Keep it Classy

A skim through the programme reveals remarkably few working-class comics. Marissa Burgess talks to Sian Davies and Lee Kyle, who are trying to change all that

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Published 26 Jul 2018

Though there is a liberal sprinkling of comedians with working-class backgrounds on the comedy circuit, there’s little doubt that those acts are in the minority when it comes to the Edinburgh Fringe.

But this year two acts have taken it upon themselves to try to redress the balance. Liverpool comedian Sian Davies is putting on a showcase of working-class comedians, Best in Class, while Lee Kyle, a standup from South Shields, is producing a supplementary Fringe brochure containing only working-class acts.

One of the most obvious reasons is the sheer amount of money it costs to put on a show here. It was certainly what highlighted the difficulties for Davies when she auditioned for a compilation show.

“They said, 'You’ll do this audition, we’ll let you know next day if you’ve been successful and by the following week you’ll need to pay us £1,800'.” The money was to cover the costs of the showcase and could, at least in part, be earned back through ticket sales, but it still left Davies with the issue of finding £1,800 at short notice. Instead she “decided to apply for the Free Festival to take my own showcase just for working-class comedians. They’re not going to pay anything to be a part of it. I’ve put the money up to begin with then we’ve crowdfunded a lot of it.”

Meanwhile Kyle’s project stemmed from a conversation he had last Edinburgh with fellow comedian Rob Mulholland, who flagged up this very issue in his 2017 show.

“I was talking to Rob about not being able to get Arts Council funding and a few of us were going, 'Is there anything we can do?' It’s not like it [his brochure] will make a lot of difference but it will add visibility and a feeling of support."

There are other, subtler, reasons that working-class comedians tend not to do the Fringe. They often don’t have the social connections some middle-class comedians have. But I also wonder if, sometimes, there isn’t the same emphasis placed on spending time on your own projects and creative endeavours in working-class communities or families.

Kyle agrees: “Middle-class people are able to push themselves ahead and make contacts and it’s just natural. They don’t even consider it. Whereas anytime I have to send an email to anybody for anything I always think, 'Oh god, they’ll think I’m a dick!'"

Davies makes a similar point. Working class kids in inner city comprehensives are often molded more for the workforce than for pursuing expensive creative endeavours:

“I went to an all-girls comprehensive and we had the army come in and do recruitment days with us. It was great fun. A friend of mine, who’s quite middle-class, told me a few years later about how the army go into schools in deprived areas and they put on these fun events trying to recruit people because it’s ‘the only way they can get the people who they send to war'.”

It's maybe easier for the army to identify targets. But a tricky question for both Davies and Kyle about their projects concerns how they ascertain someone’s class background. The answer for both had to be self-identification – literally a tick box for performers to identify themselves as working-class.

Kyle notes: "That’s the tricky part. It’s self-selecting. If people say they are and I don’t know differently, I have to take it in good faith. I can’t do anything else. If a couple sneak through it reflects badly on them but it’s still a worthwhile endeavor.”

Davies agrees: “It is very difficult to put people in a box and decide, 'He is, she isn’t'. I can’t do that. I’m not going to ask what did your mum do for a living, how many pairs of shoes have you got?”

Indeed, class is far from black and white. It's not a homogenous experience. There is fluidity and diversity in people’s social standing, experiences and viewpoints. Even among her working-class-identifying acts Davies notes, “we’ve all got very different perspectives and outlooks.”

And you can still live in a council flat but have brought up a son with expensive coffee tastes. “My son was round at his girlfriend’s and came back saying, ‘Her mum asked me if I wanted a coffee but she put a spoon in a jar!' What have I done?" says Kyle, roaring with laughter. That's just before he confesses to grinding his own beans.