When I mentioned I was reading (let alone planning to write about) Graham Linehan’s memoir Tough Crowd, my colleague winced.
He pointed out doing so could get me into a little bother.
It didn’t matter that the Dubliner was, until around 2016, much celebrated as the award-winning co-creator of Father Ted, Big Train, The IT Crowd and Black Books, having also contributed to other legendary shows I love such as I’m Alan Partridge, The Fast Show and the like.
For many, none of that matters much anymore.
A few years back, Linehan began to dedicate his life to what was quickly qualified as anti-transgender activism.
Angrily doubling and tripling down, framing himself as a women’s rights campaigner, his arguments became increasingly difficult to follow and unpack.
Points were lost or clouded by hostility and contempt as he fought dirty against an established opposition – ie those at the very opposite end of the debate (who often were, to be fair, just as unkind).
There wasn’t much to win over the rational, unattached onlooker In fact, Linehan had seemingly turned into a sort of extremist.
Within months, his career was all but over.
Considering all of this, why would I write about him when the very mention of his name puts colleagues on high alert? Why tiptoe towards a minefield?
Well, here’s my pitch. In December 2008, I was invited to write a blog for the BBC titled My Favourite Human – encouraged to profile someone (beyond family and friends) who had influenced me like no other.
I decided against picking a musician, taking the opportunity to emphasise the role TV comedy has played in my creative upbringing.
So, you’ve guessed it, I wrote about Graham Linehan.
I outlined his writing CV – from Father Ted to more obscure shows and TV moments, illustrating as I went with YouTube clips and character catchphrases.
I also noted how Graham had even helped kickstart the career of my favourite songwriter Neil Hannon, giving glowing reviews to early Divine Comedy releases for Hotpress in the early 90s.
All in all, I felt I’d made a very strong case as to his genius.
The blog is still online (accompanied by the date it was published) and is testament to how much I love the
It also helps set up the situation I find myself in ahead of writing this piece.
Am I expected to rescind that admiration now his profile has taken something of an alarming turn?
Should I suppress my curiosity to learn more about how he created those shows which made me laugh so much over the years?
In short, should I be reading his memoir? Rather than make everything about me, I promise I’m attempting to ask an interesting question here.
When someone who has created a load of stuff over a long period of time that you love says things you don’t agree with, should you suddenly write that person off?
And what of that aforementioned stuff – is that now tainted?
I would argue hard no and hard no.
So, I read the book and here are my thoughts…
The first half is all about his career.
His early life geeking about Dublin, searching for his tribe.
The story of how he met Arthur Matthews and began writing comedy, the two bonding over everything from David Lynch movies to The Simpsons to Linehan’s beloved Seinfeld.
How his first break came from Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones. How Father Ted morphed from a seed of an idea into one of the greatest comedies ever written.
How he got lucky casting that pretty much perfect quartet of characters who’d live on Craggy Island. We learn why Linehan and Matthews essentially split up – and the subsequent creation of his solo material, specifically The IT Crowd.
Aside from a sprinkling of unnecessary “these people were my friends, or so I thought” type snipes which set up what’s to come, the first 179 pages are insightful and fun.
From page 180 to the end, however, he’s all in on the activism.
It’s explained how while recovering from surgery (he had a testicle removed following a cancer diagnosis) Linehan began to tweet about gender issues, his obsession gradually dismantling his reputation.
If, and I appreciate it’s a huge if, you can forget about his actual opinions, that is also a pretty fascinating read.
It’s laid out how someone who’s life had been a success by anyone’s standards got so caught up in an ideological war that they lost their career, wife and most of their friends.
Linehan name-drops the comics who ignored his calls, the ones he eventually confronted and the people who stood by him throughout.
You find out where and how he had to live, the ways he tried to make a living and why he reckons he is finally on track for a comeback.
It’s a unique story, for sure. However, if you’re reading Tough Crowd as an attempt to interpret his point of view, that’s when everything starts to get a little messy.
For a start, it’s incredibly one-sided – which is his prerogative of course.
But the problem is, many of his arguments are justified via anecdotes, vague speculation or plain old opinion rather than actual data. So they’re not particularly convincing.
The familiar hostility also takes over for paragraphs at a time with almost everyone who isn’t wholeheartedly agreeing with his point of view seemingly written off.
Which feels a tad… reductive.
It should be noted that not many seem to disagree it’s a concern a small amount of trans women may be abusing gender recognition legislation to, for example, de-facto cheat at sports. Or use women’s spaces with malicious intent.
But throughout Tough Crowd, it feels like Linehan believes isolated incidents justify vilifying an entire community of already marginalised people, most of whom just want to keep the head down and live their lives.
If he wants to prove he’s not simply straight-up transphobic (and I don’t believe it’s as simple as that, by the way), why not acknowledge the masses? And where is the compromise? Where’s the encouragement to find answers to the many, many questions he poses? Where’s even a hint of nuance?
I understand there are huge fans of Father Ted (and the rest) who’ll have perfectly valid and/or personal reasons for not wanting to go near this book and contribute to the author’s income.
After all, the reality (backed up by, you know, facts and data – that stuff) is that trans people have faced increasing levels of intimidation and violence, notably so in this part of the world.
Perhaps my privilege coming into play, I still wanted to read Tough Crowd.
For insight into his TV work (which I love) and why/how he has ended up where he is now (which had me curious, to understate it somewhat).
And while I found huge chunks of the book utterly infuriating, other bits I very much enjoyed.
Does that make me a bad person? Does it make me a bad ally? I’m honestly unsure.
I’m sure someone reading this might let me know…
Tough Crowd by Graham Linehan is out now.