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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Lou Reed distorted the truth about his upbringing, and since his death in 2013, biographers and memoirists have added to the myths
musicThe truth about Lou Reed's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths
News
people
News
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the Apple Watch for you? Well, it depends if you want it for the fitness tech, or for the style
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This publishing company based i...

Ashdown Group: Content Manager - Publishing

£30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Guru Careers: Report Writer / Reporting Analyst

£25 - 30k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Report Writer / Reporting Analyst is nee...

Guru Careers: German Speaking Account Manager / Account Executive

£24-30K + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: A German speaking Account Manager ...

Day In a Page

Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace