With deadpan Midlands delivery, and a hilarious line in 'anti-jokes', Ted Chippington was the Eighties comedian that got away. Now he's back.
In Terry Zwigoff’s film Ghost World, the two lead characters Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) are scrunching their faces up at the comedian Joey McCobb, ‘the wieeeerdest man in showbusiness’ (‘If he’s so weird, why is he wearing Nikes?’ says Enid). Exasperated, Rebecca says ‘this guy is the worst. See, there’s barely even a joke’.
Twenty years ago, a 26-year-old Briton called Francis Smyth developed a stage character that would often generate similar responses of stunned disbelief. The character’s name was Ted Chippington and last Sunday, at the Bull & Gate in Kentish Town, London, he made a rather improbable comeback supporting his old friends, and veteran post-punks, The Nightingales. The band’s vocalist, Robert Lloyd, is trying to raise money to reissue Ted’s material as a CD box set. Long-time Chippington devotee, the comedian Stewart Lee, even organised a comedy-show benefit, ‘Tedstock’, to help with the venture.
For me, memories of Ted Chippington had long-faded from my mind. Whereas many a band of that period is still referenced and remembered today (consider Josef K’s noted influence on Franz Ferdinand), it seems the world and his wife had forgotten about this very singular comedian. When I read a glowing preview for Chippington in Time Out, memories of his sardonic antics were welcomingly jogged.
Chippington started off supporting Salford post-punks The Fall back in 1984. His ‘barely there’ jokes and droning, slightly creepy takes on pop hits such as Ottowan’s hilariously banal D.I.S.C.O. polarised audiences. A typical Ted joke would start, ‘I was walking down the road one day’, as in: ‘I was walking down the road the other day; this chap drove up beside me and said, “Excuse me, mate, I’m in a dilemma.” I said, “Aye, good motors, Dilemmas. I was thinking of buying one myself. A red one perhaps.”‘
Anyone can tell lame jokes, but only someone with genuine comedic talent can make them sound very funny. With Chippington, it’s all in his monotone West Midlands delivery. For someone like me who had the misfortune to be born and raised in that area, Chippington’s aura of West Midlandsness was recognisably funny in itself. His out-of-time wearing of Teddy Boy suits reflected how Elvis Presley was still massively popular among fortysomething men around Dudley (The Beatles had yet to catch on); the old-for-your-age looks and very Dad-ish turn-of-phrase were all peculiarly West Midlands. Unlike in, say, Manchester or Newcastle, ‘regional pride’ in the Midlands was, thankfully, an alien concept. So when Brummie eccentric Lawrence Hayward from Felt and later Denim, called his label West Midlands Records, he knew it would raise a smile. Chippington’s anti-hero persona seemed to bottle and distill such self-deprecating tendencies common among Midlanders.
Nevertheless, this didn’t stop Chippington’s appeal from eventually going national. After Robert Lloyd released one of Chippington’s shows, John Peel would regularly play his gags and songs in between the likes of The Bhundu Boys and The Bodines.
In 1986 his single, Rockin’ With Rita, a collaboration with The Nightingales and all-girl punk outfit We’ve Gotta Fuzzbox And We’re Gonna Use It, even crept into the Top 75. The daytime BBC Radio 1 dj Steve Wright was taken by Chippington’s sombre reading of The Beatles’ She Loves You. As a result, he was subsequently interviewed on BBC Birmingham’s lunchtime magazine programme, Pebble Mill At One. The interviewer, Paul Coia, just couldn’t get a handle on Ted’s stoic diffidence. He wasn’t the only one. When Chippington supported Liverpool’s earnest politicos The Farm, he was greeted with incredulous cries of ‘Who are ya? Who are ya?’. And everytime he replied ‘my name is Ted, Ted Chippington, mate’.
The high-point for Chippington came when Warner Bros records released the aforementioned version of She Loves You, scoring a near hit. ‘It earned me £1,000 and a curry’, he later quipped. Beneath the rented-room anti-glamour of his ‘mediocre man’ persona, though, Chippington was extremely ambitious about breaking into the mainstream. Unfortunately, he was snubbed by the comedy circuit because his act seemed so at odds with the conventions of comedy. Instead, Chippington ended up playing at ‘places that didn’t really want me’. With any hope of mainstream success fading, the embittered Chippington moved to America and became a lorry-driver before returning last year and settling in the West Country rather than the West Midlands.
Now, it would be nice to say that Chippington has been a massive influence on a whole generation of comedians. But he hasn’t. The nearest there has been to a Chippington-like creation was Jon Thompson and Steve Coogan’s Bernard Righton, who’d come out with jokes like ‘there was an Englishman, a Pakistani, and a Chinaman – what a wonderful example of a multicultural society’. For many comedians, it is considered sacrilegious to tell supposed ‘anti-jokes’. But watching Chippington in Kentish Town last Sunday, there is a heightened comedic skill in being able to make this stuff work.
Far from being an ironic and kitsch ‘no talent’, his ‘Dad-doing-a-wedding-speech’ delivery and, crucially, his sense of timing are comic gold. Whether he’d pass Enid and Rebecca’s approval, though, remains to be seen.
Neil Davenport is a writer and researcher based in London.
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