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11th March 2024

Father Ted creator Graham Linehan: “The button has been reset and I’m back to being incredibly frightened”

George Achebe interviews the sitcom writer and comedian about life on the frontlines of the culture wars

Graham Linehan is tall enough to be unmissable as he walks into Berners Tavern, a place of almost unbearable trendiness in the London Editions hotel, just off Oxford Street. Having chosen the restaurant, I realise that I have caused him to walk in and around Soho – not necessarily a place likely to be friendly to him given that it’s a wokeness heartland and Linehan, in another lifetime the popular creator of sitcoms such as Father Ted, Black Books and Motherland, has carved out a place in our culture as a critic of wokeness in general and the transgender movement in particular. I have brought him to the lion’s den – but at least he gets to eat a meal by Jason Atherton.

To put it mildly, Linehan is under fire. Really, he has found himself – partly by volition but with a large measure of accident – at the front lines of the so-called culture wars. “It’s been tough,” he says, looking like he needs a hug.

How did he get here? For Linehan, it all began when JK Rowling published a blog on her website which seemed to most people relatively anodyne, but which in our current predicament as a polarised society, caused a pantomimic storm on what was then Twitter. It cannot be gone into in serious depth here, except to say that Rowling explained her position as a feminist accused of being a TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminist) at some length and with measured thought. It is probably false to say that she had chosen to oppose the transgender movement; really she had reserved her right to question it.

Among her five reasons for doing so was this: “I’m concerned about the huge explosion in young women wishing to transition and also about the increasing numbers who seem to be detransitioning (returning to their original sex), because they regret taking steps that have, in some cases, altered their bodies irrevocably, and taken away their fertility.”

Linehan – who has a daughter – sought to organise support, and circulated a letter which was signed by the likes of Sir Tom Stoppard, Lionel Shriver, and Ian McEwan. “Stoppard was great. He signed the JK Rowling letter. He has never really weighed in on the issue; he has never really spoken about the effect of removing single sex spaces.” So why has Stoppard, as an example, not been singled out? “The better informed you are about the transgender the more trouble you get into,” he says with a sigh. “He’s probably not that well-known among the young and he is quite cerebral. But who wouldn’t sign that letter?”

I can see that Linehan is vulnerable; his body language is passive and dejected. He has reason to be. In a sense, he has no regrets, but he also, he says, radically underestimated what the reaction would be to a letter he viewed, and still views, as non-controversial. You can see straightaway that, unlike other anti-wokeness campaigners – Dave Chappelle, Ricky Gervais, Rowling herself – Linehan doesn’t quite have the personality for a protracted fight. He is also, of course, much less wealthy than they are, and without the assured income streams that devolve from the Harry Potter franchise, The Office, or Chapelle’s Netflix specials.

“I am really worried about my security,” says Linehan. “I am very vulnerable financially and desperately hoping the book does well enough to dig me out of a hole.”

The book he’s referring to is Tough Crowd: How I Made and Lost a Career in Comedy, recently published by Eye Books. It’s an excellent read, beautifully written and extremely affecting. It is a sort of diptych, its first half recalling with charming nostalgia his early career as a rock journalist and then as a writer of beloved sitcoms. It is a book which proclaims the importance of comedy as an art form, and will be of value to anyone considering a career as a TV writer. At one point he imagines himself being hounded by trans activists like ‘an evil Beatles’ and when I quote the line back at him approvingly, he smiles. I can see that he’s pleased. The original intention of his career was to make people laugh, and it’s this really which still animates him. This detour into the culture wars must feel very gravid to someone who cares so much about the mechanics of laughter.

Tough Crowd is a funny book – but especially, it’s wise about being funny, which is a different thing. So how has he found publishing the book? “I’ve found it unbelievably hard. I am finding it really upsetting. Writing it was very much a release; it was great to get all the stuff down on paper. As I was going along, I weaned myself off the anti-anxiety medication I was on because getting it all down on paper was helping.” However this positive period has ceded to the experience of publication, with Linehan under fire again. “I just feel that the button has been reset and I am back to being incredibly frightened and shell-shocked by the whole thing.”

The trouble Linehan faces is that while 95 per cent of the country may agree with him, or at least have some sympathy with his views, it’s the five per cent who don’t with whom he needs to work in order to secure an income. He is especially upset that his Father Ted musical, which he regarded as his pension, has been put on hold by Hat Trick Productions, for reasons which seem to be spiteful.

Linehan explains: “That five per cent is united as casting me as either obsessive or abusive or whatever it happens to be and that five per cent is also hiding my books in bookshops. I have heard multiple reports of that since we snuck onto The Sunday Times Top 10.”

This is shocking – and obviously upsetting to him. I decide it might be my role to cheer him up and improve his mood, and seek to turn the conversation round to comedy. So how does the writing process work for Linehan? “I just sit down and start typing – but rewriting is my favourite part in sitcoms and in books too. It’s such a pleasure just going over and over something. I heard someone say a writer is a sculptor who makes his own clay – the clay being the first draft. That’s a very good way of looking at it. I used to think of first drafts as if they worked great but if they didn’t that was fine too because it was like an arrow pointing the way, and once I knew what way we should go, everything became much simpler.”

When he is thinking about these things, you can see what good company he is – how much he has to impart, and that his career has been earned as a result of an enormous amount of hard work. The trouble is the culture wars keep exerting a sort of gravitational pull on him, and we’re continually drawn back to the enormity of what’s happening. At one point, Linehan mentions Christopher Hitchens, and I ask him what he would have thought about the wokeness movement. “It wouldn’t have got as far – I don’t think it would have got as far.” This seems to place a lot of power at Hitchens’ elbow – but it’s plausible.

The Internet has a particular fascination for Linehan, who tweeted happily under the @Glinner handle – but Twitter eventually came for him and he had his account banned in the pre-Musk era. “I remember in the early days I was such an evangelist for Twitter: everything’s going to be great,” he recalls. “We could connect and we could all share information and ideas. I now realise what an incredible organising tool it is for frightening people.. People have this idea that Jimmy Savile was some sort of creature that could be killed: he’s not. He is still around. He is everywhere. What he did was to make the best of his much more limited opportunities by becoming a DJ by having access to kids charity work all that sort of stuff – but now you don’t need to be a high achiever like Savile to get access to kids. You can just change your pronouns and wander in behind someone in the toilet.”

I ask him if the gender critical movement could be more united. How often for instance does he talk with JK Rowling? I am surprised by the response: “She has never said a single word to me.” How does he feel about that? “I didn’t do it to get thanks from her. I did it because I think it is right. She is on her own track and is doing great work and I am on mine.”

Shouldn’t his side of the argument join up more? Linehan sighs: “The whole thing is so fractious. One of the things I remind people sometimes is that I am not a feminist. I am someone who is fighting for my career, fighting for my daughter’s rights. I am not really a feminist. I’m not part of that world and the thing about feminism is it’s incredibly territorial and there are so many wars going on at any one time. The gender critical movement has done really well in staying as united as it has despite all these tensions but it’s tough sometimes.  I try and stay out of it.   I say I’m not part of these discussions. One of the nice things about radical feminism is they say that you cannot be a man and be a feminist. I think that’s a brilliant rule: it means that we can help, and offer observations – but in the end we’re men.”

Linehan detours into particular example: “At the moment I am defending this lesbian who has been running speed dating nights and recently decided to admit no more trans-identified men: the trans activists went for her. Now when she puts on these nights, they infiltrate them. Now, she is under fire from our own side and being accused of fraud. It’s incredible this vitriol she is being subjected to and it’s based on nothing but on pure rumour.  What happens every so often is this feeding frenzy that goes around aimed at people who are brave enough to stick their head above the parapet.”

When I speak to a prominent gender critical activist, who asks to go by the pseudonym Jessica Freeman, I find her broadly supportive. “I really appreciate everything Graham’s done.” However, she also draws attention to the differences between Rowling and Linehan. “Rowling is very judicious about who she supports and what she says publicly. I hate to say it but I do understand why she’s not said anything to him or about him as some of the things he’s said on Twitter have been rather rash and extreme. But it may simply be that the opportunity has not arisen yet. She does tend to keep her head down for months on end and then makes a surprise appearance with a few carefully worded tweets. We shall see. I do hope Graham is ok though. It must be hard.”

I ask what tweets Freeman would single out as having been problematic. “He can be overly aggressive, very defensive (understandably) and I know that calling people ‘groomers’ [this is a putdown Linehan has used on Twitter when dealing with his critics] hasn’t gone down well with some women. And there was an incident a while ago where one of his online pals – Arty Morty – was particularly sexist and Graham defended him. I genuinely think it was an inadvertent slip but lots of women at the time were saying: ‘Oh you’re just another man defending sexist men’. He can’t win.”

He does seem alone. I ask him briefly if he’s seen Coogan’s superb performance as Savile – he hasn’t – and I then wonder aloud where the people he’s worked with – Coogan and Armando Iannucci – are when he’s being attacked. “It’s partly my fault,” replies Linehan. “I was never very good at tending relationships. I was never particularly close to these people at the best of times – and now these are the worst of times. I just figured they have got their own lives and didn’t need to hear from me. What I find kind of strange is how these extremely political people like Steve, like Iannucci, are just completely ignoring this issue.”

This is very diplomatic, but Freeman is prepared to be frank. “They’re nowhere to be seen. Did you see the abuse thrown Richard Ayoade’s way for simply endorsing Graham’s book on the front of the cover? Left-wing comedians and writers are too afraid that they will be treated like Graham so they don’t say a word. They’ll say something when it’s not dangerous anymore and everyone agrees that children are being harmed.”

When I put this viewpoint to Linehan, he says: “I just feel like it wouldn’t take too many voices saying ‘Hang on’. They won’t be able to cancel Armando Iannucci. They won’t be able to cancel Steve Coogan.”

One star Linehan singles out is the trans comedian and actor Eddie Izzard. “He has been incredibly arrogant and I have never seen such out-of-control ego in a star. I met him a few times, the first time while he was becoming well-known as a cross-dresser and I remember wondering why he kept bringing it up. That is part of his fetish – to put it in your face all the time.”

Given that Linehan is under considerable pressure, how does he cope? “The way I sometimes reassure myself is to remind myself that this is a historical moment. Sometimes ordinary people get chewed up in it – which is what is happening. All my friends have been cancelled, lost their livelihoods, lost their businesses. It’s just history chewing them up.”

Still, it probably doesn’t feel great to be chewed up – especially, for his marriage to have fallen apart. I don’t ask him about this – it feels too awful to contemplate and moreover is none of my business. Instead, I ask him about possible revenue streams to tide him over? The income from his sitcoms, he says, has reduced over time, since payments were structured around a tapering fee arrangement. A column in The Mail or The Telegraph? “I’ve been thinking about that. I would like to.” Speaking engagements with businesses? “I haven’t really looked into that. Part of my problem at the moment is that I am really exhausted, and I am kind of on edge at the moment because of the publicity.” Does his standup make any money? “I can’t at the moment. I could possibly do OK if I could get a venue to put me on regularly.”

All of which feels fairly bleak, but when we return again to a discussion of comedy, and the architecture of a laugh, then things revert. Linehan is also a great anecdotalist. “I have a great story about John Cleese during The Fish Called Wanda phase. Dawn French got a phone call saying: ‘John Cleese wants to meet you for lunch’. And everyone knew at that time that the film was casting so she is beside herself with excitement. The big day comes and she meets him probably somewhere like this and he says: “Let me tell why I’ve got you here today. I have a problem in that I really despise younger comedians and my therapist has told me that I should meet them and tell them how I feel.”  Dawn French goes back home to Lenny Henry who also has a meeting with him coming up. She says: ‘You might not want to take that meeting. He is just going to tell you how much he hates you!’”

But Linehan is at pains to point at out that as a young journalist he interviewed Cleese and recalls: “He was lovely. I was only 19 years’ old and he answered all my questions and was forgiving when I asked stupid ones.”

Another positive is Jonathan Ross, who, like Ayoade, has braved opprobrium and endorsed the book. “Jonathan was probably one of the only heroes involved in my story.  He is the only one that reassured me that I was right and he was the only one that tried to help when my marriage was breaking down. He let us use a place of his to stay in for a little holiday: he’s a very kind man. But then he was an early victim of cancellation: I think he saw it coming before anyone else did.”

All in all, Linehan’s is a fight which keeps opening up onto the absurd. “There is no authority here unless you count Judith Butler,” he says, referring to the waffly academic high priest of gender studies. “Judith Butler is the Charles Darwin of things that don’t exist.”

Yet for all his anxiety and complexity, I feel a sense of protectiveness towards Linehan. He has strong views of course, but he has hurt nobody, and been terribly abused in return: such people are always on the right side of history. In the end, in the part of us that matters, we all want each other to be okay. For us to function as a society that has to extend to those with whom we have disagreements. Right or wrong or somewhere in between, we’re all vulnerable. To meet Linehan is to think, is to know, that we’ve got to do better than this.

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