ddespite wearing a supportive EU blue-and-gold hat to the first post-referendum parliament, the Queen’s genius was that she remained a mystery, a blank canvas the whole nation could project its hopes and dreams on to. Personally, I loved the Queen. She hung on long enough to accept, definitively, the resignation of Boris Johnson, who lied to her about proroguing parliament and parted under lockdown even though she grieved alone for her late husband, dutifully following the guidance Johnson’s Brexit government had laid down. She knew she could not rest until he was gone.
I’m joking of course. But questions remain. One of the last people the Queen was photographed with was Liz Truss who, as an 18-year-old student politician declared she wanted to see the monarchy destroyed. One thing you can say about Truss is that she never changes her mind about anything and always sticks to her beliefs. You don’t have to be Columbo to realize Truss had both motive and opportunity. And that, like those cheeses, is delicious!
I’m joking of course. But is it appropriate to joke about anything during this period of national mourning? People have been struggling to decide on the correct way to commemorate, and to grieve for, Her Majesty. For example, while the Queen lay in Westminster Hall unsightly homeless people were dispersed by the police, leaving the pavements clear for 30-hour queues of street-sleeping monarchists. Swings and roundabouts.
I’m joking of course! I completely understand the feelings of those who think it’s wrong to make jokes like the ones above, or indeed about anything, at the moment, and I only wrote them as theoretical examples of some things that it would be wrong to say. People holding blank pieces of paper are being arrested for less. However, my own BBC Two stand-up special Tornado was pulled, as much comedy has been, at the last moment from last Sunday’s TV schedule for reasons that remain opaque. Tornado contains only one swear word, and does not mention the Queen, or any members of the royal family. And it doesn’t mention death either, apart from a comically exaggerated description of the flying shark scene from the sci-fi film Sharknado, which is also inoffensive, unless of course any members of the royal family have been killed by flying sharks. Which they may have been. We do not know. They are very private people.
That said, I sympathize with the BBC regarding the transmission of comedy at the moment. The corporation’s bad-faith critics in the Conservative party, and the national press that does its bidding, will find a way of making whatever decision the cowed state broadcaster makes the wrong one. Which is why it is even more puzzling that, having pulled my show, the BBC chose to fill the aching void in the hearts of my millions of disappointed fans with an unscheduled screening of Colettethe 2018 biopic of the 19th-century French writer of the same name, a film arguably far more offensive than the program it replaced.
My show featured only one sexual reference (describing Netflix’s Scandi-noir style drama After Life as “the televisual equivalent of a nine-hour crying wank”), whereas Colette featured seven actual sex scenes, three involving a man and a woman and four involving two women. It is perhaps insensitive to show lesbians on TV during the current situation, as the Queen’s great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria, when invited to pass legislation outlawing them, is rumored to have said they did not exist. Although reasonable people will have no issues with it, perhaps the presence of some lesbians in a time of national mourning could be construed as a deliberate insult by the Marxist BBC to the memory of Queen Victoria and thus to the royal family in general.
Watching one of Colette‘s sex scenes, my mind wandered somewhat, leading to an inevitable involuntary physical reaction. Then I began to worry that, like the Pavlova-eating dogs that all men essentially are, I would come to associate these stirrings with any subsequent period of national mourning, provoking the predictable downward rush of blood when confronted with any image of royal tragedy. I am the BBC’s biggest supporter, but nevertheless it is thoughtless to put innocent male viewers of a certain age in this position.
I think for the BBC to pull me off, when all I’ve done is say wank and describe a shark attack, and to replace me with seven sex scenes, four of which featured lesbians that don’t exist, is misjudged. But perhaps that’s what the Queen would have wanted. We do not know. She was a very private person.
When assembling the bill for the 1912 Royal Command Performance, to be attended by King George V, the impresario Oswald Stoll seized his chance to steer British comedy away from the radicalism and vulgarity of the music hall, sensing a much larger market for a more sanitized product Britain’s most popular comedian of the day, Marie Lloyd, was noticeably excluded. Lloyd had sung the refrain: “She sits among the cabbages and peas” and when challenged on its meaning had offered to change the line to: “She sits among the cabbages and leeks.” Perhaps more importantly, Lloyd had also been a huge presence in the 1907 music hall comedians’ strike. Music hall died, variety was born, and from then on “variety shows” featured the sort of acts it would be appropriate to stage before royalty. And of course everything went downhill pretty fast. If you can perform your act in front of a king or a queen it probably isn’t worth doing. At least ask them to rattle their jewellery, as John Lennon did at the Royal Variety Performance of 1963. The young Queen Elizabeth, it was noted, laughed along like everyone else.
Stewart Lee’s Snowflake is currently available on the BBC iPlayer. The delayed Tornado will be on BBC Two on Thursday 29 September at 11.15pm, or Sunday 9 October at 10.45pm. I don’t know. Dates for the upcoming Basic Lee tour are at stewartlee.co.uk/live-dates
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