The comedian talks comedy, young voters, and how journalists could save us allby Stephanie Boland / June 8, 2017 / Leave a comment
“There was a sense of: what, again? Why? What now?” It’s the eve of the 2017 general election, and Andy Hamilton is describing its beginnings.
“There’s no doubt people were feeling jaded going into it,” he tells me. “I remember doing a recording for the News Quiz the week the election was announced, and there was a sort of collective groan from the audience.”
A veteran of elections and political coverage, Hamilton is best known for his regular appearances on programs like Have I Got News For You and Radio 4’s The News Quiz—quite aside from his impressive writing CV—and has a good sense of how the public mood has developed.
Although things have picked up since that groan—“I didn’t expect Theresa May to implode quite as dramatically as this”—there is still a part of him that thinks we may well “fetch up almost exactly where we started. Then people will be really annoyed!”
His tone, however, is considered, rather than pessimistic. Away from the snappy formats of panel shows and scripted television, Hamilton is clearly deeply introspective—a man aware that politics, like most things, is rarely black and white.
“I think,” he muses, “it’s partially because of the expenses scandal. There’s still quite a lot to do in terms of politicians winning back trust. You still hear, ‘oh, they’re all the same’.
“Which is clearly not true: you get groupthink in all professions, but you don’t write off all the plumbers because a few are unreliable!”
There are, however, signs of change.
“What’s good is that two million young people have registered to vote. Young people have started being interested in politics again. That will be no bad thing. And maybe, this election has got people asking fundamental questions about what society’s priorities should be.”
And that, really, is the core of our discussion. It only takes us 15 minutes to get on to the topic of the next day’s election, but by that point we’ve already covered fantasists, Donald Trump, technology, and the impact that our 24-hour news cycle—and the constant dissection of the same on social media—might have on us. (“It’s something we’ll only know in 50 years’ time, I think.”)
I’m speaking to Hamilton because, somehow, he has managed to find the time to write a book. The Star Witness focusses on Kevin, a “coasting” television actor—“a hero with coward’s legs,” Hamilton says, borrowing a phrase from Spike Milligan—who finds himself embroiled in a very public, protracted scandal after an incident with an ex-girlfriend. Drawing on Hamilton’s long experience in the world of media and celebrity, it is a disquieting novel which shows Kevin as much shaped by his public persona as shaping it.
“It started,” Hamilton tells me, “with an episode in my personal life where someone was pretending to be me. When I shared that story with people, I was surprised how many people had similar stories of fantasists getting mixed up in their life. I got interested in this notion that the world is sort of an adventure playground for fantasists.”
“Then, I came up with this character who backs himself into a corner and finds himself at the mercy of a fantasist—which is never a good position to be in, as the people of the United States just found out.”
The fantasist he’s referring to—aside from Trump—is a character called Derek, who offers to commit perjury for Kevin, but who quickly becomes an adversary, as his beliefs about the actor become more and more divorced from reality.
“That’s what happens with proper fantasists,” says Hamilton. “Derek’s personality has been shaped by the world of self-obsession, and celebrity, and pseudo-drama.”
“The fantasist lies compulsively, and the moment it leaves their mouth it becomes the truth, as far as they’re concerned. Trump is a classic example. That’s why detail is an enemy to people like him.”
He recalls a recent evening watching Newsnight, when Trump’s aide, Sebastian Gorka, came on the program to discuss several unhappy tweets about London Mayor Sadiq Khan which the president posted following Saturday’s terror attack on Borough Market.
“I found myself shouting at the TV screen,” Hamilton says.
“I was yelling what he should have been asking, which was a question about decency: ‘So it would have been alright, would it, for our prime minister to criticse the mayor of New York the day after 9/11?’”
As a BBC veteran, it’s not surprising that Hamilton has a sense of the media as an important tool to hold politicians to account. But when I ask him what responsibility journalists have in this era of fantasists, he’s even more strident than I had expected.
“Journalists have become the most important people on the planet, in a way,” he says.
“The elemental struggle that we’re seeing in that little press briefing room in Washington is sort of like the battle for the soul of liberal democracy. It’ll depend which is greater: the relentlessness of Trump in trying to normalise this fantasy, or the determination of those journalists to try and run him to the ground. The battle will, I think, decide a lot of our fates eventually. That’s liberal democracy on trial.”
But what about the UK, I ask. Things clearly aren’t quite as they are in the US, but there is still plenty of backlash against journalists.
“If you started to see here the attacks on the ‘MSM,’ as Trump calls it, that would be worrying. And both the right and left depict the BBC as part of some hostile conspiracy.”
Yet Hamilton is clear that what he does—political comedy—serves a different purpose. With Guy Garvey, he has co-written a short series, Election Spy: a series of five-minute clips which dramatise the inside of each party’s campaign. “We’re not saying for one moment that comedy ever changes anything politically,” he says, “but it’s part of making people feel that they’re not alone. If politics frightens them, or worries them, you can shrink it to a manageable size—just for a moment—in encouraging them to laugh at it.”
“I think that’s quite important. It’s sort of the function of comedy in life. You’re in the middle of something really grim, then you get the giggles.”
“Life is grey. It’s full of grey. I like to mix it up, the serious and the funny—in the way life does!”
“Life doesn’t sort itself into genres.”
The Star Witness is out in paperback on 15 June (Unbound, £8.99)