They fuck you up, your sons and daughters. This was the lesson learned by PR legend Lynne Franks when she opened her Mail on Sunday to discover her grown up son lambasting her as “too selfish to raise children”. To be fair to Josh Howie, his description of the archetypal eighties career woman, “on the phone to the office within 20 minutes of my birth, [not getting] off again until I was 16”, is clearly a parody of the baby boomer elite. His account of the cut-throat careerist shirking her maternal responsibilities makes Ab Fab’s Edina Monsoon –a character apparently based on Franks- a psychologically complex portrait in comparison.
What began as a boomer basher rant to promote Howie’s new Radio 4 comedy show then escalated into full out bloodletting. Or so the op-eds would have us believe. Franks’s 2000-plus word retort to her son –printed in the following week’s Mail- gave voice to the hard-pressed working mum attempted to juggle life and work in an era that had very different attitudes to maternity leave and parenting. Reflecting on the two articles The Spectator described the row as “[shedding] light on a powerful tension at the heart of many of the nation’s families.”
As with so many family rows we have to ask, haven’t we been here before? In Howie’s case, it was the last time he had a radio show to plug. In 2013 he wrote a similar comic account –also printed in the Mail- of his “chaotic” childhood, presided over by an “army of nannies” and from afar by “Generalissimo Lynne Franks, aka Mummy”. The contrast of the touchyfeely vacuum packed childhoods of the 21st century and the 1980s caricature is Howie’s bread and butter. Despite the riffs on generational conflict Howie’s material is curiously timeless. Just look any of Woody Allen’s early stand-up to see that the boomers have their own parental gripes (“When I was kidnapped, my parents snapped into action. They rented out my room.”).
What is surprising about the most recent couple of Mail pieces isn’t that Howie has once again played the mother card but that Franks decided to hit back. Her response was eloquent and thorough, suggesting that she was genuinely hurt by Howie’s parody. It was also a masterclass in PR bluff-calling. Lest we confuse her with Jennifer Saunders’s ditsy character, Franks is a formidable innovator who with determination and foresight invented a whole sub-sector of PR. Throughout her article Franks deconstructs the errant comedian’s lines by pointing out the obvious; for instance, how could he know that she was on the phone twenty minutes after his birth? All the while she reminds the reader of Howie’s cynical purpose –to sell a show.
To stand out in the intensely competitive comedy world you have to be ruthless in your self-promotion. Everything is fair game. Franks’s suggestion isn’t so much that Howie went too far in using his dear old ma as fodder but that the joke has become stale. Her lesson is: yes be ruthless, but if you overplay your hand expect to be schooled. In place of Howie’s image of the self-centered boomer Franks gives us the snowflake generation. Howie may moan about his mother’s careerism but he had no complaints when the bank of mum and dad financed his many escapades and underwrote his mortgage. Such is the two-way street of the generational sparring that every family will recognise. What greater gift to her son could Franks have given than to inject some drama -and further PR- into the comedian’s recycled stunt?