Ventnor, Boris, and the Freedom to Offend
by Ryan Lester
Ventnor is a small, beautiful town on the south coast on the Isle of Wight. What better time in my life for my first visit than this glorious summer we are having this year? Except it pissed it down all week and only broke into glorious sunshine the last day at 6am as we drove to the ferry. Obviously, the blame for that cannot lie with the town; we can give that to God, or Fate, or something else just as blameable. The town really was beautiful, and the team running the fringe was even more inspiring; running their ninth year and all seemingly busting 18 hour days to keep this festival moving and the atmosphere alive.
Which they do with a love and passion that can only come from nurturing this theatre festival from its humble beginnings to its standing today, with multiple venues and over 4000 tickets sold through the week. I worked with them as a technician in their Pier Street Playhouse, joined by our good friends Full Pelt Theatre and their new sketch comedy Carpet Town. The festival ran alongside the Ventnor Carnival, complete with parades, full streets, and marching bands everywhere you looked. So the base of the audience was mostly families and the elderly.
This is an instant hackles up moment when touring comedies in general, especially people as crass and offensive as Sweaty Palms and Full Pelt. You start to wonder about reception, and then, in a desperate measure, you try changing all the “fucks” to “flips” in an attempt to not suck the air out of the room with every f bomb. But I started to realise that people really don’t care about it that much. When it comes to children:
a) Don’t bring them to our shows.
b) From 12 upwards it is nothing they haven’t heard in school.
But most of the time people won’t even bat an eyelid. You might be able to sense their disapproval but they will never openly protest. They respect the artistic license given to those in entertainment, and they bought the ticket, it's not up to you if they like it. As always, there are exceptions, including one family who walked very politely out of one of our other shows, Rocket Fuel by Eddie Summers, a great show of just one man and a lot of offensive audience participation.
This family, who so politely left and distracted as little attention as they could, walked up the road and stormed into the main box office demanding their money back. They even went so far as to threaten to call the police on them for... something? How the police would have actually reacted to this call was the hot topic of conversation in the bar that night. “Excuse me officer, I bought a ticket and didn’t enjoy it at all! Arrest everyone!”
This all coincided with the newest dull British government upset: Boris Johnson and his article about the banning of the Burqa. I completely agree with his point that even if you see it as oppressive or ridiculous, that is not enough reason to ban it. But he had to put in those jibes as well. The argument has been that he has the right to make any joke he wants in his column, which is true. It rings the same for us in theatre and, for those demanding their money back, there is no right to not be offended and people should not be punished for your feeling offended.
But that is not what this was. A man as smart and as calculated as he is, a man who changed his name to Boris and keeps his hair as messy as he can to keep up his bumbling persona, a man who would carefully edit and scrutinize anything put out in his name in the precarious place he is in: this was not just a joke. It is there for a reason and the uproar around this is only furthering his causes. His generous giving of tea to the journalists in his shorts and hoodie is not whimsical, it is planned strategy. He is appealing to a certain British demographic, and, more often than not, emboldening them in beliefs that can lead to burqas being pulled off of women on the street. That is not the same as what we and any other joke-makers do. We have no political agenda to push in our shows, we’re just trying to make people laugh so we can maybe afford some dinner tonight.