Angry Boys: a smart and funny pop at PC
Aussie comic Chris Lilley’s new mockumentary is a crude but well-observed swipe at illiberal modern society.
Time heals all wounds, as the saying goes. If the English monarch can set foot apologetically in Ireland’s Croke Park, the scene of the 1920 Bloody Sunday massacre, without being torn to ribbons; if VS Naipaul and Paul Theroux can end their long-running literary feud; hell, if Prince and Madonna can let bygones be bygones, then it may be time. Four long years after Patrick West provoked a storm of protest for his dissection of Australian cultural life, the moment has come for spiked’s TV columnist to step back into the wallaby’s den, take his matilda out for another frottaging waltz, and crack open one more can of pissy lager.
Fortunately, on this occasion, I come to praise Australia and not to bury it. Well, to be more precise, I come to praise one Australian, rather than the illiberal hellhole of a government Christopher Snowdon more recently outlined here. For those who accept that Down Under is vast and contains multitudes, and like a good laugh at the same time, there’s a new Aussie to add to the patronisingly small Kylie/Nick Cave/Neighbours list: Chris Lilley, back with his new series Angry Boys on BBC3 this week.
Given the shared language and culture, it is perhaps surprising that Australians have not made a bigger impact on the UK comedy circuit: I can probably name as many Iranian comedians (Omid Djalili, Shappi Khorsandi and Miriam Elia) off the top of my head. Students of stand-up might be familiar with provocative and clever Fringe stalwart Brendon Burns, but it’s safe to say that in these days of BBC compliance guidelines he won’t be edging out the mainstream backpacker humour of fellow countryman Adam Hills from Mock The Week anytime soon. Jim Jeffries has started to make inroads in both England and the US, but even if we include cult classic sitcom Kath & Kim, it’s a small list. From Puppetry of the Penis to The Vegemite Tales, Australian humour has always been viewed as a little too crass and parochial to cross the Equator.
Lilley, however, is showing signs of making a breakthrough. His previous series, Summer Heights High, was one of the best sitcoms of the past few years, rivalling the UK’s own Peep Show and America’s Curb Your Enthusiasm in the observational crudity stakes. Shot in the increasingly popular mockumentary style, Summer Heights High took us into a world familiar from numerous imported soap operas – the Australian high school – but introduced an unusual level of bile. A character comedian in the style of Sacha Baron Cohen, Lilley played a number of memorable grotesques – from the camp and deluded drama queen Mr G to the bitchy private school girl Ja’ime to teen delinquent Jonah – recognisable to anyone in the Western world who has set foot in a school.
All the more disturbing, then, to discover Australia’s public schools have the same problem as Britain’s state schools: an obsession with child abuse, counsellor-led therapeutic interventions into everyday playground incidents, right-on anti-drug messages in school plays, and teachers slowly being morphed into social workers. Even the most culturally specific gag of the lot – Jonah’s status as a Tongan ‘islander’ – could have resonance with anyone familiar with similar examples of state-enforced multiculturalism in the UK, or elsewhere.
Most importantly, Summer Heights High was extremely funny. Angry Boys largely picks up where it left off, moving the action from a public school to a young offenders’ institution (a subtle joke which tells you as much about Lilley’s ability to tap into the fears of the liberal imagination as much as anything). It is very coarse too: the first two episodes had a lovably racist bull-dyke prison guard, an inmate tormented as a ‘dog wanker’, and a deaf kid making very loud straining noises while on ‘the dunny’. On the strength of the first two episodes it’s not as good as its predecessor, but at times it’s not far away.
Superficially, of course, the closest comparison – even down to the panoramic opening credits – is to the UK’s Little Britain, which is a dubious recommendation to say the least. After all, this is essentially the same set-up, where middle-class comedians dress up as the vulgar underclass and have a good laugh at their expense, all under the vague cover of social satire. Yet Lilley is possibly more astute and, unlike Walliams and Lucas, actually has a great deal of warmth for some of his grotesques, not least the much-feared and maligned menace of the teenage boys. As with the similarly crude and warm-hearted The Inbetweeners in the UK, no matter how violent and sexualised their language, ‘angry boys’ the world over essentially want to have a laugh with their mates, listen to music that upsets their elders and get off with anyone who will have them. Lilley’s real venom is reserved for the weirdo adults who seem to think that’s a problem that needs official management, largely to distract from their own strange hang-ups and lack of authority.
Perhaps it is no surprise that the coarse Australian comics are starting to find a foothold internationally, as much of the illiberal regulation of speech codes and social mores becomes more of a global phenomenon. But maybe the fact that Australia has been quietly leading the world in this brand of technocratic politics for some time has also given them the chance to be sharper and more intelligent: what was once dubbed Britain’s ‘new obnoxiousie’, which may now include the shockingly unfunny Frankie Boyle jokes about Katie Price, still haven’t graduated much beyond shouting ‘fuck’ in a crowded theatre. The good news, on the strength of Angry Boys, is that the future of comedy may be Antipodean; the bad news is that the future of the politics may be modelled on Australia, too. Not a comforting thought, but if laughter in the dark is to be had, head Down Under.
David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.
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