Philip Hensher: A class act always appeals

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How do you decide what you laugh at? Is it just what tickles your fancy? Or would you restrain yourself if you thought that your friends, your family, your neighbours might not share your liking for the man who tells the joke? Is comedy simply comedy: or is it a way by which the audience advertises and revels in its membership of a social class?

The sociologist Sam Friedman certainly thinks so. In a paper written for the British Sociological Association's annual conference, he identifies the difference between comedians the middle classes are prepared to like and those with a popular working-class following. After interviewing audience members at the Edinburgh Fringe, Friedman concluded that middle-class audiences claimed to prefer complex comedy with an ambiguous effect and used their preference to assert social and intellectual superiority.

Well, the government doesn't need to give a grant to that particular sociologist to discover that particular obvious truth. We all know a comedian like Jimmy Carr, who appeals to uneducated and working-class audiences, is practising a different style to the bewildering fantasy of Eddie Izzard. In this country, it is almost inevitable that different styles appeal to different social groups. If there is anything the English have failed to turn into an opportunity for snobbery and social distinction, I have yet to hear about it.

Where Mr Friedman has gone wrong was in supposing that his distinction was simply between middle-class and working-class comedians. In reality, there will be hundreds of snobbish little distinctions between people who like Peter Kay and those who like Roy "Chubby" Brown, and people who only go to comedy clubs who look down on those who see comedians in vast arenas.

Much the same is true for any sort of art. It's easy to think, for instance, that people who like classical music look down on those who like pop music; that they in turn are regarded as elitist followers of a baffling art, and that's the end of it. In reality, people who like a Tchaikovsky symphony look down on those who listen to Classic FM. Followers of chamber music look down on people who like romantic symphonies and Italian opera. If you have a taste for modern music, you may well look down your nose at someone whose enjoyment stops at the Beethoven quartets. If you follow hardcore contemporary music, you may not think much of the intellectual with a 1920s Czech quarter-tone opera on the CD player.

And so it goes on. I was once sneered at by a terrific music snob for saying how much I loved a piece by the Danish composer Per Norgard. "The second symphony, I suppose? The popular one, you mean?" I've met people who think it all right to enjoy the first movement of a Sibelius symphony and unforgivably common to take pleasure in the last.

Of course, professionals in artistic fields are not very likely to be snobbish and often have a confusing enthusiasm for mass-market favourites. We all know the agit-prop comedian with an expressed admiration for Bob Monkhouse's technical skill, or the thrash-metal merchant who delights in the flawless construction of Katrina and the Waves' "Walking on Sunshine". Very literary novelists, too, are much more likely than critics to find reasons to admire a good thriller or a well-constructed love story.

So why do we do it? Why link Peter Kay with one social class and Marcus Brigstocke with another? In part, of course, it's to advertise the class we want to belong to. Students buy tickets and even express amusement at comedians who leave the rest of us stony-faced because they want to look brainy and knowing. But, in part, it's because we simply don't know whether something is any good or not. We know we belong, or want to belong, to the middle classes. We also know that the one defining characteristic of the middle classes is that they don't go to hear Roy "Chubby" Brown or hang Jack Vettriano reproductions on their walls. In these circumstances, it is easier to follow the art form associated with our class than to wonder whether it is any good or not. Not much sociology needed here, then.

How Greer got the part

Germaine Greer has revealed that, in 1975, she had an affair with Federico Fellini (below), the great film director. She was proposing herself for a role in his Casanova, and presented herself with "my flimsy dress... stuck to my otherwise naked body". She didn't get the part, but he did turn up at her house in the Italian countryside. The morning after, he gave her the unromantic but memorable present of a generator. "I thought he meant an old one, but what I got was brand new. Then he sent his electricians to wire it up," says Greer. I know those Italian generators, how they throb and bang in the night: I hope she thought of Fellini every time she turned it on. She is surely showing off somewhat when she says that: "Sexual athletes are tuppence a dozen. Fellini was a many-sided genius." Lucky her, however, and thanks to her for sharing this splendid memory with us. Not many of us have anything a tenth as exciting in the star-shagging vein to relate, though I did once go out with someone who had slept with Luchino Visconti's boyfriend, and, like almost everyone, have snogged people who turned into a Cabinet minister or a bishop. Fellini turning up at Dr Greer's gate with brown silk pyjamas in his overnight bag – this, surely, is the unsurpassable masterpiece of the genre, the Anna Karenina or Citizen Kane of the kiss-and-tell memoir.

* I enjoyed the covers of the two main party manifestoes – no, of course I didn't read them, don't be ridiculous. The Conservative offering, with faux-dignified indigo and Roman lettering, looked like the titles of a pompous mid-Eighties political drama – you can almost hear the mock-Elgar, like the theme tune to Yes Minister, starting up. The sans-serif Labour cover – "A future fair for all" – is absolutely hilarious. It looks, not like a Soviet-era image of The Radiant Tomorrow, as some people have said, but a Frank Pick-era silkscreen poster, encouraging the lower orders to take the Underground out to Hainault, or wherever.

Despite all that talk about the Future, neither of them look remotely like something produced in 2010, let alone 2011. Looking at the Labour image, I wonder whether their hearts, or the hearts of their graphic designers, are still in it. It all seems to be harking back to the party's glory days, when everything was to play for. But when was it, exactly, that the idea of the Future became so very retro an idea? Even to talk about the Future is to think not of Gordon Brown and his irrepressible project but of the brave tones of a Pathe radio news announcer. The designers, alas, got the right image for this one.

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