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In Defence Of...

Peter Kay, Pre-Op: A Look Back At The Comic's Career Before 'Geraldine'
Alex Denney , October 27th, 2008 13:18

With Peter Kay's transsexual popstar alter-ego still riding high in the Top Ten, Alex Denney looks at the career of the much-maligned comedian.

Peter Kay as Geraldine McQueen

It looks like the knives are finally being whetted for Peter Kay after his latest reality send-up, the laboriously titled Britain's Got The Pop Factor... And Possibly A New Celebrity Jesus Christ Soapstar Superstar Strictly On Ice, spawned a Number Two chart hit in Geraldine McQueen's 'The Winner's Song'. The 'bogus' track – sung by Kay in character as a talent show-winning, fortysomething transsexual – beat real-life X Factor winner Leon Jackson's latest sterling contribution to the humanities, 'Don't Call This Love', which made its debut at three. When life begins imitating art imitating life, it would seem, things take a turn for the faintly annoying.

The opening instalment of the song's two-part parent programme - Kay's first TV writing credit since Max & Paddy's Road To Nowhere aired in 2004 - averaged 5.5 million viewers on its October 12 airing, a 20% share of the terrestrial audience. It was a ratings smash, pulling Channel 4's biggest viewing figures of 2008. But its bloated and somewhat redundant piss-take of the X Factor school of pantomime telly only supplied further ammunition to those inclined to think the wildly popular Bolton comic ripe for a kicking.

Moving on to some statistics which tell a less-than-triumphant tale, then, and we see from Stephen Brook's recent blog that 50% of the Guardian office hated the show, although he himself does not rank among the dissenting voices. Meanwhile, exactly 100% of my own friends and acquaintances encountered, by me, after said televisual emission thought it a condescending load of old filth. Finally Mirror journalist and lifelong rodent impersonator Tony Parsons, although declining to comment in this particular instance, is on record as calling Kay "(an) old school, 16-stone light entertainer of a kind that 30 years ago would have been telling crap jokes about Chinkies, Pakis and West Indians called Chalkie."

Now this isn't to say those people are misguided in their opinions, except for Parsons, whose continuing services to mean-spirited complacency now extend to baseless accusations of racism. In reality their unkind words are borne out by a show which substituted high production values and smug celebrity cameos for jokes in its alleged lampooning of a subject matter already so absurd as to negate the possibility of satire altogether. That it was co-written with "Max and" Paddy McGuinness, a writer who seems to bring out the more prosaically populist of tendencies in Kay, tells a story in itself. But many people's ire at Kay seems to go beyond all that to veer into an elitist realm where comedy has to conspicuously push boundaries and northernness is a parochial state of being best dropped well before you start seeing signs for the M25. Certainly, Parsons' comment that Kay is a "sweaty fat bloke from north of Watford who can't sing for toffee" would seem to offer the phrase "north of Watford" as damning evidence enough.

What everyone seems to forget is that, like Morrissey or Jarvis before him, Kay at his best is both a parochialist and an innovator, almost uniquely capable in the modern milieu of an end product that'll entertain your mum and sneering media sorts alike. That Peter Kay Thing, his first series screened on Channel 4 back in 2000, successfully parodied the nascent reality genre while Ricky Gervais' bumprint was still keeping Ian Lee's sofa warm on The 11 O'Clock Show. And it did so with a warmth and humanity that has evaded much of Gervais' output since The Office. Seriously, everyone talks about the latter's gift for pathos but you'd struggle to find a character as likeable and beautifully sketched as Leonard de Tomkinson, the elderly paperboy who receives a community service award in episode three. The series also showcased an excellent ear for provincial dialogue ("This weather, Len, it can't make its mind up. I blame NASA.") and notably served as our introduction to Kay's best-loved character to date.

That would be Brian Potter, wheelchair-bound pub landlord and star of perhaps the most undervalued British sitcom in recent memory, Phoenix Nights. Co-scripted by Dave Spikey and That Peter Kay Thing collaborator Neil Fitzmaurice, the show represents the fullest flowering of Kay's talents to date, pulling no punches in its dismal yet oddly comforting portrayal of northern working class life, and presenting in understated fashion the material that Kay would later ramp up for a broader audience in his oft-quoted Top Of The Tower stand-up show.

In fairness, Kay was not immune to lapses in judgment even before Max & Paddy and Britain's Got The Pop Factor took the everyman mugging a step too far. Phoenix Nights' mean spirited depiction of heckling students in episode five of the first series left a sour taste in the mouth, and reports in 2005 of Kay's wilfully ignorant dismissal of a set by Noel Fielding at a charity fundraiser ("what were all tharrabout?") admittedly did him great disservice. But at a time when cynicism in comedy is treasured above all else (Peep Show, Ricky Gervais' stand-up, Chris Morris etc) it would be equally wrong-headed to foreclose the possibility of a universal comedy that warms the cockles of the heart while sacrificing none of its artistic integrity. It's just that Britain's Got The Pop Factor wasn't it.