Book review: A Class Act, by Rob Beckett

Book review: A Class Act, Life as a Working-Class Man in a Middle-Class World, by Rob Beckett. Published by: Harper Collins. Available: now.

Now in his mid-thirties, Rob Beckett is a comedy success story, a popular stand-up, podcaster and a familiar TV face from shows like Mock The Week, 8 Out of 10 Cats and Taskmaster. He is also something of a rarity on the British comedy circuit in that he hails from a genuinely working-class background. This is his story, not a straightforward autobiography but a look at how his life and career have been affected by his past.

Judging by his own (and, indeed, probably many people’s) criteria, Beckett passes what he himself calls, ‘the Working-Class Test’ (perhaps this should be renamed, ‘The Beckett List?) with flying colours. He grew up in south-east London. His father worked as a driver: first driving vans, then petrol tankers, then a London taxi cab, His mum is known as ‘Big Suze’. He spent his 16th birthday at Crayford dog-racing track. He didn’t eat an avocado until he was 31. On the other hand, there is a darker side to all this. At his first ever Parents’ Evening at school, his parents were told straight that “he’s never going to be a high achiever or a high flier.”

Despite this, these experiences have left him not so much angry as conflicted. The book’s cover which shows him smartly dressed and cheerfully enjoying an expensive drink while simultaneously clearly about to tuck into a plate of bangers and mash while seated in a greasy spoon cafĂ©, comically reflect his mixed feelings. His background has clearly caused him no small measure of awkwardness in the past. After an early comedy success winning a trip to Adelaide after securing the Best Newcomer award at Edinburgh ten years ago, Beckett found himself stuck there with no money left to enjoy the city at all. In a later incident, after being invited to a swanky party hosted by Jimmy Carr he found himself mocked by other guests for arriving with a few cans of beers in a plastic bag. Although he gets on well with his warm and supportive family, he admits to having been occasionally been embarrassed by their behaviour. It’s true, one or two of his issues can be attributed to other things: he recognises he was self-conscious about his weight for many years. A few elements of his parents’ behaviour sound like they might be more to do with general eccentricity or old age than anything else. But he is right to recognise that most of these problems have been down to class.

Today, Rob Beckett recognises he is definitely middle-class himself. His wife is middle-class: for one thing, she had never eaten fried chicken before meeting him. He also recognises his daughters will grow up to be much posher than he is. Occasionally his insecurities return. Most dramatically, it took a near nervous breakdown shortly before lockdown to make him realise his continued success did not depend on him taking literally every job he was offered. Even as a successful comedian who had been commissioned to write this book, he admits it took him a while to realise he wasn’t being needlessly financially reckless to even consider buying himself a new laptop rather than awkwardly sharing the computer his wife was using to home school the children during lockdown.

He frequently seems amazed he is writing a book at all. And no wonder. His father didn’t even read a book until he was 43. The book in question was The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, in fact, written by Sue Townsend, a woman from a far poorer background than the Becketts.

Like her, Rob Beckett has come a very long way from where he started out from. But then, perhaps not so far, at the same time.

Book review: No Shame, by Tom Allen

Tom Allen is well-established as one of Britain’s best-known comedians. Incredibly camp and always impeccably dressed in a tweed suit, Allen’s quick wit and sharp tongue has made him the ideal choice to front high end reality TV spin-off shows like The Apprentice…You’re Fired! and The Great British Bake Off: Extra Slice. He also presents the popular Like Minded Friends podcast with his friend, comedian, Suzi Ruffell and can often be seen on panel shows like Mock the Week, 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown and QI.

As this winning memoir confirms, Allen’s camp TV persona is no act. He was an unusual child and in his own words was “always forty-six years old.” He, in fact, won’t turn forty-six until 2029 (he was born in 1983), but with his unusual, distinctive dress sense, interests and manner made him stand out. Unlike most 1990s teenagers (indeed, unlike most teenagers from any decade), he avoided the traditional adolescent activities preferring to organise dinner parties for middle-aged women while pretending to be a butler.

Even his accent is a mystery. Although not exactly Received Pronunciation, it is definitely plummy. But it seems to have come from nowhere. He apparently sounds nothing like anyone in his family and went to school with fellow comedian Rob Beckett and former EastEnders actor, Charlie Clements, neither of whom sound anything like him either. “If the Daily Mail built a theme park, it would probably look a bit like Bromley,” he says of his birthplace, although as of the current Lockdown, he still lives there with his ageing parents.

(A surprising number of famous people, in fact, come from or have lived in Bromley including H.G. Wells, Enid Blyton, David Bowie, Jack Dee and Pixie Lott. But that’s another story).

“When I was sixteen,” he recalls. “I dressed in Victorian clothing in a bid to distract from the fact that I was gay.” Twenty years on, he recognises this strategy was “flawed” and indeed, had less to do with trying to do with attempting to distract attention away from his (presumably very obvious) homosexuality than it did attempting to escape from the difficult realities of his daily situation altogether.

This is a very funny book, shedding light on what, in reality, clearly must have been a very unhappy period for Allen. For all his occasional on stage bitchiness, he is clearly a very sensitive person as well as a good writer. Though the book takes us up to the present, there is relatively little about his comedy career. The best bits of the book chronicle his awkward teenaged experience in exquisite detail.

By coincidence, Tom Allen’s memoir comes hot on the heels of To Be A Gay Man, by the musician, Will Young, who is around four years older than Allen. As with that volume, Allen’s enjoyable book should provide an invaluable source of inspiration to any young gay readers, hopefully ensuring that feel able to advance to a position where they feel “no shame” themselves.

No Shame, by Tom Allen. Published by Hodder and Stoughton.