Most people would say UKIP lends itself to comedy better than Denis Healey’s eyebrows lent themselves to tweezers – but not the people of Walton-on-the-Naze, as they live in the party’s only constituency. I’m a stand-up comic, and I was booked to play the town’s first comedy night this month. I don’t know if the lovely promoter realised I was Asian when he booked me; for my part, I didn’t realise Douglas Carswell was Walton’s MP, and only discovered while Googling the town on the way to the gig, when it was too late to turn back.
When I arrived in Walton-on-the-Naze’s large ballroom with its cornicing and chandeliers (‘It looks like the inside of a prostitute’s wedding cake’ remarked one of the other comics), I was perturbed to see more skinheads than at your average EDL rally. Audiences in London are diverse both in terms of race and class; Walton’s audience was not. The first act quipped, ‘I know you’re all a bunch of racists’; whether he was joking or not wasn’t clear.
I was terrified before I went on. I generally sing a love song to Jeremy Corbyn; I thought ‘Oh no, they’re UKIP supporters – they’re going to hate it.’ I also sing about the time a beauty therapist waxed my bikini line into a Hitler moustache. Ridiculously, I thought ‘Maybe some of them are neo-Nazis and will object to this, too!’ Before our sets, the other new comic and I shared frightened glances. ‘Good luck,’ he said. ‘Thanks – I’ll need it,’ I replied. ‘Hopefully they’ll think I’ve just got a suntan and am not Asian at all?’. I was glad that my six foot six inch male friend had accompanied me to the gig.
When you’re scared, it’s easy to whip yourself into a frenzy and think the audience hates you. And yet, when I walked on stage, everyone was smiling. So I addressed the thing I was most nervous about: ‘I know this is a UKIP constituency. In the East End they vote Labour, but Jeremy Corbyn isn’t doing at all well, is he? So I’ve written a love song to cheer him up.’
To my surprise and relief, they laughed, and went on to laugh throughout my set: at Corbyn, at the Hitler moustache, at my rude song about never having another boyfriend. They were friendly and good-natured. I tested the waters a bit, in case they hadn’t noticed my skin colour: ‘My little girl’s white and I’m brown, so I call her my secret Asian.’ They didn’t bat an eyelid. When I came off stage, the promoter’s wife said ‘They loved you! They came to life when you came on.’
In some ways, the crowd lived up to stereotypes: when the other comedian mentioned the referendum, he got heckled with ‘Brexit – out out out!’ And some of the crowd started to heckle the headline act when he maligned their hometown, with one man asking menacingly, ‘Are you taking the piss out of Walton-on-the-Naze?’ But whatever else the audience were, they weren’t racist. In fact, it occurred to me as we drove home, I was the prejudiced one, the one full of preconceived ideas about what other people were going to be like before getting to know them.
‘I was surprised,’ I said to my friend afterwards, ‘because they were skinheads.’
‘They weren’t skinheads, silly,’ he said. ‘They were bald! You need to stop making assumptions, and start wearing your glasses more often.’
I’d happily play Walton-on-the-Naze again – UKIP voters or no UKIP voters. But next time, I’ll be sure to bring my specs.