A PhD looking at Northerness and comedy sounds as though it might make more entertaining reading that your average doctoral thesis – and this has been the starting point for a new show by stand-up comedian, poet and Radio 4 regular Kate Fox.
Born in Bradford and now based in Thirsk, Fox is a year into her three years of research at the University of Leeds while continuing with her day job as a performer. So when she was putting together her latest performance piece it seemed to make sense to incorporate some of what she was thinking about with her academic head on. And so the wonderfully titled Grin Up North was born.
“I was asked by a couple of literature festivals to come along and do an hour of my stuff,” she says. “And they were interested in my Phd so I decided to interweave some of my research into the show.”
She has been looking at class, gender and regional identity in solo performance, interviewing many Northern stand-ups and poets and taking in the work of writer-performers ranging from Alan Bennett and Victoria Wood to John Cooper Clarke and Peter Kay, so there is a wealth of interesting material to work with.
“On the one hand there is Northerness and on the other hand Northern performers are often stereotyped by what people think Norhterness is,” says Fox. “I think Northern stand-ups can be dismissed as ‘club comics’ and Northern poets can find it harder to be taken seriously.”
In the show she looks at the kind of themes that Northern performers are concerned with and the way they present those themes. “There is a quirky use of language, an interest in word play and in puncturing pretension,” she says. “I also look at voice and accent and what it means to actually sound Northern. You sound direct and down to earth – and you kind of are – but it is a lot more complex than that.” She includes some of the prejudice that she has faced herself such as the time when she was working at a commercial radio station in Newcastle and was banned from reading the news because she sounded too Northern.
“Often the prejudice is quite subtle,” she says. “It is usually when I am expected to be the representative of Northern down-to-earth-ness by a mainstream media organisation. They are quite happy for me to talk about ‘Northern’ things in a jolly Northern way, but you have to stay in that box and not come out of it. What frustrates me is that some performers, even though they might be doing really innovative work, will still be seen as just ‘jolly Northerners’. People seem to listen harder to how we say something than to what we are actually saying.”
She feels that while some progress has been made in terms of gender and race representation, regional diversity is lagging behind. “I think it is harder for a young person in a Northern school or college to make their way in the creative industries,” she says. “The BBC, for example, has the potential to change this but they are still very London-centric and middle class.”
The show will be followed by a Q&A which Fox feels is an integral and important part of the performance. “I want it to be interactive,” she says. “I am really interested in what the audience’s take is on all this.”
• Kate Fox performs Grin Up North at Beverley Literature Festival on October 6 and at Harrogate Comedy Festival on October 11.