20 May 2011

Our tuppence worth

The small town in which I grew up had its annual penny throwing session yesterday.

Penny throwing, do I hear you ask? Correct. Every year after the annual town council meeting, the main thoroughfare through the town is closed to traffic and the Mayor and other councillors chuck a load of 1p and 2p coins on to it for the local primary school kids to pick up.

I don't remember ever partaking when I was a kid, but I always remember it going on. Every household gets a leaflet through the door informing parents of when it's happening, and then it's up to them whether to take their kids along.

It dates back centuries as a town tradition. When the town was proclaimed a "rotten borough" - which, as we know from Blackadder, is a constituency in which the owner(s) of the land corruptly control the voters and elected representatives - there was a stage when candidates had to bribe people to acquire votes, and then pay them after being elected. This, as times matured and generations passed, turned into an annual penny throwing day for the local youngsters. My dad remembers gathering outside the town hall in the 1940s to grab whatever coinage he could. A photograph of this year's event on Facebook has prompted loads of my generation of kids to reminisce about the tuppences they scavenged off the street in the 1970s and 1980s from the town's leaders.

I expect there are other towns that do similar things, but it is nice to have some kind of quirky tradition still ongoing, even within a much more cynical age that regards history and ritual as less and less relevant.

And you can probably imagine some of the comments you'd get today about the act of chucking pennies into the road for kids to gather up while people watched and took photographs. There'd be health and safety barbs, semi-serious whines about chucking money away during spending cuts, and questions over whether people should be permitted to photograph schoolchildren in the street.

Fortunately, the town I grew up in is a mature and close-knit one, and this annual bit of civic tomfoolery remains gloriously unspoiled.

17 May 2011

Popular appeal

Stewart Lee appeared on the radio last week to promote his latest project. While talking to Richard Bacon on 5 Live, he said something that intrigued me and simultaneously troubled me. To this moment, I still don't quite know what to make of it.

In expressing his professional admiration of Michael McIntyre, arguably the most high-profile comedian in the UK, he said thus:

"He's proved you can be popular without being awful."

He wasn't chased up on this opinion, but at first glance - and second, and third, and so on - he essentially seems to be saying that anything that catches the attention of the wider general public must be bad.

I'm trying to find another interpretation for it, but I can't. I keep telling myself that there must be one.

McIntyre is the exception to Lee's rule, it seems. But other popular comedians - ones who get plentiful media exposure and fill arenas and theatres - seem to be equally as bad to Lee's crowd as they are good to the wider public.

It's snobbery of a quite stunning kind.

There are loads of great comics who remain underground and undiscovered, it's true. But it's quite a generalisation to suggest that, until McIntyre (who I think is very funny) came along, any comic daring to be successful and popular automatically becomes less gifted or less relevant.

It's a chattering class viewpoint, isn't it? It's about being cool rather than being good, about putting artistic integrity ahead of mass appeal. Yet I'm in no doubt that if you are very good indeed, then you can achieve artistic integrity and mass appeal together, and there is no avoiding public acclamation, even if you are of Lee's mindset. Eddie Izzard tried this, courtesy of a massive live reputation which he refused, for years, to enhance further through television. Eventually, though, telly got him and without it, his varying political and charitable crusades wouldn't have happened.

It's a very British thing to do; to knock success and somehow downgrade it when it happens. It might be borne of jealousy. I don't have a beef with Lee as a comic, but I think what he said, even though he was acknowledging a rare exception in McIntyre, is staggeringly pompous, and something of an insult to ordinary people.