Robert Webb makes people laugh. Along with David Mitchell, he formed one of the most successful English comedy double acts of recent times. The former Footlights member is best known for playing Jez, the likeable waster in the Channel 4 sitcom Peep Show, and for the rather patchier sketch show That Mitchell And Webb Look. They remain in demand – a new sitcom written by the duo is expected to premiere later this year.
As well as a glittering career as a performer, Webb has never shied away from voicing a political opinion. A committed Labour supporter, he was one of 200 celebrities who wrote an open letter calling on Scots to vote No in the 2014 independence referendum. He endorsed the party at this year’s general election despite his public misgivings on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. In the same year as the indyref, Webb wrote a moving essay in the New Statesman, the favoured magazine of all North London Labour supporters, on his childhood in rural Lincolnshire and coping with the death of his mother. Under the headline “How not to be a boy”, Webb explained his belief that the concept of boys figuring out how to be men was “horseshit”, adding: “notions of gender pointlessly separate men from women but also mothers from daughters and fathers from sons”.
Webb has now expanded his thoughts into a memoir of the same name. How Not To Be A Boy is part showbiz autobiography, part political essay. Not many celebrity books aimed at the Christmas market would be brave enough to include footnotes and references to Science magazine, but Webb wants us to know his arguments are empirically sound. “Other people have covered this ground much better than I could – what with being scientists,” he jokes. His personal convictions on gender identity are sound, however, and he nimbly demolishes the various social constructs the average teenage boy is expected to embrace – act tough, don’t talk about feelings, don’t cry etc.
At its best, this book sparkles with emotional insight and good humour. It is impossible not to be moved when he discusses his mother’s death from breast cancer as Webb is preparing to leave school. But other sections – particularly the reminiscences about small town life and rough classmates – feel tediously familiar. Webb was a grammar school boy in one of the few local authority areas in England to retain a selective system.
There remains a strong argument against such a policy, but the fact is such a system helped him to get a place at Cambridge and enter the elite world of professional drama. Some readers, many of whom will have survived far worse schools in more deprived parts of the country, would be justified in asking “So what?” when confronted with another tale of small town insularity.
*How Not To Be A Boy, by Robert Webb, Canongate, £11.99