THE COMIC GENIUS, KAREN DUNBAR

The next post will appear on or before Monday 1st May

THE COMIC GENIUS, KAREN DUNBAR

Have you ever seen your granny making water/ Down by the auld mill stream?/ She pisses for an hour and a quarter/ And you canna see her arse for the steam…

Thus gleefully croons Auld Betty the Slapper, aka Karen Dunbar (born April Fool’s Day, 1971) in the First Series of that monumental Scottish BBC comedy Chewin The Fat (1999-2002), which also hosted 2 other huge and anarchically inventive talents in the shape of Ford Kiernan (born 1962) and Greg Hemphill (born 1969). Betty is an octogenarian working class Glaswegian living in a residential home who is being interviewed by TV man Hemphill about her heartening memories of that touching wartime camaraderie, of everyone joyously and patriotically pulling together during WW2. Betty in her youth was pulling joyously alright, but not in the cosy anecdotal sense. With her husband away fighting, Betty’s memories are simply a string of unedited carnal encounters she had with the likes of rich American GI’s or dog rough rag and bone men, or the butcher’s lad (wat a size, yer cuid have hung a duffel coat on it!). She also when times were hard had gone in the back of Cochrane’s grocer’s (well named) and drapped ’em in exchange for… cheese. To make things worse, when being interviewed, she always has her legs wide apart and all her old lady’s underwear on shameless display. At one point, direly exasperated Hemphill asks her if she has any memories other than these unbroadcastable sexual ones, to which she sweetly replies:

‘Oh aye…I mean ah well…no…’

For all its current metropolitan sophistication Glasgow is a hard town with a hard history, and with even now a relatively low life expectancy consistent with poor diets, high smoking rates and chronic lack of exercise. This partly explains why Scots TV comedy is always visibly and angrily on the edge and rawly unsentimental about the worm’s eye view of life as best exemplified in that eloquent and mordantly cynical layabout Rab C Nesbitt (66 TV episodes between 1988-2014) aka Langholm born Gregor Fisher (born 1953). It is impossible to imagine an English comic equivalent of Nesbitt, the nearest perhaps being the historical shock value of Steptoe and Son when it first appeared in the early 1960s, for it showed the tin bath and outside bog poverty of a father and son rag and bone business, and for the first time ever treated us to what was their real and unedited language (git, bleeder, ponce, khasi etc). Karen Dunbar herself has had a severe education in the realities of life, for she is a gay woman who has suffered what she calls horrendous homophobia in her time. Raised in Ayr, in 1991 she discovered her cat killed and dumped in a plastic bag in her garden with a note saying ‘fucking Lesbian!’. She moved to Glasgow in 1992 and although most of her comedy work has been in the city she has also acted to great acclaim in serious drama such as the all-female Henry IV in the Donmar Warehouse, London and, unenviably buried up to her waist, as Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s 1961 drama Happy Days . The four BBC Scotland series of Chewin the Fat were eventually broadcast nationally, and are relatively easily available on DVD, but her award-winning follow up The Karen Dunbar Show which also saw four series between 2003 and 2006 and was only ever seen in Scotland, is only to be viewed on DVD as the edited highlights of Series 1. Apparently it is down to music copyright complications but it seems to me a serious crime that someone as hugely gifted as Dunbar is nowhere near as accessible as infinitely lesser fry, meaning most of the Perrier Award stand-ups who of whatever gender have as much capacity to evoke belly-splitting comedy as they have of understanding Mediaeval Mandarin Chinese.

Part of Dunbar’s charisma is her infinitely mobile and elastic face, a frequent sign of a truly great comic though not an infallible one (Peter Kay, born 1973, does not pull faces but Phoenix Nights set in a crazy Lancashire working folks club, is nonetheless the work of a fanatically inventive genius). Dunbar is an outstandingly handsome woman who regularly portrays not just the plain but the monstrously plug ugly female (qv the world’s top rank tennis player, the Russian Pugga Uglovich, who has an appalling squint and a hairstyle and complexion that would frighten a blind man and/ or a drunk). She is also a fine mimic with an excellent range of accents suited to the linguistic density and subtlety of her sketches. Thus, Miss Gourlay the prudish spinster science teacher, a Teuchter from the Highlands or just possibly an Aberdonian, has a wonderfully hiccupping peristaltic voice as she chastises the cheeky kids for asking her saucy questions about reproduction or teasing her about the fact she fancies the young guest speaker policeman. It is all bloody funny though the reality of all the poor Miss Gourlays of this world, this example being one of Dunbar’s own teachers, is of course a melancholy one. Ditto the desperately lonely and dowdy shopkeeper from Chewin The Fat, who does her best simply to find some basic human contact, much less any romance, with all these come and go customers she envies with their girlfriends, boyfriends, children or pet dogs. She tells them candidly she is stuck there on her own day in and day out, and regularly suggests they come on back to her place for an individual fruit trifle, a cup of tea and a chinwag, whereupon they gulp in panic and flee. One truly virtuoso sketch has her chatting to a bemused young woman buying sanitary towels who to her amazement discovers that the shopkeeper with nothing better to do, has been keeping chronological tabs on her menstrual cycle. And no not just hers, and she gasps when this frighteningly desperate and relentless crackpot pulls out a huge graph she has constructed of 4 of her customers and their respective menstrual cycles.

So we have all these nuanced comic portrayals of emotionally and sexually-starved females, but we also have the antitheses of women without any sexual inhibition whatever, in Auld Betty’s case of one who is old and past it and with only her memories to feed on. Otherwise in the Dunbar Show  there is Assita, supposedly a Colombian, who sings songs about her wonderfully gorgeous and world class backside, sinuously waggling it and stroking her tight leather trousers to confirm its perfection.

Arse arse, my beautiful arse

Such a beautiful arse I’ve got!

I bet you wish you had a lovely arse like mine

Look at my arse, look at my arse!

 Two, no three things, are fascinating about this zestful and strangely innocent exhibitionism. The first one is that on screen it says Assita is the Portuguese word for ‘2 small pigs in a bag’ aka the Colombian’s matchless and magnetic behind (though NB to the scriptwriters, they don’t speak Portuguese in Colombia). The second thing is that Dunbar as gay and as Assita here, would seem to be erotically exciting the men of this world, but for all we know she is intentionally teasing gay women as well. The third thing is that typically showbiz women who strut their posterior stuff, with the possible exception of Madonna who also wrote a riotous song about her glamorous backside and her penchant for spanking (Hanky Panky) tend on the whole to do it discreetly rather than in your face (so to speak) and yet very obviously if deviously they are straining for the same voyeurish effect as the comedian Dunbar. There are similar taboo-breaking motifs in the same show, as when, in bed with her timid boyfriend, Dunbar makes serial attempts at a 5-star orgasm. On the fourth she succeeds but with her hair awry and her nose visibly bleeding which more or less conveys that the climax is a full blooded one. Near the knuckle is likewise a meaningless index when we consider the famously outrageous skit on Chewin The Fat of 2 little boys approaching Dunbar in her ice cream van with a bizarre request. The little one whispers something into the other’s ear who then translates for Dunbar:

‘He wants to have a swatch(look) at your fanny(pussy).’

Instead of being disgusted and bawling them out, Dunbar subverts all expectations by having her character lift her skirt and letting the boys see all. Hours later it has turned to dusk and the 2 kids are still there, their mouths open with shock and their ice creams still melting. Another repetitive sketch that both reverses the stereotypes and demonstrates another kind of sexual harassment (the other had small boys as the unusual culprits) has Dunbar as an office manager with a difference called Gretta. Neatly clad in black and with long black hair, Gretta also sports a luxuriant black moustache with which she torments her unfortunate underlings played by Chewin the Fat regulars Paul Riley and Mark Cox. She rubs her voluptuous tash tauntingly against Riley’s mortified head and has him anxiously begging to get on with his work, an instructive and original inversion of the typically groping male boss tormenting the women under his charge.

Parenthetically, one of Dunbar’s extraordinary talents (and the same is true of Ford Kiernan and Greg Hempsey) is the sheer richness of elaborated comic detail in the dialogue. Lesser comics would go half way with their embellishments, but Dunbar in a masterly Auld Betty sketch evokes the vivid and hyperbolic detail of a comic novelist. Betty is being visited in her care home by an American called Titus (Ford Kiernan) who has been doing genealogical research, and claims to be her grandson. Betty had last seen his Mum, her daughter, in the 1960s before she emigrated to the States, and she has to tell Titus she is not at all sure who his Grandad might be. Her husband once back from the War was no use to anyone, lying on his back debauched and gabbling about French ‘whooers’. He was also sexually incapable and no more use to her than a wet and empty Smarties tube. Thus, she had teamed up with (among numerous others) rag and bone man Tinker McClusker who had customarily put himself around to ‘itchy wives’ and lonely widows. He was nothing to look at, son, what with only the one eye, most of his teeth missing because of the pyorrhoea, and on a dark night you might easily mistake him for his horse. Frankly as a comic novelist I gaze in envy at Dunbar for her impressive facility with all this grotesque and truly literary detail.

It is also interesting that as a gay woman so much of Dunbar’s comedy features straight women in outwardly calm if impassioned scenarios which often feature extreme emotional disappointment. In the Dunbar Show, there is the decent young woman dressed in her blameless suit waiting in some forlorn small Scots town to meet her latest presumably internet date, each of which is always very late and turns out to be horrendously worse than the last. One complains that it took ages to bury his recently deceased wife; another that he always visits an old woman on Tuesday and had terrible trouble getting an erection; another that he had just been drowning puppies, and the last one was delayed because it took him ages to put his nappy on. Meanwhile anyone who has ever tried internet dating might dourly confirm that this remarkable medley of grotesque  and incredible eccentrics is not quite so caricatural as you might assume.

Otherwise Dunbar like many great comics has an admirable penchant for the bawdy, the Rabelaisian, and the exaggeratedly violent, often with a lethal outcome. The last is exemplified by a welcome send up of the appalling Anne Robinson (born 1944) the basilisk real life quiz mistress who has made her name through being pointlessly unpleasant to her TV contestants. Dunbar demonstrates the East European equivalent where she is a merciless quiz mistress in Slovikistan, and where you know you’re somewhere where they speak Russian, as all words end in -vich (‘answerovich’ and ‘questionovich’). The questions are a piece of cake (where is the Eiffel Tower?) but the beaver-hatted or headscarved peasants are all alas pig ignorant (I would say Tokyo?). Instead of being frosted to immobility by Robinson, those giving wrong answers are swiftly executed by a smirking Dunbar variously using a pistol, a blow dart, an open trap door and a razor sharp sword. As for the Rabelaisian, she along with another female comic of enormous gifts, Morwenna Banks (born 1961, and see her eponymous Channel 5 show) has broken another farcical taboo by making shameless jokes out of women noisily farting. In the Dunbar Show, two office workers are in the toilets washing their hands when a third woman they do not care for enters a cubicle. They pretend to go out, but sneak back to enjoy the arrival’s astonishing contrapuntal explosions whereupon they double up with laughter and the victim rants at them from within. Ditto where Dunbar sat in her GP’s surgery and waiting to see him, starts fiddling and fooling about with his stethoscope, finally sticking it down the back of her pants, flexing her guts and loudly voiding afflatus. As for her priceless bawdiness, in Chewin the Fat Dunbar plays the proud Mum of a sulky 15-year-old son who is stood there while she is pegging out the washing. When a woman neighbour comes out and compliments her on all that laundry and her handsome son, Dunbar cannot help but boast that her lad certainly needs her as washing lady these days, as he has just reached the age where he has started to masturbate. Cue the mortification of the speechless boy and a sudden gaggle of surrounding neighboursall  cooing approvingly:

‘Oh, that’s lovely. Masturbating eh? Oh, my that’s lovely!’

Postscript

Dunbar’s website tells us that she has been hailed as Scotland’s finest female comic. I would go further than that, and say she is the whole of Great Britain’s finest female comic, and for at least the last 100 years.

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