DJ Taylor: Viva the virago

The death of Kathy Staff last week was a blow to that great comedy stalwart, the battle-axe. Today's girls desperately need someone solid to look up to
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The Independent Online

The death of Kathy Staff, best known for her portrayal of Nora Batty in Last of the Summer Wine, has almost certainly pushed a great English comic figure one step further along the path to extinction.

Ms Staff – be-curlered, be-stockinged and with all the flinty charm of an Easter Island statue – specialised in the termagant, or battle-axe, a role that has been going strong in English comedy since the time of Chaucer, and the excuse for a great deal of psychological theorising to the effect that most adult British males are essentially masochists, whose aim in a relationship is to be tyrannised by a domineering virago.

The great thing about the battle-axe was her ability to slide effortlessly into other representations of the ideal (or non-ideal) female type without compromising the integrity of the brand. Some battle-axes were mothers-in-law, although not all mothers-in-law were battle-axes. What might be called the "sexy battle-axe" was introduced to our TV screens by Penelope Keith in the early 1970s.

Naturally, these categorisations are capable of being applied to areas of our national life quite beyond the sitcom. In politics, for example, Margaret Thatcher was a sexy battle-axe, and Barbara Castle simply a battle-axe. Ask why the battle-axe is in such sharp decline across our TV screens and people usually make pious noises about the exploitation of stock female characters that this kind of stereotyping implies.

Some years back I listened to a Radio 4 discussion about modern comedy in which various talking heads, among them Ricky Gervais, tut-tutted over the scene in Fawlty Towers in which John Cleese returns a fragment of the hearing aid owned by Joan Sanderson (another devastating exponent of the form) with the words "Is this a piece of your brain?" How wonderful, everyone agreed, that we had moved on from a world in which deaf old women were ipso facto funny. Yet the point about this joke is that Joan Sanderson is not a victim but a bully, someone who exploits her deafness to hear what she wants to hear. All of which confirms my long-held suspicion that one of the reasons most modern comedy is so awful is that, by and large, comedians are running out of things to be funny about.


Browsing through one of the London freesheets, I chanced upon the results of an eye-catching survey in which Company magazine offered a list of the "Twenty coolest women in Britain under 30". And who were these paragons of poise, sophistication and talent? Well, I recognised six of them – Lily Cole (chosen for her "brains, beauty and a great career"), Cheryl Cole ditto, Fearne Cotton, Zara Phillips, Pixie Geldof and Emma Watson. My wife managed an even feebler five. All this came as a profound shock. There you are, assiduously monitoring your copy of Heat and OK! in the hairdressers, bent on keeping up with popular culture, and the zealous young teens around you turn out to be setting their caps at role models you have never heard of. (Who is Michelle de Swarte or, if it comes to that, Kaya Scodelario?)

There is, I soon realised, absolutely no point in complaining about this. Proximity is the godmother of fixation. It was WM Thackeray, something over a century and a half ago, who made the not very startling point that young people invariably fall in love with the other young people that they see in the course of their daily lives. If, by extension, your principal weekly reading is Heat, then Alesha Dixon probably represents the apogee of modern human achievement. As the Guardian journalist Madeline Bunting once remarked, "Callow 16-year-olds with nothing in their heads but how to be famous are not being selfish, but simply looking to fulfil basic human needs in the only way that our culture indicates". Worse, perhaps, is the realisation that your own bygone style preferences are quite as questionable. Who did I admire when I was 17? Paul Weller, certainly, and Ian McEwan, whose early stories were just being published, but also a Tory MP named Sir John Biggs-Davison, who, memory insists, featured as a virulently right-wing chairman of the Monday Club. In some ways, Lily Cole and Miquita Oliver – whose exact identity, alas, escapes me – seem a much safer bet.


Parked glumly in the corner at the first of the season's drinks parties I caught my hostess's eye as, tray of sausage rolls to hand, she moved expertly from one conversational silo to another. "It's as hideous as ever, isn't it?" she beamed. There is nothing like irony, of course, for making a social event tolerable. It was as if, for however brief an instant, the two of us had just walked into an Anthony Powell novel, and Kenneth Widmerpool lurked two tables away waiting to have a sugar-canister up-ended over his head. Even better, perhaps, would be for party hosts to distribute sandwich boards on which guests could pre-empt all the questions they are likely to be asked, as a way of reducing the need for repetitive conversation. Mine would read: I am very well; Rachel is very well and I am still married to her; the children's end-of-term reports glowed in the dark; I am still in paid employment; the house, though not worth as much as it was this time last year, is holding up. As with the teenage girls rooting for Lily Cole, there is absolutely no point in complaining about this. Put three dozen members of the East Anglian professional classes together in a room and this, sadly, is what they will talk about. And if they didn't, then, as my wife truly remarks, we should have no social life.


No sensibility, perhaps, is more easily outraged than that of the purist rock fan. Talking to a friend who had just attended The Who's gig at the O2, I found myself on the end of a terrific harangue aimed not at the repertoire or the decibel count but, curiously enough, at the audience. As far as my informant was concerned, "My Generation" had been ruined by people heading for the bar and attempting to chat to each other. The domestication of rock concerts has been going on for upwards of two decades now, a process not helped by some of the performers themselves. Attending a Lou Reed concert back in the early 1990s I was appalled to find that a) the venue was seated, b) you could not enter the auditorium between songs and c) the general atmosphere, studious and beetle-browed, was approximately that of a poetry reading. Sadly, even genuine Wild Man of Rock gestures are routinely asphyxiated by zealous officialdom. Hanging around by the mixing desk at a Fall gig not long back, I heard the technician complain that Mark E Smith, the band's irascible frontman, had gone Awol (presumably down the pub) despite the fact that the concert had to end by 11pm. In the event, Smith came back at 10.10. All this meant was the encores were played with the lights on. It was a far cry – to go back to the O2 – from Keith Moon's Hitler impersonations, defenestrated TV sets and pool-submerged Bentleys.


Here in Norwich an absolutely corking local government scandal is – I was going to write "injuriously unravelling" but such is the absolute blanket of procrastination lowered on to the affair by the local council that scarcely any unravelling has yet taken place. A number of elderly people are moved out of a sheltered housing complex on the plausible grounds that the site is to be redeveloped. Subsequently, a number of council officials are discovered to be living there at reduced rents. One is suspended on full pay. Her boss goes off on sick leave. Meanwhile, claims and counter-claims fly back and forth like wedding day confetti. The council was aware of it 18 months ago. No, the council leader first heard of it a fortnight back.

As ever with local government scandals – the budgetary black hole that supposedly marred Liverpool's recent selection as a European City of Culture was much the same – what strikes the casual observer is, first, the peevishness of the senior people involved, a sort of affrontedness at the thought that democratic accountability is even worth bothering with, and, second, their inability to act with any despatch. How long does it take to establish whether a group of council officials operated in a particular way and who, if anyone, sanctioned them? An investigation – "internal", naturally – continues, and may be concluded some time in the New Year. You sometimes feel that the best qualification for anyone working in local government these days is an unwillingness to answer questions.