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Frankie Boyle - How is scoffing at disabled children ever acceptable?

By Gail Walker

Published 30/06/2015

Comedian Frankie Boyle is to perform at Féile an Phobail: West Belfast Festival on August 7
Comedian Frankie Boyle is to perform at Féile an Phobail: West Belfast Festival on August 7

Frankie Boyle at the West Belfast Festival has something of inevitability about it - the meeting of the "controversial" comedian and the iconoclastic "people's" festival.

What wasn't inevitable was the cack-handedness of the festival organisers' response to concerns from the Stephen Hartley Down Syndrome Support Group and Kids Together Belfast, which both advocate for children with disabilities, about the inappropriateness of booking a comedian who has mocked children with Down's syndrome.

Fronting up to protests made in this newspaper and an airing on the Nolan Show, a spokesperson said that they had "listened to the deep-felt concerns and obvious disappointment".

"The groups voiced their concern in regard to the previous content of his material, which has caused widespread criticism in relation to his derogatory comments about disabled and vulnerable children and adults who are unable to defend themselves.

"We take all complaints very seriously and understand and sympathise with the upset that has been caused to some people with the booking of Frankie Boyle. In fact, we directly engaged with any complaints that have been brought to us."

So far, so humane. Indeed, recounting the victimisation of disabled people by Boyle makes for uncomfortable reading. It is certain if the targets had been Gazan Palestinians, or gays, or blacks, and the protesting groups representative of those communities, festival organisers would have simply listed the episodes of comic targeting as a reason for not booking the comedian in the first place.

What is incomprehensible then is the rest of the statement: "While we appreciate that comedy might not be for everyone, we stand by the booking, which has caught the imagination of many comedy lovers within our community and beyond. We would like to emphasise also that this is just one event within a very broad programme, and our passion and commitment to disability access is second to none."

Eh? So, in other words, the acknowledged fact of a performer's "derogatory comments about disabled and vulnerable children and adults" is actually endorsed as comic practice. And the fact there is an audience for it makes it acceptable as comedy. In one stroke, the anti-Irish jokes of generations of English comics are given the thumbs-up by Feile an Phobail.

Obviously, there are topics of humorous attack which wouldn't sit well within the booking policy of Feile - no Jim Davidson on the Falls - but scoffing at disabled people isn't one of them.

Now, I happen to support freedom of speech without fetters. That doesn't mean I'm obliged then to publish every piece of offensive drivel that is submitted to this paper.

Freedom of speech does not mean obligation to publish. It does mean that finding certain views repugnant is not in itself a reason for shutting them up. That's my problem and, generally, the problem newspapers face every day because we are in the business of reporting opinion.

But an arts and community festival? Especially one which prides itself on its street cred and its right-on values? It's frankly incredible.

In 2010, Boyle ran into trouble for a routine mocking the speech and dress of people with Down's syndrome. Sharon Smith, whose daughter Tanzie has the condition, commented: "He made fun of their parents being old and out of touch, he made fun of the way people with Down's syndrome speak. He made a number of references to people with Down's syndrome dying early."

Like Feile, Boyle didn't make a simple apology. It was the "worst moment of my career". But he has been fond of this strain of humour. Remember his "joke" about Katie Price's disabled son, Harvey? Look it up on the internet.

That's all right for "the people". Everything is suitable for "the people" - as long as the people aren't disabled, or the carer of someone who is.

There are ample topics for "cutting-edge" comedy in our own context here. Political personalities, killings, dissidents, collusion of all sorts. If Frankie has forgotten in his success what the sound of tumbleweed is he should try testing out some satire like that on his Belfast audience.

Amid this sad burlesque of empty gestures and platitudes, the words of Julie Farrelly, a member of the Stephen Hartley Down's Syndrome Support Group, ring out. She has a son, Matthew (7), who has the condition and cannot speak.

She asked a simple question which goes right to the heartlessness of the matter: "What gives Frankie Boyle the right to make fun of my child and other children?"

We'll wait to hear the answer to that one next month. That should raise a laugh.

Belfast Telegraph

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