Jack Rooke’s dad, Laurie, died of cancer when he was fifteen. The comedian, performer and writer’s creative work around that grief has spanned twelve years, two acclaimed Edinburgh Fringe shows, a memoir and an autobiographical Bafta-nominated sitcom Big Boys. The recently released second series of Big Boys reflects Jack’s readiness to finally close that chapter.
On a blisteringly cold Thursday evening at the Huck offices, he’s joined by Jon Pointing - the writer, comedian and actor - who shines in Big Boys as fictional Jack’s straight best mate Danny, a lad’s lad from Margate who’s come to university to drink Red Stripe and shag, while carrying the weight of a traumatic childhood on his shoulders. Jon’s beautiful, Bafta-nominated portrayal of Danny presents a nuanced masculinity I recognise: compassionate; complex; loving; sometimes self destructive; but ultimately willing to confront his demons.
Huck: Tell me about a memory of your dad that always makes you laugh.
Jon: I’ve got early memories of going over to my dad’s house and meeting my brothers for the first time. It was on a cul-de-sac called Rosebank Road. And he started a gang called the Rosebank Raiders. This little outhouse shed was the HQ. He put a sign on the door. It was very sweet.
Huck: Your dad started the gang?
Jon: Yeah, my dad did. And there was a school playing field that we could get into, right by the house. He’d try and get all the kids who were around to play football. Once, more and more kids kept turning up until it became a game between two estates. It was like thirty a side! To the point where dad was like, ‘we need to get out of here, this could get hairy!’ It really got out of hand, yeah.
Huck: How did your dads shape your early ideas around what it meant to be a man?
Jack: I used to get that [idea] from my uncles. A lot of the men in my family were hyper-masculine. I was obviously a little closeted child, running around singing ‘Stop right now, thank you very much,’ [by the Spice Girls]. My dad was very loving towards me. I feel really lucky that I had the dad that I had, in that group of men that I was around. Because my dad was like the rock n’ roll boy. He was quite liberal for a black cab driver. That’s not me saying he was a big old lefty; if he was alive today, I’d probably have had seventeen rows with him about Brexit. But he was liberal in his thinking about what a man should be and what masculinity could be. A lot of his friends were quite gentle, cheerie blokes. The shaping of my early ideas about masculinity came from my uncles and cousins, who used to really intimidate me.
Jon: My dad definitely played the masculine role. He worked on building sites, his social life was down the football club or rugby club. They’re very masculine environments. That’s not to say he was this uber-blokey sort of person, but that was the world he was in. I lived with my mum, so I’m probably more like her as a person. And she’s at the other end of the spectrum. It was all about talking and sharing. I didn’t get that as much from my dad. But then I realised that he didn’t have that. He’s told all of his boys that he was scared of his dad when he was growing up. I think with each generation things have softened. We’re very open now. But at the same time, there’s still a ‘maleness’ to our relationship. Parts of that I really love, and parts of it are problematic. It does cause you problems in your life because masculinity is a performance. You might not actually be that kind of person at your core.
Huck: Do you think being around the women in your families ultimately gave you a more fluid vision of masculinity?
Jack: Yeah, I think so. Their unity as a group of women could override any strength executed by a man. Because those women were so together and so emotionally and physically strong. My aunt is 72. She’s still a painter and decorator. She’s still going up and down ladders. She came to our ‘Big Boys’ screening last week. She had six piña coladas and threw up in an Evening Standard on the tube home.
Jon: That’s amazing!
Jack: Shout out to my auntie Jenny. But she’s still very feminine, very glamorous. I definitely think the women in my life made me realise that you can be masculine and not be abusive. Because I think they all had to deal with men who were very abusive. The women in my life have always taught me really interesting lessons. Working class women often get derided in culture; they’re the butt of jokes. But actually they’re the ones holding the system up, working crucial jobs for the functioning of our country and they also tend be the ones brave enough to call blokes out for being fucking arseholes. We have a very courageous generation of older women. They’ve weathered so much. I don’t really care who voted Brexit or thinks this and that. I want to listen to any story that comes from that generation of women. I think we’re so keen nowadays to lens in on individual problematic topics while forgetting that a lot of women from that generation were brought up in a fucked up time where men and patriarchy was so dodgy and violent. I think we have to extend empathy both ways. I think I’ve learnt that from those women. To me, that feels like something men should play a more active part in.
Jon: My mum has always been very right-on and vocal. And has always made a point of speaking out. We watched her get in a lot of rows with people because she’d be like, ‘no, I won’t just let that happen.’ So I grew up watching someone fighting a lot, basically.
Jack: You’re definitely a product of your mum, I think maybe that's why we connect. Our dads play such significant parts in our lives, and are hugely influential. But I feel like my mum shaped the middle of me, if that makes sense.
Huck: Jack, you touched on this earlier - if somebody did a thumbnail sketch of your dad, who was a black cabbie, who loved double denim, cars and drinking Kronenbourg, they might rush to some quite reductive conclusions about him. But what glows from your book and Big Boys is that he unconditionally accepted you for who you were. How comforting was that for you as a child?
Jack: It was comforting because I never felt a sense of rejection. There was an acknowledgement I was different, but there was never a rejection. Most of my career has been talking about my dad, and talking about that grief, sometimes using the exact same lines. Like the beginning of Big Boys - ‘statistics show one in every one person will eventually die, but it’s shit when it’s your dad at fifty six …’ - I know that line because it’s in the first poem I wrote, it was the start of my Edinburgh show. I’ve had twelve years of creatively experimenting and failing at some things, doing the odd dud, but always testing that material out. And TV feels like the end. What else could I do other than make a really terrible experimental jazz album about grief?
It’s taken this time to articulate my feeling of loss and appreciation towards him. I certainly think with the second series of Big Boys I’ve really done that. He plays on my mind less now, but when he does it’s really lovely. I love missing him, which is such a nice thing. It doesn’t feel bittersweet anymore. I feel a huge sense of gratitude towards him, really. I’m a very self-critical person but I feel like if my dad was able to watch the second series of Big Boys, he’d say I smashed it.
Huck: I watched the final episode last night and was still thinking about it hours after when I was in bed.
Jon: The scene of you in the cab, that gets me.
Jack: I feel like that moment was me saying goodbye to him, in a sense. I think that’s the last time I really wanna write about him. It felt like a really nice end, because so much of my life growing up was being in the back of my dad’s cab, listening to music. So much of my childhood was me in the back and him driving. It felt like creatively I could put that to bed for a bit. And I don’t think I have any ambitions to write about him again, which is quite nice.
Huck: In Big Boys, Danny and Jack’s friendship is built on that kind of unconditional acceptance. Danny accepts Jack from the very beginning which is not something we often see on mainstream television. Why do you think that is?
Jon: It’s seemed like the reverse - the ‘gay best friend’ character has been the trope. I think that’s probably because there haven’t been enough gay people who have been writing the stories. So they’ve been written from a distance, or as a punchline, instead of being ingrained in the story in a realistic way. Jack can speak more about this, because he knows the commissioning process of taking these stories to people. But I think once things start to get established then you get stuck in this loop. It repeats itself. TV is really guilty of that. Until something gets through the net, and then it’s like, ‘oh I can’t believe everyone connects with that!’
Jack: I agree. It’s a legacy of the show that I’m quite proud of, really. Whenever I talk to TV people: commissioners; producers; and execs, it’s shifted something in them believing these two boys could be friends. They’re two boys not only of different sexual identities, but at two different ends of the spectrum of masculinity, who still choose each other. They still see the benefits in their differences and in being guided by the other. They instill confidence in each other to be more in touch with different things. I don’t think we have TV shows coming out that are quite as reductive as they once were, and I’d like to think Big Boys plays a role in righting some of those representational wrongs.
Huck: Jon, partly as a result of Big Boys, you’ve really been embraced by the LGBTQ+ community. Tell me a bit about what that’s meant for you.
Jon: When I met my wife and integrated into her social life it was mainly in queer spaces. I had this amazing experience of meeting people, and kind of feeling this release. Going out in straight nightclubs is a very different experience. I remember years ago I got in a fight. It was the last fight I’ve ever been in. It was stupid, someone bumped into someone and before you know it, you’re having a fight. I remember going to my dad afterwards and he took me aside into a room, which he hadn’t done since I was sixteen or something. He asked what happened. I was like, ‘nothing, just being stupid and drunk.’ He was like, ‘you need to realise that you’re like me, you’re not a fighter.’ And this massive weight lifted. When I started going out in queer spaces, it seemed to coincide with this release. Like I wasn’t carrying around this anger or confusion. It was a big love-in after that. It felt like this really amazing time where I got to know people and made new friends. My social life changed completely. I know it sounds daft, this straight boy suddenly having this feeling of being very accepted in a queer space.
Huck: The way Big Boys subverts tropes extends into its presentation of working class culture too. It presents it in a way that is celebratory and loving at its core. Was doing that important to you?
Jack: It’s important to me for two reasons. Professionally, it’s important because I think about it a lot. I tried to write the show to celebrate a lot of the realities of that cultural background. I try to make sure you see the characters having fun. I wanna see them in moments of love, celebrating the naffness. There’s so much trauma. When we go there, it’s about those heavier, universal themes, rather than poverty porn.
Huck: At a glance, Danny might be dismissed as being ‘toxic’. So could the guys from my football team, or the boxing gym. But they’re the ones who guided me through mental health crises, what do you think about the term ‘toxic masculinity?’
Jon: It definitely felt like when it first came around, like you say, it was about these uber-masculine men. But like you, I've actually found that in those sorts of spaces and groups it’s actually very open and people are more willing to talk about it and confront it. The kind of men that present themselves as the ‘good guys’ when they’re actually not, I think they're the worst. Maybe sometimes that more traditional masculine man is dealing with a lack of ability to talk about stuff, to articulate it. And then you’ve got these men that love articulating it so much, but are not actually doing the things they’re talking about.
Jack: My thing with that specific term is it means a different thing in different people’s mouths. Some people are using it because they’ve been thrown under the fucking bus by so many blokes and their trust has been shattered. It feels like a rightful term that describes the toxicity. And then other people use it in a very judgemental way, and I don’t agree with it. I think it prevents there being any learning or an ability for people to progress from what they once thought and change.
Big Boys is out now on Channel 4.
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