We’ve abandoned our tradition of blowing raspberries unto powerby Rory Bremner / September 18, 2014 / Leave a comment
Some time in the late 1970s, so the story goes, the BBC’s legendary Head of Light Entertainment, Bill Cotton, was travelling in a lift at Television Centre when he was buttonholed by a young producer. “Why haven’t we got any satire at the BBC?” the man demanded. “Of course we’ve got satire,” Cotton replied. “We’ve got Mike Yarwood.”
How we laughed. As young whippersnappers, starting out at the BBC nearly a decade later, we scoffed at the idea that master-impressionist Yarwood’s mainstream, family-friendly show could be construed as satire. Why, Labour Chancellor Denis Healey even made an appearance in one show, playing the piano while Yarwood, in drag, played the part of Healey’s sister. George Osborne, eat your heart out. If you have one.
And yet, 30 years on, the idea of politicians like Healey, Ted Heath, Harold Wilson and Enoch Powell (yes! Enoch Powell!) being lampooned, however gently, week in, week out, on prime-time television, seems to belong to a golden age of political satire, with the talented Yarwood up there with that other fearless impressionist, Lenny Bruce.
By contrast, for the entire duration of this parliament, for the first time I can remember, we’ve had no regular mimicry of the people running the country. Possibly, as I’ll argue later, because (a) we’re not sure who they are anyway, and (b) we’re not sure they’re actually running the country either. In the 1970s, we had Yarwood. In the 1980s, Spitting Image, spearheaded by Steve Nallon’s glorious and grotesque Margaret Thatcher (“What about the vegetables?” “Oh, they’ll have the same as me.”) From 1992 to 2010, I was fortunate enough, along with John Bird and the late and much missed John Fortune, to be given free rein by Channel 4 to ridicule governments and policies alike. But today? Nothing. Nix. Nada.
So what happened? Who killed satire? Well, in true Agatha Christie style, I suggest there are a number of suspects: bland politicians; events and characters beyond parody; supine commissioners; the descent into farce of the British establishment, and the end of deference; the shift in power from politicians towards corporations; universal cynicism and disengagement from politics; the speed and ubiquity of social media; the death of irony; and of course, ourselves, with our own habits and choices. Yet the targets remain. Less obvious, more elusive, more complex and opaque, maybe (banking crisis, anyone?), but sharing many characteristics with the traditional butts of ridicule.
To be fair, the spluttering flame of television satire has been kept from total extinguishment by series such as Armando Ianucci’s The Thick of It and its derivative in the United States, Veep, both satirising the machinery of government in (post-)modern successors to the seminal Yes Minister, and the scatter-gun panel show barbs of Have I Got News for You and Mock the Week. Channel 4’s Ten o’clock Live has gone quiet, arguably its greatest hit being self-inflicted—a routine by Jimmy Carr decrying Barclays bank for tax avoidance being undermined by Carr’s own exposure for, um, tax avoidance. On radio, the venerable News Quiz steams on. But, these apart, much as we may look on the works of the mighty and despair, nothing beside remains.
Well, almost. The BBC has followed its successful satirical sitcom Twenty Twelve, set in the headquarters of the Olympics Deliverance Unit, with W1A, a satirical series sending up… the BBC itself. Make of that what you will. The writer of both programmes, John Morton, himself the brilliant and respected creator of the radio series that virtually invented the genre, People Like Us, said of W1A that “if it is satirical” (we’ll return to definitions later) “then it’s satirical about an environment, an ethos, and the absurdities of modern corporate life itself.” As such, it shares much in common with The Thick of It and Yes Minister, satires about the environment of government and the absurdities of modern political life, rather than ridicule of specific current politicians or policies.
But, then, in order to do that we need to know who the politicians and the policies are. I was lucky to be at Channel 4 when we had figures like John Major, Michael Heseltine, Ken Clarke, John Prescott, Peter Mandelson, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair, and many more who were recognisable public figures, with big personalities and strong characters. By contrast, the current cabinet seem, as the writer Kitty Muggeridge said of satirist David Frost, to have risen without trace. Many ministers are unrecognisable, possibly within their own households (Stephen Crabb? Jeremy Wright? Baroness Anelay of St Johns? Stop me when you’ve heard of one), making them tricky to mimic.
“You’re nobody ’til somebody does you,” as Dean Martin might have sung after a few bourbons. If that’s the case, we seem to have almost an entire government of nobodies. This may or may not be deliberate. I remember standing in a street in Chancellor George Osborne’s leafy Cheshire constituency just before the last election, dressed as William Hague, showing members of the public photographs of possible future Tory ministers. To a man (and they were mostly men) the pictures drew a blank from prospective voters. “We will be a stealth government,” I/Hague said. “People you’ve never heard of doing things you wouldn’t believe.” Well, that turned out to be a lot truer on both counts than I imagined. And that was before the Liberal Democrats rowed in with such notable political giants as Ed Davey, the Energy Secretary, and Steve Webb, the Pensions Minister. Indeed, the party is so unsure of the identity of their Scottish Advocate General Jim Wallace that it can’t even find a photograph of him for its own website.
In Scotland, too, there are few politicians who could set the world alight (though there was one who set the curtains alight, but that was Mike Watson, and he got 16 months in prison). There are obvious limits to ad hominem satirical impressions of politicians when no one knows who the politicians are. It was a marvel that Spitting Image, by dint of wonderful latex caricatures and inspired vocal characterisations, succeeded in making household figures out of such unpromising personalities as Norman Fowler, Ken Baker and Leon Brittan.
The two glaring exceptions to the rule are, of course, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. Both larger-than-life figures, instantly recognisable, both such caricatures of themselves they are already beyond parody.
Which brings me to a further difficulty for the contemporary satirist: how to ridicule people or policies that are self-evidently ridiculous. John Bird and John Fortune frequently discovered this, not least when they found, in 2003, that Britain had not only sold arms to Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein, but that, under the Export Credit Guarantee Scheme we had lent him the money to buy them. Not believing their own research, the Johns contacted an acquaintance, then working in government. “Oh yes,” he confirmed, wearily. “It’s part of the fog of hypocrisy that surrounds this place.” Bird and Fortune often remarked that the best way to satirise the government (or indeed opposition) was simply to read out its policies.
On 12th May 2009, David Cameron solemnly addressed a press conference on MPs expenses. “Oliver Letwin will repay £2,000 for the leaking pipe under his tennis court,” the Prime Minister announced, with the straightest of faces. “Alan Duncan will repay £5,000 paid to his gardener,” and so on. By the time we got to duck houses and moats, the last shred of MPs’ credibility had gone. You couldn’t make it up. In 1973, the American satirical songwriter Tom Lehrer famously greeted the news that Henry Kissinger had won the Nobel Peace Prize by declaring that satire had become obsolete (see p24). Today, as if to top that one, the UN Peace Envoy to the Middle East is… Tony Blair. And, in passing, has the Middle East ever been more peaceful?
Having identified the problem of who the MPs are, there is the question of what they actually do. Here, too, we have a problem. For it is becoming increasingly evident that power has passed—indeed, has been passed—from politicians and elected representatives to quangos and large corporations. The most obvious of these are the ubiquitous G4S, Serco and Capita. They are, by and large, faceless organisations, and therefore immune to ad hominem ridicule. Yet real power and influence now lies with them, and with financial institutions (as opposed to actual, tangible enterprises like agriculture).
Again, Bird and Fortune spotted this, decades ago. Realising that politicians were, in the main, hapless, often well-intentioned individuals, and that there was no longer any deference to the parliamentary establishment, they found its successor, the new sacred cow of our age, in “the discipline of the market.” This was an apparently unassailable dogma which, in reality, meant open season for large utility companies and banks whose chief executives were rewarded for success and compensated in equal measure for catastrophic mistakes. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the two Johns were able to dissect and lay bare the cant and self-interest behind these new captains of industry and masters of the universe, in a form of Socratic dialogue in which one of them played George Parr, the relevant banker/executive/general/businessman, and the other played the interviewer trying to make sense of the nonsense (“Now, if I could just stop you there…”).
Bird and Fortune were able to do that not least because they had space to breathe. Their conversations often lasted for 12 to 14 minutes in the studio, cut down to maybe 8 or 9 minutes for the final transmission. This is officially considered by TV executives to be “an eternity,” and as such, not to be countenanced. But it gave the Johns sufficient time to test a policy or idea to destruction, leaving people wondering why on earth the George Parrs of this world were allowed to behave with such self-serving impunity. Together with our Iraq shows, it was, I thought, the closest we got to genuine satire, as opposed to topical comedy, which is what we felt we were doing most of the time.
There was a literary quality to the writing, too, reminiscent of That Was the Week That Was, whose contributors included Keith Waterhouse and Dennis Potter. At its best, satire should function like Voltaire’s picaresque novel Candide, which picked apart, episode by episode, the inconsistencies and absurdity of the contemporary belief in divine benevolence (“the best of all possible worlds”) after the 1755 Lisbon earthquake had killed thousands.
How does that differ from modern satire? The term has evolved significantly since TW3 re-invented it in the 1960s, and certainly since Juvenal, the Roman author of the Satires, was writing in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. At the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year, the actor Simon Callow revived his bravura one-man performance of the Satires, translated by Peter Green, billing them as stand-up comedy from classical Rome. But a funny (or rather an unfunny) thing happened on the way from the forum. While Juvenal’s subjects—gay men, women, marriage, corrupt politicians—are strikingly current, his satire seems to a modern audience dark, bilious, misogynistic, bitter and personal. Uncomfortable, indeed. Maybe this is true satire. Certainly the 18th and 19th-century prints of English satirists James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson and George Cruikshank share a taste for grotesque and savage caricature.
But satire, in modern television usage, has largely come to mean topical comedy. And we expect it to be funny. In its original, Juvenal form, it would be considered too splenetic and bitter for modern television audiences. Indeed, when Spitting Image filmed a sketch where Margaret Thatcher said that if the employed were so hungry they should eat their own bodies, the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) predictably called it disgusting and asked for it to be cut. It was only when producer John Lloyd pointed out that it was a direct homage to 18th-century satirist Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal (eating babies as a solution to the Irish famine) that the IBA relented, bowing, it would seem, to cultural precedent.
I wonder what would happen now. For a programme to get on air, it first has to be commissioned. And we are in a climate—post-Brass Eye, post-Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand—in which television commissioners (BBC and ITV) are nervous of causing offence. And politicians and newspapers, playing to the gallery, are very quick to take it. When Frankie Boyle used racist language ironically in his Channel 4 show Tramadol Nights, he was himself labelled a racist by the Daily Mirror. To his great credit, the Channel 4 commissioner Shane Allen, now at the BBC, defended Boyle, and the comedian won the subsequent libel case in court.
The case illustrates a grave difficulty for would-be television satirists. Offence, whether intended to shock or used ironically, is often our stock-in-trade. Words and jokes, conceived and delivered in a context of heavy, often bitter irony, can be taken out of context and splashed over the front pages. Such wilful and deliberate misrepresentation is, in effect, a form of censorship, robbing comedians of the tacit permission society grants them to use humour to address any subject—to be the “all-licensed Fool” Shakespeare evokes in King Lear. We are all, as newspaper-buying members of the public, complicit in this removal of irony from our public vocabulary.
But there’s a serious point here. To move from the sublime to the ridiculous, when Harriet Harman, then deputy leader of the Labour Party, made an analogy between the (nice) red squirrel and (the nasty) Danny Alexander, both “ginger rodents,” she was badgered (oops!) into making an apology, with Scottish Liberal Democrat election chairman George Lyon fulminating that “There are no depths to which the Labour Party will not stoop.” Well, Labour can do a lot better than that, and so can Lyon. It was a metaphor, for heaven’s sake. If we are to take everything literally, to legislate or commission for those who cannot understand irony or double-meaning, then we will swiftly lose our aptitude for satire.
Yet, in another sense, everyone is a satirist these days. The airwaves and newspaper columns are awash with cynical characterisations of politicians, Twitter and other social media full of abuse of public figures, posted in real time. It’s harder to take politics seriously, to understand the issues, than it is to drown it all in a sea of scorn. And while the world cries out for greater analysis and insight, we are distracted by bread and circuses, aka the Great British Bake-Off and Tumble.
We should rediscover our tradition of satire. Of speaking truth unto power. Or at least, blowing raspberries unto it. It’s a question of political will. Can we do it in time for the next election? Yes we can.