Face up, stand up

Out of the suicide of a parent and gang membership that resulted in a beating, Darren Harriott has somehow managed to craft comedy. Now going on stage is where he finds peace and quiet

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Darren Harriott has never been in love. It was when writing a forthcoming sitcom about his troubled upbringing as a teenager in gangs in the 1990s that he had the epiphany.

“I’d never made those deep bonds with people,” reflects the 31-year-old comedian. “I’ve had partners but when I think about an ex, I don’t feel envy, jealously, anger or anything. It’s more like: ‘Whatever.’ There’s nothing there. You hear stories of all these people who feel sad and cry, but I was missing that connection.”

“In my left pocket was my red flick-knife, in my right pocket were Pokémon cards.” 

This realisation forms the basis of his new stand-up show Good Heart Yute, which was nominated for a Dave Best Comedy Show award when it premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in August. “I went on a journey of self-discovery where I had to analyse myself,” he says. “Once I did that, I was like: oh yeah, this is supposed to be funny.” He laughs. “I better write some jokes.”

But then Harriott is used to finding the humour in subjects not inherently funny: previous acclaimed shows have tackled his background as a knife-carrying teenager in a gang, his family’s drug-dealing and his father’s mental illness and suicide.

To understand why he struggles to express emotion, he looked towards his childhood. Raised in Oldbury in the West Midlands, his non-demonstrative mother never hugged nor said she loved him.

“I grew up in a household where you act it but don’t necessarily say it,” he says. “I knew my mum loved me by the way she acted – working every hour to pay bills and look after us – but it was never said. That impacted us as kids – it’s not something I’m used to saying.”

As police chiefs describe the spate of knife crime in the country as a national emergency, Harriott offers a timely insight into why young people find kinship in gangs. He was brought up by his mother – his drug-dealing father was in and out of prison. His family kept that from him, and he only discovered it by accident when his dad phoned him from jail – and he dialled 1471. It was to be the last time they spoke. Two months later, his father took his own life in his cell.

“We had a last chat, which was great, but the thing it did to me was made me aware of mortality at the age of 11. One minute you’re watching cartoons about friendship and superheroes, the next you find out your biggest role model and idol has done that, and it completely shatters everything.”

Idolising So Solid Crew, he started rapping and joined a gang, Terror Clan Killaz, in his first year of high school. All the members qualified for free school meals and lacked father figures.

“I felt like I didn’t have a choice. I needed that masculine role model I was missing – we found it in gangs. When you’re poor, you want to be seen as tough so that no one can take the mick out of you for being poor because they’re scared of you. We knew that intimidation was powerful.”

At 13, he bowed to peer pressure and bought his first weapon. To give you an idea of how young he was, he semi-jokes: “In my left pocket was my red flick-knife, in my right pocket were Pokémon cards.

“Everybody else had a knife, so I didn’t want to be the only idiot without one. At the time, I didn’t know what to do with it so I picked up an apple and started slicing it like I was Julius Caesar or something.”

Harriott is sceptical of the Home Office’s initiative to send #knifefree-branded takeaway boxes to chicken shops to dissuade young people from carrying the weapons. “It’s insulting,” he scoffs. “Like: Look! I can turn my chicken into a story – a nice poem! If you have less police on the streets, there’s more crime.”

He cites the cuts to youth services, slashed in real terms by 40 per cent in the last three years. “Every Wednesday, we’d go and learn to DJ and play music and it was generally safe, whereas now they’re gone. It’s insulting to say that putting messages in 99p chicken shops will curb knife crime. What a genius idea!”

The gang meant everything to him; it defined him. All that changed when, aged 15, they savagely turned on him. “I had made a song and they used it and didn’t credit me. We got into an argument on MSN Messenger and we met up – and they beat me up. I was lucky they didn’t stab me, because they were carrying knives. Spending New Year’s Eve 2004 in a hospital bed definitely makes you reassess your life.”

The situation echoes the current police crackdown on drill music – a darker, aggressive subset of rap – in response to lyrical rows that, after being shared on social media, have spilled over into violence. But Harriott argues this punitive approach neglects the root causes.

“It’s rubbish. When I was a teenager going to clubs, gangs were fighting over Daniel Bedingfield’s Gotta Get Thru This. The type of music makes no difference.

“Rather than looking at the areas where knife crime is prevalent and targeting what the problems are – whether issues in the home or not enough youth clubs – it’s easier for people to blame it on music or Raheem Sterling’s gun tattoo.”

After the attack, he gave up rap. “They beat the bars out of me,” he notes dryly. He’s no longer in contact with his former gangmates. “They don’t use social media because some are wanted by the police. They’re hiding out somewhere like Somerset.”

He would have ended up down a similar path had the incident not occurred. At 17, Harriott realised he’d never had a chance to grieve. “All this stuff with my dad flooded back. I was in mad depression, thinking: what am I going to do with my life? Then I saw a flier for comedy and it became my obsession.”

His phone contains his favourite picture of his father – the one from his grave. “Before I did my first stand-up gig as a nervous 18 year old, I remember looking at it and I had tears falling down my face. And I just went off and did the show. It was my calling.

“I’m used to talking about it now. I’ve done it on dates and people say: ‘Jesus! Sorry to hear that.’ And I respond: ‘No, that’s just how I talk. How’s the appetiser?’

“You forget it’s a serious thing that happened. I’ll never get over it obviously, but talking about it onstage has been therapeutic.”

There’s an irony that Harriott, an introvert who isn’t suited to emotional disclosure, is able to bare his soul onstage to audiences – or that he admits to being “terrible at small talk” but is a loquacious, fast-talking and engaging interviewee. “It’s like Barry Humphries says,” he points out, referring to Dame Edna Everage’s creator. “In life, you have things coming at you but when you go onstage, it feels like peace and quiet.”

Moving to London aged 26 to pursue his comedy – while initially working zero-hour security shifts to pay the bills – he’s since thrived. He’s been championed by and written sketches with Lenny Henry, found himself nominated for the Best Newcomer Award at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017, regularly appeared on panel shows like Mock the Week, and mined his life for the Radio 4 stand-up series Black Label, bringing his tales of his family (“My family tree is a cannabis plant”, he devastatingly quips in one episode) and gangs to a middle-class audience who are more likely to have a rap-style feud over someone saying “less” instead of “fewer”.

In 2017, he had a “made it” moment when he felt all his hard work had paid off. “I used to work as a security guard at the Hammersmith Apollo, so returning to that venue for Live at the Apollo was the most memorable and surreal moment of my career so far,” he beams.

Darren Harriott’s tour Good Heart Yute tour includes: Old Fire Station, Carlisle, 7 Nov; Wardrobe, Leeds, 21 Nov; Basement, York, Lowry, Salford, 17 Dec (darrenharriott.com)

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