Finnish society in the 1990s provided fertile ground for innovative sketch comedy troupe ETC.

DRAWING on the madcap energy of Monty Python, Irishman Frank Boyle and Brits Jonathan Hutchings and Leslie Hyde developed a cult following in Finland throughout the 1990s with English Theatre Comedy (ETC). After breaking away from amateur theatre group Finn-Brit players, the trio made a name for themselves with their fast-paced, unpredictable and hilarious sketch comedy, performed primarily in pubs.

With the group disbanding at the end of the 90s, Boyle and Hutchings continued with acting, with Boyle’s A Public Reading of Charles Dickens and Hutchings’ performance in Rare Exports notable recent appearances. Hyde, meanwhile, has gone on to become vice-principal of Eira High School for Adults.

It was at O’Malley’s in Helsinki, the site of many of ETC’s performances, that SixDegrees joined the trio in reminiscing about their time performing together, and along the way discovered just what life was like back then being a foreigner in Finland.

How did ETC come about?

Hutchings: It was the person who’s not here today, Glenn Banks, who’s responsible for forming ETC to do theatre and education in English, initially for young school kids.

Hyde: When the depression came in ’89 or so, all money was taken away from schools. So what we did was add a few swear words and changed the kids stuff and called it a pub show.

Hyde: A good description: theatre without education, with alcohol. (laughs)

How did crowds react to your pub theatre?

Hyde: We had good crowds mostly. At that time there was a demand for comedy. An interesting thing looking back is what would work now, what wouldn’t work now, because the place has changed so much. Now the buzzword is maahanmuuttaja; when we were doing it, it was ulkomaalainen. The thing about ulkomaalainen was that the idea was that you were from abroad and you were eventually going to go the f**k back home!

Hutchings: You were an alien. You’d have to go to the alien’s office to renew your permits etc.

Hyde: A lot of our jokes were on those themes, playing with stereotypes.

Hutchings: We would also do the bus driver sketch: the typical bus driver who would leave when the little old lady hadn’t yet sat down and the driver would be laughing to himself. It’s as if he was looking in the mirror and waiting for her, just as she’s about to sit down…broom!

Hyde: But I don’t know if it would work right now as the bus drivers are all foreigners.

Hutchings: No, maahanmuuttaja – not foreigners! But it’s funny, they still act the same as the Finnish drivers.

Boyle: When we started doing the pub shows, pub culture in Finland was extremely underdeveloped. Generally people came on their own or in pairs – heavy drinking, didn’t talk with anyone. No social interaction like in England or Ireland. One of the reasons we started was to get people intermingling and that they didn’t have to drink so much. Also, when we were doing our sketch shows, there was no such thing as stand up comedy in Finland. We developed it because often we needed to change costumes in between sketches. So one of us would have to get up there to fill in time.

Were performances always in English?

Boyle: My Finnish has always been, how they say – paska. Jon was always really good at spoken Finnish, especially on a street level. We had characters speaking Finnish. Finns really identified with that. It was a way of dealing with subjects.

Hyde: Our show was for Finns, it was a Finnish show!

Boyle: Most likely there would not be a single foreigner in the audience. Even if they didn’t understand a word of Finnish or English then the show was still enjoyed by all. When we were tackling difficult relevant issues, such as the housing policy or unemployment, we didn’t lecture anybody. We left things up in the air. A lot of the heated discussion actually came after the show, which was quite rewarding.

Sometimes we would get the sharp intake of breath when we were steering too close to the wind, but unless you don’t take a chance… some people did react and take objection to what we were doing. We took that as a badge of success, because if everyone thought we were great, then we were only being nice.

Hutchings: The biggest thing to get the audience to do is to actually look and pay attention to you. I was in the middle of a joke one time when one group continued to talk among themselves. So I went up to them and asked ‘where are you lot from, Tampere?’ and then they stopped and said ‘Kyllä’. And they eventually got up and left.

Now, Jonathan you arrived here in 1971; Leslie, you first came here in 1970, returned home and eventually settled here in 1978; Frank in the early 1990s. After all of this time living in Finland, do you still feel like a foreigner?

Hyde: Good question. Well my answer is that I feel that this is my home. Do I feel like I’m in an environment where everyone understands me? Then no.

Boyle: I still travel quite a lot between Finland and Ireland. I have a home there. My kids were born here in Finland. Most of my friends are Finnish people. I’m concerned with what happens in this country as much as it affects me.

Hyde: At the time when we were doing our sketches, if you were a foreigner you were a rarity. People would watch you walk down the street. Do I feel like I a foreigner now, when there’s so much difference here? No I don’t. I feel part of the furniture. It’s a wider view of what it is to be Finnish these days. Back then it was so narrow. Also, when you come to live in a place as an adult, there are certain things you somehow don’t connect with. Maybe you never will. Like the authority here. Know of it and not be in it.

Hutchings: I still find it hard to believe that people here trust more in a digital light than the traffic when crossing the road. They will stand there until that light goes green, then they cross the road and still don’t check for cars!

Boyle: We’ve seen many things over the last few years. The one thing about Finnish society, which is the same as every society, is that it’s always changing – you can either be a part of that or not. The country we left is no longer there; the country we arrived to is no longer here. In our sketches we did have issues with Finnish society. We could maybe see improvements. But, if you love something and care about something, then you can be more critical.

Do immigrants here have it easier now?

Hyde: When I first came here I realised I wasn’t going to survive without an education and started to learn Finnish only after I had gone back home to the UK and done night school and completed an MA. Now students can study while learning Finnish from the get go – these integration schemes can help people on a minimal level to get into society with work. And that’s a good way in, through work.

Hutchings: It used to be difficult to obtain a work permit when I first came here. The rules and laws were quite strict. You had to apply six months ahead for three months, a year for six months...personally I think it’s gotten a lot easier with the EU.

Hyde: Also, they had the thing with the work permit back then where you could only have one employer, and if you couldn’t get work from them then, well, it was bondage, a form of servitude. You couldn’t get a credit card. You couldn’t own a house. You couldn’t vote. They told you that you couldn’t join a union – which you could.

However, challenges facing immigrants today include greater public hostility – to the extent that the word ‘immigrant’ is a dirty word. There is much greater ethnic and religious diversity here today and this is producing a backlash mentality that wants Finland to return to the often-unwelcoming country it was when I came. Public displays of racism on buses etc. are now rampant.

On the other hand, there is much better provision of resources today. I have been involved in developing programs for immigrants at lower and upper secondary level. The core to both programs is developing Finnish skills. A popular prejudice in the past was that Finnish was regarded as an impossible language to learn. The idea was popular with Finnish speakers as it made them feel exotic and wonderfully different. Thousands of immigrants have proved this wrong and learn Finnish.

Any advice for immigrants?

Hutchings: You need the language. It’s not only the physical language – it’s the culture that goes with it.

Hyde: For my work I find myself advising a lot of people, but one of the things that people think is ‘I’m not going to be here for very long, therefore I don’t need to learn the language’. But I have been in this game for so long that I see these same people still here ten years later. Operate from the level that this is where you are going to be. Either way you will have acquired things. You hide behind ‘I’m not staying here’ then you’ll never get anywhere, you’ll never get anything.

Boyle: Try to find where you fit in here. Then if people try to criticise you, you are strong. You know what you do, why you are here, what you can give. If you’re here to give something then nobody can tell you to go back to where you came from. You can say you’re a person of value, not just to your friends and family, but also to society as a whole.

Text James O’Sullivan, Photo Tomas Whitehouse