Student blog: Robert Webb

Maja McGill is a final year german and politics student and We Are Sheffield Students blogger at the University of Sheffield. This is her first in a series of posts that she is writing for the festival.

Making my way down one of Sheffield’s many hills and headed for the matinee show of How Not to Be a Boy with Robert Webb, my sense of anticipation was high. I suspect this feeling was shared by most, if not all, of the audience, since the initial evening event had sold out extremely quickly. Sometimes such a high level of expectation dangerously leads to an anti-climax, but I wasn’t left disappointed: The promise of a ‘laugh-out-loud look at the absurd expectations thrust upon boys and men’ was certainly fulfilled.

Amongst the students in the audience Robert Webb is best known as immature Jez from Peep Show, the critically acclaimed adult sitcom about two friends sharing a flat, however he revealed a very different side to himself during this conversation about his new book, which he himself described as a story of his life, told through the lens of gender. Consequently, the event was interesting and accessible to both people who enjoyed his previous work and those who had never even heard of him before.

Professor Matthew Flinders, head of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics, made a worthy interviewer. However a collective gasp did escape from the audience when he confessed that he’d never heard of Peep Show. Moments later, laughter erupted when it emerged that he had innocently sat down to watch what proved to be an X-rated episode of Peep Show with his three daughters, the youngest just eight years old…

Robert wasn’t given an easy ride in terms of questions, which made it all the more compelling. He talked candidly about his strained relationship with his father and even opened up about his own failings as a father. This frank and honest exchange gave us an incredible insight into his personal experiences and how detrimental expected gender roles have been throughout his life, creating an intimate atmosphere in what was actually a massive space.

From the excerpts read aloud by Robert, it was clear that his book is very thoughtful and well-written. He shared very personal moments with us and it certainly wandered down an emotional path when he described his last conversation with his dying mother. At the same time, he was conscious of the need to strike a balance between this and more light-hearted material, therefore he included many embarrassing stories that provided plenty of laughs.

Then the audience was invited to ask Robert questions. Plenty of people quickly stuck their hand up (I was a little too slow!) but luckily there was enough time to hear from most of them. There was a good mixture too, with some delving further into specific issues he had touched upon, others asking about his previous work and even a budding writer looking for advice.

All in all, a thought-provoking event and Robert Webb is cleverly bringing an important topic into mainstream discussion. In his usual self-deprecating manner, he admitted that he doesn’t expect his book to be groundbreaking and appreciated that many people read a book, proclaim it’s changed their life, yet then proceed to make themselves a cup of tea and carry on with life as they did before. However I think he’s doing his book an injustice. It will prompt people to reassess and permanently change their perspectives.

That he’s introducing the issue of harmful gender conditioning to a wider audience is in itself important but as well as that, Robert created an entertaining event with countless laugh-out-loud moments along the way. The perfect way to brighten up what would have otherwise been another dull Monday afternoon.


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