Analysis – Grimsby and the evolution of Sacha Baron Cohen’s ‘working class panic’

Sacha Baron Cohen as Nobby in Grimsby
Sacha Baron Cohen as Nobby in Grimsby

Earlier this year, Sacha Baron Cohen made a return to cinematic leading roles with his turn as Nobby Butcher in Grimsby, known as The Brothers Grimsby overseas. The movie, out on DVD and Blu-ray today, was a rather lazy attempt at gross-out comedy, but it did have at its heart an interesting portrayal of an alarming working class stereotype in the shape of Cohen’s protagonist. The film doesn’t seem all that interested in exploring the depths of its characters, but there is certainly something there that bears further discussion.

In its construction of the ultimate stereotype of ‘working class panic’, Grimsby fills an interesting position in the Cohen canon – that of a follow-up to Ali G. The fast-talking hip hop enthusiast from Staines remains Cohen’s most memorable and significant creation and, in Nobby, Cohen has created an Ali G for modern Britain.


“It it because I is black?”

Ali G first appeared on British television in the late 90s as a character on The 11 O’Clock Show. He later became the lead character of his own show and the 2002 film Ali G Indahouse. Cohen played Ali G as the epitome of what the middle classes feared the working class was becoming. He was a character obsessed with hip hop music and its culture, as well as embodying the fear of gangs of youths on British streets. Only a few years later, then Leader of the Opposition David Cameron would launch his so-called ‘hug a hoodie’ ethos.

The plot of Ali G Indahouse showcases that tracksuit-wearing working class bringing down the cosy, middle class establishment. It positions Ali G as dangerously influential in winning over the masses, to the point that he is able to win a seat in Parliament. From there, the film paints him as the plucky underdog taking on the suit-wearing embodiment of the ruling class, as portrayed by Charles Dance. The entire film tells the tale of ‘working class panic’ as the stereotype takes over the country, ridding the UK of its cosy political equilibrium before returning to his own, quiet life. Cohen’s movie serves to highlight the ridiculousness of middle class fear as the working class influence in the corridors of power helps to rescue the country from evil.

Sacha Baron Cohen in Ali G Indahouse
Sacha Baron Cohen in Ali G Indahouse

“She thinks that we are scum”

Grimsby, meanwhile, is a logical progression of the character that we first saw with Ali G. Nobby is the embodiment of ‘working class panic’ for 2016. Instead of hip hop music and marijuana, Nobby’s focus is on having an entire menagerie of children, drinking as much lager as possible and scrounging every penny he and his girlfriend can off the state. This is Ali G all over again, but for a generation that was horrified to see the poverty porn of Benefits Street on their television screens.

Nobby represents ‘working class panic’ for this new generation in the same way that Ali G did 15 years ago. He is a cranked-up character of what certain corners of Middle England think the North is like. This is a washed-up, unemployed cretin in a football shirt who is drowning in beer cans, benefits money and kids with unusual names ripped from popular culture. Nobby’s intrusion into the spy work of his brother, played by Mark Strong, again showcases this representative of the worst end of the working class spectrum intruding into the world of the middle classes before ultimately saving the day.

Grimsby concludes with Nobby turning to his friends and delivering a rousing speech about how the world thinks they are “scum”. He details how important working class “scum” is to keeping the country running before promptly saving the world. It’s a moment that briefly ignites the film’s ideology and showcases that there was an interesting idea at the heart of Nobby – a logical continuation of the Ali G character that worked so well in its time.

It’s just a shame that Cohen never goes all the way with Nobby and focuses more on the undercooked spy spoof narrative than the social commentary potential of the lead character. If Grimsby had teased out its message of ‘working class panic’ rather than focusing on elephant penises and endless depictions of bodily fluids, it might have been something very special.


What did you think of Grimsby? Do you think it’s the logical evolution of Sacha Baron Cohen’s ‘working class panic’ characters? Let me know in the comments section.

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