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Step Right Up spacer Issue 6
Step Right Up - 'Get Yer Gutties On We're Goin' To Bangor!'
The sound of James Young

by Paul Moore
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On any given morning, a doctor's waiting room in Northern Ireland will be inhabited with characters familiar to us all. There will be the woman from up the street who is always there because she has read about some new illness in the weekend Telegraph and is sure she has it. There will be the woman from the avenue where they take their chips home in a briefcase and speak with an accent that confounds rather than confers status. And there will be the woman who is there because she is determined that 'the other side' won't get more than her from a welfare system that she and her family have spent years paying for! And one of the reasons we know them so well is that they became immortalised in the Northern Irish psyche as Mrs O'Condriac, the snob from Cherryvalley with no name, and Orange Lil - all products of the James Young school of comic and satirical comment.
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It is difficult to write about James Young in an objective way. He has become too special, too important, a genius who sought, it seems, to use comic flair to highlight the futility of our sectarian society.
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Step Right Up - 'Get Yer Gutties On We're Goin' To Bangor!' - The sound of James Young
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What is not always recognised was that James Young was the Northern Irish example of a kind of comedian that was born out of two key popular cultural movements of the early twentieth century. The first was the music hall. The music hall had flourished during the great years of the empire as a space where jingoism and national pride could be enforced. Its early anarchistic nature had been toned down by respective governments until it became safe for both the working and lower middle classes to take their families, content in the knowledge that they would be comfortable, entertained and protected from the worst excesses of bad taste. The one element that the music hall never lost, however, was the rapport between the audience and the performer, particularly comic performers like Mitch Millar, Tommy Trinder or Jimmy James. It was to these performers that James Young owed his comic tradition.
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The second element was the importance of the working class regional comedians who by dint of their voices were intrinsically part of the community they lampooned. Men like Harry Lauder, Arthur Lucan (aka Old Mother Riley) and the inimitable Frank Randle from Manchester had been illustrating for years the importance of the regional comedian who acted as a safety valve for 'ordinary decent people' and their 'unsophisticated' ways.
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In this context it was imperative that the James Young characters gracing the stage at the Group Theatre in Belfast or the Little Theatre in Bangor should be stereotypical; microcosmic slices of Belfast/Northern Ireland life voiced in the biting, yet somehow camply endearing accent of what we now refer to as interface areas. The foundations for these characters were no doubt found by the youthful James Young as he travelled around the terraced streets of Belfast collecting rent for the estate agency where he gained his first employment.
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And even though many critics suggest that he should have stayed in serious theatre where he had initially made his performing mark, it was almost inevitable that he would gravitate towards the form of theatre that would allow him to develop his best talents - playing an audience, adlibbing and representing larger than life Belfast personalities.
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Nor is it surprising that he should have been given the character of Derek the window cleaner in the McCooeys. The window cleaner by nature stands on the outskirts of people's lives and looks in un-noticed. The window cleaner hears and sees much, but tells very little. And what his voyeurism gives him is the capacity to extract the key elements of characters that could then be exaggerated and turned into the grotesques we feel simultaneous hatred, compassion and empathy for.
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Yet James Young was himself a contradiction. Part of the unionist hegemonic tradition that ensured the presence of leading political figures such as Lord Brookborough at important performances and opening nights, he was nevertheless set apart because of his unspoken sexuality and willingness to treat audiences as people rather than religious groupings. Despite his living in a rigidly patriarchal society his strongest and most memorable characters are all female. And try as he might he could never escape the very thing he invoked his audiences to turn from - an ingrained sense of tribalism. His most famous monologues, especially 'I loved a Papisher' are invariably about what protestants feel about catholics a process that serves to not only 'other' the nationalist community but illustrates that James Young had virtually no understanding of what Ernie the Shipyard worker would have called 'the other side'.
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It is no surprise, either that the records of James Young (check your attic, every home had some) sold over a quarter of a million copies. His comedy was about the spoken word, about sound, about how we heard each other. The characters were merely vehicles through which the sound of Northern Ireland was proclaimed and it was a form of communication that could not survive the collapse of the theatrical music hall tradition or the advent of television, despite the superb situation writing of people like Sam Cree. James Young didn't need situations; he needed characters and more importantly characters that spoke directly to a like-minded audience.
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Ultimately James Young's characters were part of an on-going process of definition. By drawing attention to the peculiarities of the region he was helping to define that which made Northern Ireland different, that which set it apart form the rest of the United Kingdom and more importantly, from the Republic. For his part James Young may have believed the romantic notion that people could solve their differences without reference to social, cultural or economic circumstances if they would simply resolve to 'stap fightin'. By the time of his death in 1974 James Young would have seen enough to know that, like Johnny Speight's great creation Alf Garnett, most people in Northern Ireland not only laughed at his characters, but also had come to believe that they were also telling the truth. Ironically then, the mirror that James Young held up to Northern Ireland told a truth that turned out to be far from universal.
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Step Right Up - 'Get Yer Gutties On We're Goin' To Bangor!' - The sound of James Young
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