the heroine’s immorality in saying “she went out and banged the whole village.” Two lovers, I remind him. 

He is also a former winner of Celebrity Mastermind, specialist subject The Life And Novels Of Evelyn Waugh. “I got two wrong on Waugh, and one on general knowledge… ‘what is the German bread known as the farting devil?’… Pumpernickel.” He says it as though it was a terrible lapse not to have known.

“I am a bit like Evelyn Waugh in that he was upper middle class obsessed with aristocracy. I was working class obsessed with middle class people sitting on pink fluffy couches in Soho, brainstorming.”

Comedian Russell Kane performs during the 2019 Latitude Festival – Credit: Photo by Keith Mayhew/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

A late developer on the book front, the same goes for his comedy, a career turn which happened almost by accident. “I got a job as a copywriter in an ad agency – I became one of the people on the fluffy couches – and someone said that I was always making people laugh, so why not try comedy?

“I didn’t know anything about stand-up, but I checked out the Comedy Club, thought I could give it a go, booked a slot, and it all went from there.”

There are, he says, two types of stand-up. “Type A are the good writers, Frankie Boyle, Bill Hicks, Chris Rock, Jimmy Carr. They craft the jokes. You read them on a page and they are brilliant.

“Type B comedians monetise their personality. They say stuff they would have said anyway, but into a mic. 

“I am type B. I don’t write anything. If I am doing a new show, I will book a 60-minute slot, and go out with ten bullet points. Maybe talk about my wife losing her temper if she gets bad service in restaurants. Or talk embarrassing you by reading my own version of your diaries, about you fantasising about having sex with Ann Widdecombe.” (He did this when we were on the same TV show.)

“If it works, I keep it for the next night, if not I dump it or adapt, then in a weird Darwinian way I find the ultimate way of telling these stories. Type A are jealous of type B because we just improvise and can do it fast. But the downside is that Type B get forgotten.”

“Billy Connolly is Type B. He won’t be forgotten,” I say.

“Yeah, but he’s Billy Connolly. We can’t all be Billy Connolly.”

As for his own idea of a great comedy night out, “One hour of Stewart Lee, followed by an hour of Tim Vine.”

I ask if there are ever any subjects or events that you simply cannot even try to be funny about.

“Yes. We had one recently, Sarah Everard’s murder. I was getting lots of messages saying this was my platform, connecting with forward-thinking straight men, and doing the whole ‘not all men’ are sexual predators. But comedy is glitter, and you cannot put glitter on a woman being murdered.

“Seven days later, when people had stopped being arrested, I came out with a speech about what was wrong with sex education, but I never mentioned the case.”

There is no quick fix to the issues thrown up be the case, he suggests, but cites a famous Tony Blair soundbite as the key: “Education, education, education.”

“It’s not going to be sorted by a handbook and a YouTube video. The education has to start in primary schools. But every time people have tried to get proper sex education, as soon as it gets to that nursing home, the House of Lords, it gets blocked.

“It’s like we believe that if we teach people about sex, they will all go out and do nothing but have sex. We teach about Henry the Eighth but nobody goes out beheading fucking ginger people as a result.

“My five-year-old is always asking ‘what is that thing between your legs?’, or ‘where do babies come from?’ Primary school sex education should be mandatory, or else porn is your first teacher, and if porn is your first teacher you are going to have a warped view of women.”

He worries, too, that the ‘all men are predators’ approach  might make things worse. “One of my favourite experiments was about a photo of a dad with his young daughter and her soccer team. Young girls in shorts and vests, dad there with them. When the picture was shown to French, Spanish, Italian and German people, they see a picture of a dad with his daughter and her team.

“Here and in the US we see a paedophile. We have to have a debate about how to protect women but the rhetoric we may use could inflame it, yet say those things, even ask those questions, you risk getting cancelled.”

I ask if he sees himself as a serious person who uses comedy to make serious points, or a funny person with a good brain who wants to make people laugh.

“The second one. If you ask me about heavy things, I will give you my view. But I am not a marcher. Ultimately I love arsing around. I love being on stage, getting my ego fed by people looking at me and thinking I am great, and making a living out of it. You won’t get many comedians giving you an answer as honest as that. But you cannot beat making people laugh.

“Babies laugh before they speak, so it is obviously a basic thing, and I love it. Say people are going through a bad time, they come to a show and they are bent over double laughing. When you’re having a laugh like that, you don’t give a shit about anything else. It’s the best feeling in the world.”

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