Focus: Ah-hah! Welcome to the funny farm

One place in Britain breeds more comedy genuises than any other, says Charles Nevin Yorkshire? Don't make us laugh

'Ooh, mother! It's That Man Again! What a marvellous audience - when I first came on I thought I was in outpatients ... I knew it was the mother-in-law because the mice were throwing themselves on the traps ... I am playing the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order. My arse! Ah-ha! What's black and white and eats like a horse? A zebra."

'Ooh, mother! It's That Man Again! What a marvellous audience - when I first came on I thought I was in outpatients ... I knew it was the mother-in-law because the mice were throwing themselves on the traps ... I am playing the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order. My arse! Ah-ha! What's black and white and eats like a horse? A zebra."

All right, all right, I'll stop if you look at that lot over there. (Go on, match the gags and catchphrases to the faces. No? Answers below.) A glittering galaxy of comedic talent, you'll agree. All with one thing in common: all of them, ancient and modern, are from Lancashire (by which I mean the great and greater county which still survives despite all the administrative tinkering, and includes Liverpool, Manchester, Wigan, St Helens, Bolton, Rochdale and the rest).

The Lancashire which, far from being "grim" or "up there" - thank you, George Orwell (he was a laugh a minute, wasn't he?) and Monty Python (ditto) - is our national humour centre, and has been for a very long time. I wouldn't be so foolish as to claim that Shakespeare owes everything to his time in Lancashire as a tutor and strolling player, but it clearly did wonders for his comic timing. The Porter's Speech? The Rude Mechanicals? Pure Laurel and Morecambe. Even Charlie Chaplin had to go there to get his break, masquerading as one of The Eight Lancashire Lads, clog-dancing troupe. He did.

More writers? Richmal Crompton, creator of Just William, was from Bury. Lewis Carroll was born a rabbit run away, in Cheshire. And Dickens had relations in Preston, you know. Think, too, of the 40 years of comedy writing in Coronation Street, and of its stream of graduates, most recently including Paul Abbott, creator of Clocking Off and Shameless; of Eric Morecambe's incomparable gag man, Eddie Braben; of the collected works of Caroline Royle Family Aherne, Steve "Alan Partridge" Coogan and the wonderful Peter Kay and his Phoenix Nights and sell-out stand-up shows.

Why Lancashire? A J P Taylor from Birkdale thought it was literally something in the air: the prevailing south-east wind, a blurred and gentle breeze that produced a whimsical people, given to flights of fancy and romance. Did you know that more convertibles are sold in Manchester annually than in the whole of Spain? Taylor had also read Balzac's Le Lys dans la Vallée, in which the hero is seduced by a beautiful Lancastrian who tells him that Lancashire "is the county where women die of love". Well, I'll go to the foot of our stairs! There can, though, be no denying that Lancashire is a place of exotic influence: ponder, for example, the Blackpool Tower, the county's splendid homage to M. Eiffel. I should also mention the fairly plausible theory that Napoleon III was inspired to rebuild Paris by Lord Street, Southport.

And then there's the Liverpool Effect. Liverpool, once the second city of the empire, more recently almost dead just beside the water, is now much revived, Europe's choice for its Capital of Culture in 2008; almost as shiny as Manchester, Lancashire's other viva-city, next to which London looks positively dowagerish. But there's an extra edge to Liverpool; it's to do with being a port, a giddy place of passing emotion; and something else besides. Where else would the young Adolf Hitler have spent a year staying with his Auntie Bridget? (I promise you: there's her diary, and strong circumstantial evidence.)

Liverpool was, and is, of course, the port and portal for Ireland, and there's no doubt that exposure to Celtic settlement and influences has shaped Lancashire attitudes. No doubt, too, that working for the industrial revolution presented the old choice between laughing and crying, and that Celtic Lancs and Scandinavian Yorks made different choices. Name me a truly great Yorkshire comic. Ernie Wise? Hmm. And?

Lancashire, though. Try these random happenings: Bull finds its way into china shop, Lancaster, 2003; Man ends 12-hour siege after police give in to his demand for an egg sandwich, Blackpool, 2003; First wedding in Britain on an allotment, Bury, 2004. Lord Lucan traced to Goa, 2003? No, it was a banjo-player from St Helens called Barry. Ah, yes, St Helens. I know people who ring its rugby league club just to listen to the town's favourite son, Johnny Vegas, giving the list of options. They do. Try it: 0870-756 5252. Remarkable.

All the same, living in the national centre for comic excellence does have its drawbacks. Dave Hadfield, the rugby league correspondent of this newspaper, in his fine book Up and Over writes: "As for humour, people in St Helens must surely have the same problem with Johnny Vegas as we have in Bolton with Peter Kay. On the one hand we take an almost proprietorial pride in the way he has tickled the nation's funny bone. On the other, and as the barman at my local puts it: 'Why should I pay good money to see him when I hear the same crap in here every night for nowt?'"

* Gags from, respectively: George Formby, Tommy Handley, Ken Dodd, Les Dawson, Eric Morecambe, The Royle Family by Craig Cash and Caroline Aherne, Steve Coogan, Peter Kay.

'Lancashire, Where Women Die of Love', by Charles Nevin (Mainstream, £12.99), is published tomorrow

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