‘Cancelled’ is quite a buzzword of our times, isn’t it? Up until about ten days ago, it referred mainly to cancel culture, that ability of Twitter mobs to rule on whether or not a celebrity misdemeanour means the end of celebrity for that celebrity. But recently someone tweeted me the words: ‘Nature: “I’ll show you cancel culture.”’ It’s true. Suddenly, the idea of the world ending — or at least, theatres, art galleries and musicals shut down for the foreseeable future — has lessened the trepidation felt by the targets of cancel culture. Which means the apocalypse may be accompanied by an outbreak of famous people with terrible views saying long bottled-up racist, sexist and transphobic things in a kind of ‘it doesn’t matter now — we’re all going down anyway’ rush.
I have one particular ‘cancellation’ issue: my own tour has been cancelled. I was performing, in theatres all over the country, a one-man show about social media, Trolls: Not the Dolls. But since Boris Johnson announced a series of draconian measures to combat the spread of Covid-19, my tour has been put on hold — with half the dates left to play. Part of me is relieved: stand-up comedy, even if you’ve been doing it professionally in various forms for 35 years, is an all-consuming, nerve-racking thing to do. So there’s always some element of ‘thank Christ for that’ to hearing that a gig’s gone down. But once you’re past that, a deeper realisation kicks in. In this particular case, a realisation that this is a show that I’ve been working on for a year and a half, that was storming it round the country, that I was actually enjoying performing and that, um, I’d like to think
I might make some money on at some point. Not to mention the money that various others — tour managers, agents, promoters, venues, lighting and sound crews — were hoping to make on it.
All of us feared that a lockdown like this was coming. By the time I found myself listening to the radio on tenterhooks — not normally something I’m on while waiting for Boris Johnson to speak — at that press conference, what I wanted, above all, was clarity. I’d spent the week before in a weird malaise, never entirely sure whether the show was going to go on or not. On social media, someone called me a murderer for pressing ahead with the show; others called me a killjoy for saying it might be cancelled. Neither bothered me much: this is what happens online. The primary thrill of the internet, it seems, is not seeking sex or fame, but telling people off. I saw that the Stereophonics went ahead with a sell-out concert in Cardiff, and were also called murderers. But for most singers, comedians and performers, we don’t decide to perform or not. We’re contracted to do a show unless the venue calls it off. The venue, that is, or the government. And by Monday, I very much wanted the government to excrete or get off the pot.
We did not get a clear decision, though. The shows were not banned, but audiences were asked not to turn up. It was a weird and — for performers — pointless compromise. The Prime Minister’s response reminded me of Sergeant Wilson in Dad’s Army who, on receiving a direct instruction from Captain Mainwaring to order the men to fall in, would murmur: ‘I say… would you mind awfully forming a sort of… line thing?’ I just thought: what’s the matter with him? Why is he being so vague?
I’m not given to conspiracy theory, having said in the past that it is how idiots get to feel like intellectuals. But still, I began to sense another agenda. That by not ordering, by law, theatres (and pubs and clubs and cinemas) to shut, but advising instead people not to go to them, the government was avoiding something — in this case, the spectre of compensation. Either paid out by them, or by — and the Tories have a lot of pals in this industry — insurance companies.
I have no idea if this is true. It may be simply that Johnson, with his self-image as a cuddly laissez-faire old-style Tory, hates sounding like a statist. But either way, handing over the decision about what to do at this time to individual performers and venues feels like a massive dereliction of duty. We’re hearing a lot of wartime analogies right now, not least from the Prime Minister. In which case we need him to be more like his hero, Churchill, and less like Sergeant Wilson.
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David Baddiel may — or may not — be touring with Trolls: Not the Dolls later this year (davidbaddiel.com).
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