A cab ride into the dark heart of Welshness

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The Independent Online

Can anyone take a Welshman entirely seriously? The startling thought occurs while watching one of the melancholy monologues that make up Marion and Geoff, a TV show that packs more of a punch in its 10 minutes than most other comedies manage in an entire series. Every week, we are in the company of Keith, a middle-aged minicab driver, who chats lugubriously to a fixed camera in his car in the manner of a video diary. Keith has lost radio contact with his office. More significantly, he has also lost his wife Marion, who has run off with her business partner Geoff.

Can anyone take a Welshman entirely seriously? The startling thought occurs while watching one of the melancholy monologues that make up Marion and Geoff, a TV show that packs more of a punch in its 10 minutes than most other comedies manage in an entire series. Every week, we are in the company of Keith, a middle-aged minicab driver, who chats lugubriously to a fixed camera in his car in the manner of a video diary. Keith has lost radio contact with his office. More significantly, he has also lost his wife Marion, who has run off with her business partner Geoff.

Determined to see the positive side of the bleakest situation, Keith is devastatingly fair-minded about what has happened. Of course, he regrets the fact that he rarely sees his sons, but "the kids aren't that far away, when you think about it. It's motorway all the way." He even admits that Marion is better off with Geoff, whom he prefers to see less as a rival than "another man keeping watch on Marion's breasts for me".

What is it that makes the anguished optimism of this loser so perfect, so uncomfortably appropriate? It is, of course, his Welshness. If he were any other nationality, the joke would lose its power or become a different joke altogether. Put a comedy Englishman - Alan Partridge, say - in that minicab and he would immediately be nastier, more embittered, less ingratiating than Keith. An Irishman like Father Ted would be wilder, more imaginative, his pain lost in whimsy, while a Rab C Nesbitt character would be propelled by his own sense of rage and need for revenge.

Comedy is not life, of course, but somehow the reason why these prejudices strike the right comic note is that they are in the national bloodstream. The recently published surveys, revealing other, more harmful stereotypical attitudes towards immigrants, ethnic minorities and asylum-seekers may have shocked metropolitan observers, but are surely unsurprising. Not so long ago, I found myself trying to explain to a group of lower-sixth-formers in Norfolk why the picture book Little Black Sambo might be offensive to a black reader. "I read the book when I was small and I'm not a racist," said one girl, and her all-white classmates agreed.

We live with casual daily prejudice yet seem unwilling to admit the fact. Scottishness, to judge by the political and media scenes, suggests a crisp efficiency, an ability to cut to the heart of a problem, a general no-nonsense effectiveness that make them appropriate as ministers and party leaders. The idea - surely a myth - that the Scots are somehow better at managing life than the rest of us is presumably the reason why they dominate radio and television, whether they are heavyweight interviewers on the Today programme or presenters of practical shows such as Changing Places.

Once a stereotype is in place, the nationality plays up to it. Think of the Irish character - passionate, misty-eyed, tragic, self-mythologising - presented in Angela's Ashes or a play such as Conor McPherson's The Weir or even in the writings of a journalist such as Fergal Keane.

It is a mystery why the Welsh have drawn such a duff card in the lottery of national personality. No less effective than any other nation in these islands, they are none the less traditionally portrayed as whining losers. For stand-up comics or journalists they are the an easy target for a laugh - AA Gill has made something of a career out of taffy-bashing - while Welsh politicians, as Neil Kinnock discovered, are obliged to live with a natural disadvantage.

It's a mystery. We create these stereotypes and find reassurance when they are reinforced by comedy or life. "I have a remarkable degree of independence," says Keith in Marion and Geoff, and we laugh comfortably at the idiocy of his illusion.

terblacker@aol.com

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