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Boyling over: We profile Scottish comic Frankie Boyle

Published 01/08/2015

Comedian Frankie Boyle is to perform at a festival in Belfast
Comedian Frankie Boyle is to perform at a festival in Belfast

Controversial comic Frankie Boyle's tasteless 'jokes' about Down's syndrome kids will see angry parents picketing his appearance at the West Belfast Festival next Friday. Andrew Johnston profiles the 'Marmite' performer who divides audiences.

When Frankie Boyle takes to the stage at the Feile an Phobail/West Belfast Festival next Friday, it will be a triumph for the Scottish comedian and a crushing blow to the campaigners who have failed to stop him performing.

Boyle's forceful brand of stand-up has provoked divisions in the west Belfast community, with some families of children with Down's syndrome objecting to the funny man's treatment of such subjects in his routines.

Even the Feile's co-founder, the veteran Sinn Fein councillor and former Belfast Lord Mayor, Tom Hartley, has voiced his objections - though his party president, Gerry Adams, has defended Boyle's right to appear.

Protests have been held outside the festival's office, while talks between organisers and the pressure group, Feile for All, ended in acrimony this week.

The protesters' former spokesman, John Lundy (who has since split from the group), claims he was told the long-running 'People's Festival' could not cancel Boyle's gig, due to the risk it could bankrupt the venture. Since the row broke out, all 2,500 tickets for the Falls Park date have been snapped up.

The heated debate may be a first for Northern Ireland's arts scene, but it's nothing new for the Caledonian comic.

Since blazing on to television screens in 2005 as a regular on the BBC's satirical panel show, Mock the Week, Boyle has outraged and entertained in equal measure with his blunt, often wilfully offensive, material.

The Feile storm reflects the 'Marmite' nature of Boyle's output.

Born Francis Martin Patrick Boyle in Glasgow's Pollokshaws district on August 16, 1972, Boyle's parents hailed from the Co Donegal village of Crolly.

After uneventful school years, Boyle studied Urban Planning at Aston University, in Birmingham, before switching to a degree in English Literature at Sussex University. Early employment included working in a mental health hospital, until, at the age of 23, he began performing stand-up.

Edinburgh's infamous comedy club, The Stand, was a regular haunt, allowing Boyle a platform to hone his ever-edgier shtick.

In 1996, he won an open mic event at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. It led to writing jobs for TV and, eventually, a central role in Mock the Week.

Boyle was on board from the very first episode. His cutting style proved phenomenally popular with audiences, in spite of it regularly landing him in hot water with the censors and Britain's tabloid media.

Bolstered by his growing profile, in 2007, the bespectacled comedian set off on his debut national tour, entitled Morons, I Can Heal You. This was followed by 2010's I Would Happily Punch Every One of You in the Face and The Last Days of Sodom in 2012. (Boyle's tendency to announce each tour as his last has never been taken up on.)

In between, he notched up spots on the likes of 8 Out Of 10 Cats, Never Mind The Buzzcocks and Have I Got News For You, as well as making three show-stealing appearances on Live at the Apollo.

But, in 2009, Boyle surprised fans by leaving Mock the Week. He went on to publicly blast the programme's makers, claiming the format had been too restrictive on his aggressive approach, alleging the producers and the BBC Trust had been afraid of upsetting viewers.

"The number one priority today is, 'Don't frighten the horses'," he moaned. "It's like we're back in the 1970s in terms of compliance." He later added that the current TV schedules resemble "the entertainment programme on a f****** cruise ship".

Alas, his 2010 attempt to launch a solo sketch series, Frankie Boyle's Tramadol Nights, met with indifference bordering on disdain. Originally intended to be titled Deal with This, Retards, but changed by Channel 4 to avoid offence, the show got short shrift from critics.

"The world seems a meaner place after listening to Boyle," wrote The Independent, while The Scotsman reckoned the sketches "showed up Boyle's limitations as a comic actor".

Even The Guardian - for which Boyle would go on to pen a regular column - decreed that the star had been given "enough rope to hang himself".

Viewing figures were disappointing, but perhaps more notably, the series spawned a serious dispute surrounding a gag made by Boyle about glamour model Katie Price's disabled son, Harvey.

Price and then-partner Peter Andre were said to have been left "absolutely disgusted and sickened" after Boyle wisecracked, "Apparently, Jordan and Peter Andre are fighting each other over custody of Harvey. Well, eventually one of them'll lose and have to keep him." Tramadol Nights was not picked up for a second outing.

Still, Boyle motored on with a string of well-received books, capitalising on the success of his best-selling 2009 autobiography, My S**t Life So Far. Work! Consume! Die! was published in 2011, followed by 2013's Scotland's Jesus: The Only Officially Non-Racist Comedian.

Between 2010 and 2013, Boyle also co-wrote a superhero-parodying comic strip entitled Rex Royd for the now-defunct CLiNT magazine.

The title of his third book was inspired by a court case in 2011, when Boyle successfully sued the Daily Mirror newspaper over an article that described him as a "racist comedian". The jury found in his favour and the newspaper was ordered to pay Boyle £50,400 in libel damages, which he donated to the prisoner justice charity, Reprieve.

Meanwhile, in 2013, the stand-up went on a hunger strike to support Shaker Aamer, the last UK resident being held at Guantanamo Bay, and earlier this year, he gave £5,000 to a struggling food bank in the Maryhill area of Glasgow.

He has also been a vocal supporter of Scottish independence, saying before last year's vote: "I'm all for it. It won't happen. One of the reasons it won't happen is the media is just completely against it. There's a huge level of media bias."

Yet, for all his good deeds, it is his undeniably tasteless humour that continues to dominate the headlines.

The Feile protests centre on a rant from the opening night of Boyle's 2010 tour, during which he clashed with a crowd member whose daughter had Down's syndrome.

He had been making fun of the way such people look and speak, comments the mental health charity Mencap would subsequently deride as being "no different to bullying".

Boyle, for his part, lamented the onstage incident as "the most excruciating moment of my career".

Elsewhere, Boyle has attracted flak for joking that swimmer Rebecca Adlington "looks like someone who's looking at themselves in the back of a spoon", made unprintable remarks about the Queen that Conservative MP David Davies called "disgracefully foul" and took on the BBC Trust's editorial standards committee over a Radio 4 quip likening the situation in Palestine to "a cake being punched to pieces by a very angry Jew".

It has been a whirlwind decade since Mock the Week, but away from the limelight, Boyle and his long-time partner, Shereen Taylor, live a quiet life in Glasgow with their daughter and son, born in 2004 and 2007 respectively. The family remain intensely private.

As for next Friday night in Belfast, Boyle may be set to invoke as many complaints as laughs, but one thing's for sure: everyone will be talking about him.

A life so far...

Born August 16, 1972, Glasgow

Got his big break performing at The Stand comedy club in Edinburgh

Was a regular on the BBC panel show Mock The Week (2005-2009)

His 2010 Channel 4 series Frankie Boyle's Tramadol Nights was a critical and commercial disappointment

Lives in Glasgow with girlfriend, Shereen Taylor, and their two children

Belfast Telegraph

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