Matt Lacey? Who’s he? You must literally be living in Burma. I can’t believe you said that. Where were you during that time in 2010 when it was impossible to make it through a conversation without someone mentioning Gap Yah? This was the three-minute sketch phenomenon that transformed Eton jollyisms like ‘banter’, ‘lash’, and ‘chunder’ into acceptable interjections to be yelled hoarsely in all manner of hedonistic social situations.
Lacey has won widespread recognition and acclaim for his portrayal of the affable but oafish Orlando Charmon, a familiar product of the English public school system. In Gap Yah, Orlando relates to his top chap Tarquin – over the phone and with great animation – his colourful itinerary, from ‘Tanzanah’ to ‘Perah’ and ‘Burmah’, glorying in the profoundness of human frailty before invariably ‘chundering everywah’. The skit racked up over 650,000 views in its first month and now has over four million hits on YouTube. As a result, Orlando secured a deal with HarperCollins last year for his book The Gap Yah Plannah. It’s a bit different from Lonely Planet. ‘There is some genuine travel information in there,’ concedes Lacey, ‘but only some real heroes might try to use it as a travel guide.’ So, what does Orlando have to teach us of the world? ‘What he found out is that, while in North America, everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, in South America, happiness is cheaper, comes in a purer form, and he can get more of it up his nose.’
Privately educated and a veteran of three years at Oriel College, Oxford (where he read history), Lacey himself is no stranger to a ‘world of privilege’. He speaks in an assured, easy-going, Home Counties register, but downplays the influence of his alma mater on his work. When asked if he found any rich pickings at Oriel – a caricature Ladistocracy perhaps – he shakes his head, ‘Not really. In my year, I think only one person went to Eton and one went to Westminster. There wasn’t that kind of rah culture.’ His secondary years, spent at Whitgift School in South Croydon, were similarly lacking in potential prototype Orlandos. ‘Minor fee-paying, upwardly-mobile middle classes; shopkeepers who have done well and have sent their kids to private school. Not like the top echelons: Eton, Harrow… they’re completely different.’ On balance, he assures me he’s not that much like his alter ego. ‘I suppose if there were a Venn diagram there’d be some crossover, but we’d be separate circles.’
It is true to say that silver spoons were definitely not to be found anywhere near the infant Lacey’s mouth. The only child of Irish émigré parents – an engineer father and a teacher mother who specialises in working with dyslexic children – Lacey spends much of his spare time, as he always has done, working in his dad’s business of hiring out tools to the construction industry. ‘It’s a very different world to Orlando’s.’ What do mum and dad think? “They find it amusing,” laughs Lacey, “but I don’t think they’d have him as a son.”
That is not to say that Lacey did not encounter any proto-Orlando-like behaviour during his schooldays. Once, when playing a rugby much against Eton College, he overheard Etonians in ‘plummy tones’ lament about the time when John Fisher, the state school in Croydon that he ‘almost went to’, had enjoyed their hospitality and then proceeded to sneak spoons out of their dining hall. Lacey imitates the indignation he observed. ‘Oh, they were awful!’ This particular incident inspired him to write a character piece for his English homework. “I actually did that homework twice.”
Somewhat prophetically, he took a gap year after school, although is keen to emphasise that he spent around five months of it ‘working in Ireland in a Chinese restaurant run by Romanians’. When he did attend far-flung climes he found himself in the Singida region of Tanzania (‘really the back end of nowhere, you’d struggle to reach it’). It threw up a few issues for Lacey, ’Why are middle class white kids going over to build schools,’ he wonders, ‘when local labour would probably be better and cheaper?’ He can see both sides of the argument, but would say that he’s “a bit ambivalent about the whole thing”. Upon arriving at university, he was keen to distance himself from the cast of the “gap year bore”. “I think I caught myself telling stories from my gap year once or twice, and saw a little glazed-over look. I thought, “Oh god, I’m boring”.”
Lacey threw himself into a variety of other Oxford activities, with varying degrees of success: ‘I tried rowing,’ he muses, ‘It’s a very boring sport. I think I rowed once in fourth boat. We didn’t qualify. You’ve got to practice, apparently.He even had a column in Cherwell. “A friend of mine and I did college bar reviews. We went around all the college bars and wrote these reviews. Mostly whilst still pissed from the bar.”
While most other forays were to be short-lived, Lacey’s taste for the stage stuck, and his comedy and acting talents soon found an appreciative audience. He was involved in several university plays as well as writing and performing with the Oxford Revue. He also undertook two tours of Japan with the Royal Shakespeare Company, an experience he found liberating. “The nice thing about doing serious stuff is that you don’t have this desperate need for people to laugh.”
But it was the comedy that really lasted. Lacey is a founding member of the four-person comedy troupe The Unexpected Items (named after that which self-service checkouts insist you ‘remove from the bagging area’), with whom he developed Gap Yah. The group were formed just after Lacey left Oxford, having invited Revue members from the previous four years to audition for its upcoming tour to America. After said tour, the core of the group decided to push on as a comic circle of six. They have since been whittled down to four, but have been producing a series of adroit, lively sketches, ranging from a parody of Come Dine With Me between Jesus’ disciples to a mock news investigation on Facebook ‘fraping’. ‘We all write in different ways, which is good for a more eclectic sketch show. It ensures that whatever happens, you’re going to find good parts of it funny, because it’ll be written by different people. But we’ve always had a social satire bent. ‘Gap Yah fell nicely into that.’
Like many things that seem to run wildly out of hand, it all started off as a joke. ‘It was a silly voice to make fun of a posh friend of mine that kind of became fleshed out into a character. I think the fact I was writing and performing comedy meant that I was actually bothered to write it up and make it into a thing rather than it remaining just a joke between friends.’ He first performed the sketch as part of a Revue show at the Old Fire Station in the Michaelmas term of his final year. The addition of the oft-repeated chundering punchline was inspired by an incident in Oxford when Lacey overheard someone exclaiming ‘Tarquin just chundered! Tarquin just chundered!’ as said individual ‘vommed’ into somebody’s garden. But the watershed moment was undeniably his decision to film and upload the sketch to YouTube in February 2010, after which, thanks to the power of social networks, we can follow the rest of the story ourselves.
Lacey adopts a modest tone when discussing his Gap Yah ‘smash’, ‘In the sixty hours of footage uploaded to YouTube every minute. I’m sure there’s plenty of brilliant comedy on there, but it’s not seen the light of day in the same way. I guess it’s just one of those things: sometimes you have the run of the luck, sometimes you don’t. I think I was lucky.’ He notes the auspicious timing of the royal wedding and the general election: ‘It was used in quite a few articles as a hook to write about David Cameron.’ And he allows that there was some clear intrinsic resonance. ‘I think it was a clear, simple, forwardable social stereotype.’
It’s a stereotype visible across all forms of comedy, satirising ‘poshness’ has been particularly popular of late. Of course, we’ve seen the likes of Hugh Laurie, Miles Jupp, and Marcus Brigstocke mine this comic potential for years, but waves of new talent – the likes of Jack Whitehall, Michael McIntyre, Tom Palmer, Tom Stourton, Benet Brandreth – have exploited blurring the line between embodying, and mocking, this private school cliché.
With social mobility stagnating, fees rising, and an economy on the back foot, isn’t comedy just going to get posher? ‘The social background of alternative comedy has changed,’ remarks Lacey, ‘It used to be the case that you were either went Oxbridge Footlights-style, or you were a working man’s comic. It seems more and more common now that stand-ups will have been privately educated. And also, the reality is we’ve got a very posh government at the moment, and a lot of comedians are sending that up.’ But he’s not distressed by the artistic ownership these new faces are taking over their privileged past. ‘A lot of comedy comes from what you know. I met plenty of these people at Oxford. Is it any different? I’m not sure. If anything’s going to spark class warfare, it’s got to be Made in Chelsea.’
Perhaps the most lasting legacy of the Gap Yah phenomenon is the way in which it injected the likes of ‘banter’ and ‘chunder’ into the language of the social mainstream. Maybe I’m wrong though? Lacey smiles knowingly. ‘It’s probably changed people in our demographic’s social vocabulary, but I haven’t noticed much of a difference on the building site.’
Even so, these words have doubtless seen heavier usage since Lacey’s viral success. What is it like when a private joke acquires such fame? ‘It’s a funny experience. After doing the show in my third year, I heard a guy doing an impression of my sketch in the bar; I didn’t know him, I’d never met him, I didn’t know anyone around him. It was quite funny having my stuff repeated back to me.’ Does he find people wary of declaring their commitment to ‘banter and lash’ in front of him these days? ‘It does happen, but usually with an ironic smile.’
No actor wishes him or herself to be typecast as one face – so is there a future for Orlando? ‘If you’ve had a bit of success with one thing, there’s no reason to just drop it out of some vague sense you should be doing something else. And if you look at character comedians, it’s often the case they have a breakthrough character, and then they introduce other ones once they get a TV slot: Sasha Baron Cohen was Ali G for years, and Steve Coogan’s still doing Alan Partridge.’ And why doubt Orlando? The facts speak for themselves: in the two years since Gap Yah, Orlando’s landed himself a publishing deal, television appearances, and an official music video. Unstoppable? Enter Lacey with a note of caution. ‘He’s going to do a few internships with daddy’s friends, and then get a job… somewhere…’