Vera Lynn of the virus: saving lives with humour

Janey Godley
Photo: Amnesty International – Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Has the Vera Lynn of the virus saved more lives than Boris Johnson?

It’s a funny old world, but no-one’s really laughing. Apart from the beyond-satire antics of government ministers (the highlight of which was surely the health secretary’s Reeves & Mortimer-esque parkour), the pandemic has been a miserable time full of fear, pain and loss.

One diamond amidst the ashes has been Scottish comedian Janey Godley. Her robust voiceovers onto video of Nicola Sturgeon’s daily press briefings have made laugh-out-loud catharsis out of a worldwide tragedy at the same time as actually reinforcing clear and sensible public health messages.

For those not familiar, here’s an example. Do not click on this link if you are offended by swearing.

We will leave aside matters of taste: if people don’t laugh, that’s fine, though it’s always amusing in itself to see online comments to successful professional comedians along the lines of, “You’re not funny”. She gets dozens of these every day, usually from anonymous accounts with no photo, and her response is always to direct the correspondent to her agent, promoter and bank manager.

What is interesting is the way that Godley has gone beyond the obvious. Lampooning the foibles of the powerful is as old as fart jokes in Greek tragedies, but she has managed to make humour out of the message rather than the messenger by using the positive side of stereotyping. 

For instance, a stereotypical Glaswegian is seen traditionally as forthright and honest with, perhaps, a hint of menace. Making Nicola Sturgeon, an Ayrshire lawyer from a relatively humble background, adopt that same tone has the effect of turning public health messages into homespun common sense from someone who knows how hard life can be.

Godley’s fearless approach seems to be a product of such a life. Raised in the East End of Glasgow, she was raped and abused by her uncle between the ages of five and 13 and later married into a gangster family. Her mother was murdered by a psychopathic boyfriend when Janey was 21; he was never prosecuted. With her husband, who has Asberger’s, she ran a pub in the notorious Calton area, a violent red-light district where crucifixions were not uncommon; she lost 22 of her friends to heroin overdoses in a space of 17 months. It was while running comedy nights at the pub that she took her first steps into standup.

Perhaps it is for these reasons that “You’re not funny” on twitter bothers her little. As she once memorably said:

“If I ever stood in a room with 600 people and talked for 15 minutes and nobody laughed, then it’s no worse than having a gun held at your head and I’ve already had that, so it doesn’t really scare me.”

Though correlation is not causation, it is interesting to compare the infection and death rates of Scotland and England. What the Janey Godley phenomenon throws up is the critical importance of clear messages in a crisis. The muddled, often conflicting messages from the prime minister and his cabinet contrast unfavourably with Janey Godley’s spoofs and the sterling work done on platforms such as twitter by health professionals.

One good example of such a voice is Greg Fell, director of public health for Sheffield, who puts out a daily stream of the latest medical advice from experts:

Another is the much praised @MyDoncaster, the mouthpiece of Doncaster Council, who also combine reliable advice with wit. In a post-truth age, where all manner of misinformation is spread via social media, such sources of information are invaluable if we are not to drown in a torrent of untruth and speculation. If truth is the first casualty of war, then people who give well-sourced facts are, perhaps, the bugle sound of the cavalry coming to save us in a corny western.

Another reliable source of the latest Covid-19 information is epidemiologist Adam Kucharski @AdamJKucharski. Though an authority himself, one hallmark of these accounts is that they retweet properly-run studies and experimentally derived facts rather than opinions and speculation. Contrast this to other media organs and the debate about masks: a video of mad Texans with guns will get more likes and shares but the viewer is none the wiser at the end of it, merely more deeply entrenched.

Which brings us back to Janey Godley. A cynic might suggest that this is a means of raising her profile but this is a weak argument. She was already huge in Scotland. Her autobiography, Handstands in the Dark, was published by Penguin in 2006, and there are plenty more followers to be had with cheaper laughs. It’s fashionable to suggest that our leaders are now so absurd as to render satire redundant. This is a lazy assertion, often to hide a lack of ideas and creative ambition. Godley,(along with her daughter, comedian Ashley Storrie, who co-writes the voiceovers), has had the courage to sidestep the obvious satirical tropes (Johnson is a philanderer, liar, lazy, stupid, controlled by Cummings …), and go for comedy that actually stands for something.

A sweary comedian who’s talking more sense than our leaders? Funny old world.

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