Working class comics prove you don't have to be posh to be funny

Birmingham | Entertainment | Published:

They are among the most recognisable faces in the country, keeping the nation entertained for decades.

As well as comedy, many have since starred in television shows, hosted programmes and even have film roles under their belts – but what do they have in common?

Not one of them was educated at Oxford or Cambridge, yet it has not been a barrier to their success.

Comedian Bob Mortimer has sparked a debate by asking if people who went to Oxbridge are the funniest people in the world and if not, why do they get so much work?

The comedian, comedy partner of Vic Reeves, has suggested that Oxbridge alumni have a disproportionate influence in the world of comedy and get more spin-off work because of it.

He says: "I sometimes wonder, with the Oxbridge comics, the broadcasters seem to say, at some point, now I trust you to do a documentary, you can be the voice for a maths show, or whatever. And I don't think we're ever considered in that way.

"There's something about the Oxbridgers that plays a part in that process. There's a lot more options available to them in broadcasting, and I don't know why that is. You meet them and some of them are funny, some of them not so funny.

"I find it hard to believe that the people who go to Oxbridge are by such a huge percentage, the funniest people on earth. It just doesn't seem right. There's something going on."


And while some of the country's most famous comedians went to Oxbridge, such as Rowan Atkinson, Al Murray, Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry and Jimmy Carr, the same cannot be said for their Midlands counterparts.

Take Black Country favourite Lenny Henry for example. Not only does he have television shows and stand-up tours under his belt, he has also helped raise more than £800 million pounds for charity over the last 27 years by being one of the founders of the Comic Relief campaign in 1985. And all this for an alumni of the Blue Coat School.

The talents of Frank Skinner are seemingly endless. He was educated at Oldbury Technical School Sixth Form and Warley College of Technology, and graduated from Birmingham Polytechnic – now Birmingham City University – in 1981 with a degree in English. He then went on to the University of Warwick where he gained a Masters degree in English Literature.

Skinner has spoken in the past about the value of education when in 2009 he was awarded an honorary degree from the University of Wolverhampton in recognition of his contribution to comedy, particularly stand-up.


He has said school was the perfect place to debut his material – both as a child and an adult. "I loved school – too much probably. I was already working as a stand-up comedian."

He added: "Growing up in Oldbury and Smethwick, I thought my destiny was to leave school and work in a factory until I died, but education opened up another life a lot more than being on telly did.

"It was the biggest change in my life – even more than the fame thing. I really felt my head expand."

And he has said during his career as a lecturer he again used the classroom as a platform for his comedy.

"As a teacher I was a pretty good stand-up comedian – at the end of the day, it was an audience."

He added that doing a degree gave him an 'analytical mind' and said: "I don't think I would have found comedy as easy if I had not done that degree. The actual skills I had gained applied to all sorts of other things in my life."

Despite Skinner's educational history, Birmingham's Malcolm Stent, who appeared in his 23rd consecutive pantomime in Solihull this winter, agrees with Bob Mortimer – particularly about the differences in humour.

He says: "There's probably a north south divide and an education divide in comedy. The Oxbridge educated ones seem to think they're a cut above.

"Their humour is based on a knowledge of the English language where they can be glib and cutting. The people who run television and make decisions tend to come from the same background. Your working class comics tend to send themselves and their families up and it's much funnier. It does tend to travel well from a working class comic."

Julie Walters, a CBE, shot to fame in Educating Rita, and has graced our screens in hit films such as the Harry Potter series. She has appeared on television in programmes including Dinnerladies, and all without an Oxbridge education. In fact, she was asked to leave school prematurely.

Born in Smethwick, she attended Holly Lodge Grammar School for Girls, but was asked to leave the lower sixth.

She subsequently trained as a nurse at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham and later attended Manchester Polytechnic.

Wolverhampton's Meera Syal, attended Queen Mary's High School in Walsall and Manchester University. None of that stopped her from becoming a successful entertainer, famous for creating the hit Goodness Gracious Me.

Netherton comedian Aynuck says it is pure coincidence that today's top comics studied at Oxbridge.

The 75-year-old, who left school at 15, and marks his 50th year in comedy this April, said: "I don't think comedy is something that you learn, it is something that is inbred in you."

Elsewhere, Birmingham Jasper Carrott OBE is one of the country's most recognisable comedians. He attended Acocks Green Primary and Moseley Grammar School.

Funnyman Greg Davies grew up in Shropshire and was educated at Thomas Adams School and Brunel University. He has since gone on to arguably be the star of The Inbetweeners as Mr Gilbert as well as a successful stand-up.

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