Chris Dangerfield’s unflinching account of the childhood sexual abuse he suffered is darkly funny and allows the stand-up to reclaim the past on his terms, writes Claire Smith
When Chris Dangerfield named his Fringe show Sex With Children, he was thinking of it as a marketing opportunity. The Soho-based comic has an eye for a catchy title – his breakthrough show, two years ago, was Sex Tourist while last year’s How I Spent GBP150,000 on Chinese Prostitutes was cancelled after “a bit of bother with the triads”. “I was absolutely gutted that I had to cancel last year but I was in quite a lot of trouble.”
Sex With Children is an astonishing piece of work. The children, or child in particular, is Dangerfield and the show tells the story of three, or possibly four, depending on your point of view, stories of sexual abuse that happened to him before he reached the age of 11.
There is no mawkishness, no sentimentality, no self-pity. The stories are brutally funny and told in such a way that Dangerfield, instead of being the victim, becomes the hero of his own disaster.
“One of the biggest shocks comes out of what is essentially an anal rape revenge moment – that sounds like something no-one would want to see – but in the context of the show it makes sense,” he says.
We are drinking tea in the kitchen of his borrowed Edinburgh New Town flat. In person Dangerfield is softly spoken, sweet and polite – not quite the cool hipster you expect. He is, however, snazzily dressed, in white shirt, chalk striped trousers and a velvet fez. He is puffing away on a vaporiser containing a nicotine substitute – on stage he claims it is something stronger.
I tell him Sex With Children throws out the same sort of challenge to hack paedophile jokes that Adrienne Truscott’s award-winning Asking For It did with material about rape. “To anyone with half a brain, rape is not funny, jokes are funny,” says Dangerfield, who says he is “a feminist, obviously”.
He says the decision to talk about his experience of abuse did not spring from some sort of emotional breakthrough but from a desire to create a really good piece of work – and one that would get him noticed. “I didn’t write the show before I came. I don’t work like that. I thought, ‘OK, I have got some stories about sexual abuse. Maybe it is time to stick them together and see if it works, then try and keep it fresh for the rest of the Fringe’.”
By retelling the stories on stage, in highly graphic detail, Dangerfield not only makes them funny, he also, miraculously, recasts himself as the person in control. He strips the perpetrators of their power – they become ordinary, miserable rather dull people. “I wanted to bring it back to some kind of domestic reality rather than this horrorshow vision – the paeodophile rings where you can see their red glowing eyes on the front of the Sun. In my experience of paedophila and that of people I know, it is very family-centred, very domestic. It is not as much of a secret as people think.”
Younger, inexperienced stand-ups who use the word “paedophile” for a cheap punchline and a cheap laugh are missing the point, thinks Dangerfield. “Paedophilia has been hijacked to serve a very dull political agenda. So you are upholding the status quo and not questioning it. It’s dangerous.”
Dangerfield himself started stand-up six years ago after a stint in rehab. “It was the first time I’d been clean in 15 years. I was trying to figure out what the f*** I was going to do now I was clean.
“I came across a Doug Stanhope thing on the Jews. I had never seen anything like it. I realised right then that if it is funny, your freedom of expression is enhanced beyond anything I had thought possible. I had always told stories socially and I had always been a raconteur socially. And I thought, ’I want to do that.'”
Dangerfield lived for a while in Bury St Edmunds, travelling to London to do open spots twice a week. “Then somehow I got on the same bill as Trevor Lock, who is one of the best comedians in the world.”
Lock and Dangerfield clicked and decided to work together. “We did a tour of people’s living rooms. We did shows for Sadie Frost, Kate Moss, Boy George. What I got out of it was a four-hour masterclass from Trevor Lock. We had the drive there, and then the drive home. We would deconstruct it. There was a huge difference between the comedian that went on that Living Room tour and the one who came out of it. He taught me how to be a stand-up.”
In an earlier life Dangerfield studied critical theory, and our conversation is scattered with references to thinkers such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, whose book History of Sexuality the comic cites as a huge influence on his work.
He gets frustrated with the industry aspects of the Fringe – where comics try to get themselves an agent, get PR, get ahead, rather than doing stand-up for the joy of it. He does everything himself and says his aim is not to get on panel shows or play arenas, but to do two gigs a week, to about 200 or 150 people. “150 is a great number.”
He’s not completely drug-free, but considers himself a “connoisseur of opiates” rather than an addict.
It is evident the drug use and the sexual abuse are connected. He still suffers and he is open about his brokenness too, on stage – although he tells me his time at school, as a bright kid at a brutal South London comprehensive, was even more damaging. After so many times in rehab he has a detailed understanding of his own psychology. “I always get cast as the King Baby. I get my needs met by others.”
Being a stand-up comic might be the perfect job for the King Baby. “Comedy is glamorous. Glamorous in the original meaning of the word, which is to cast a spell. A good stand-up can conjure with the influence of laughter. It is casting a spell.”
Dangerfield: Sex with Children, Heroes @ The Hive (Venue 313) until 23 August. Today, 9pm.
Originally published in The Scotsman
Going to the Edinburgh Festival?
• Unsure what to see? Read all The Scotsman reviews
• What’s hot (or not): Browse the reviews by star rating
• Don’t miss a thing. Sign up to our daily email newsletter
• Join the conversation with #WOWFEST and follow it live