Me and my vote: Pub Landlord and Stewart Lee
Al Murray's Pub Landlord is described as 'one of the few remaining Tory blokes'. So how come he's voting New Labour? Plus: Stewart Lee on why there's more to political satire than Ann Widdecombe's hair.
Al Murray’s Pub Landlord, the brash, beer-bellied barman-cum-philosopher, is taking London’s normally sedate theatre-land by storm. Again.
In My Gaff, My Rules at the Playhouse Theatre, Pub Landlord philosophises about everything from gender and alcohol (‘Pint for the fella, glass of white wine for the lady’) to European integration (‘Back off Brussels!’) to how Britain might cope with a foreign invasion (‘In the old days we had the most powerful army the world has ever seen. Now everyone works in a call centre. If a new Hitler comes along, what are we going to do? Put him on hold?’).
No wonder some have suggested that the Tories should court this proud, traditional, pint-drinking Brit for their flagging election campaign. ‘A one-man campaign to put the Great back into Great Britain’, said the Mail on Sunday. ‘The Tories could do worse than sign him up.’
So who will Pub Landlord vote for come the general election? ‘Tony Blair.’
Pub Landlord a Blairite? Surely some mistake. ‘Why vote Blair? Because he’s posh’, says Pub Landlord. ‘If you want to set the working class free in this country you need to get a posh bloke to tell them they’re free, then they’ll be off.’
Ah, so there’s an ulterior motive. And according to Pub Landlord, the Tories are just too confused and confusing to win his vote: ‘The Conservatives are more conservative than the Conservatives ever were and that’s their problem. They did what they came to do and now they don’t know what to do, and that’s why they’re done for.’
Conservative Central Office, take note: you’re too conservative even for a bloke who harks back to the ‘good old days’ when ‘men were gents’ and ‘gay’ meant being carefree and happy.
But surely Pub Landlord was impressed by William Hague’s ‘14 pints of beer’ boast? ‘Lightweight’, says the Landlord. ‘If it was 14 pints of spirits I’d be impressed. Anyway, he gave us no indication of how many curries he had eaten that day to offset the booze. And as we all know, eating’s cheating.’
Besides, Pub Landlord reckons some New Labour ministers would make far better drinking partners than a clapped-out Tory like Hague. ‘John Prescott. He looks like the ship’s purser he is, and those merchant seamen know how to put it away.’
Or the chancellor of the exchequer: ‘I’d like to get Gordon Brown pissed, so pissed he didn’t know what he was doing, take him down the Bank of England cashpoint and get him to tell me his pin number.’
But while New Labour might win Pub Landlord’s vote, Tony Blair is not the kind of bloke he’d like to have in his ‘establishment’: ‘He’s showing the strain, isn’t he? His hair’s falling out and he’s got bags under his eyes bigger than a business class allowance. But at least he had hair to fall out, unlike that other bloke.’
So could it be that the ‘play-by-my-rules-or-sling-your-hook’ Pub Landlord is attracted to New Labour’s law’n’order streak? After all, the government has been known to run the country along similar lines to Pub Landlord’s central organising theory: ‘my gaff, my rules.’
‘Ah, but their rules aren’t a par on mine, tell you that much’, says Landlord. And then, not everything about New Labour wins his vote. ‘Women in parliament? Is that wise? Look what happened when one got the top job….
‘Oof! Doesn’t bear thinking about.’
Pub Landlord’s ‘My Gaff, My Rules’ is at The Playhouse, London WC2, until 9 June 2001. Phone the box office on +44 (0) 20 7316 4747.
Stewart Lee: ‘When wasn’t satire dull?’
‘The role of comedy is not to be pro-New Labour – comedy should be in opposition. But a lot of what passes as satire today just doesn’t do the job.’
Stewart Lee, one of the UK’s funniest stand-ups, a former Spitting Image writer and one half of BBC2’s The Richard Not Judy Show, will ‘probably end up voting Labour’ at the election – but more because he is passionately anti-Tory than passionately pro-Blair.
‘I look at how likely it is that the Tories will do well, and if necessary I vote tactically against them. The main thing for me is to not have the Tories back in power.’
Spoken like a true alternative comedian from that bygone age – when stand-up meant taking a stand against Thatcher and all things Tory. ‘But if you’re my age’, says Lee (33), ‘and you remember things like Clause 28 and Norman Tebbit, then your number one priority is to keep the Tories out’.
But isn’t this yesterday’s battle? If comedy is better when it’s ‘in opposition’, surely today’s comedians should have a stab at New Labour?
Lee agrees. ‘Yeah, comedy’s job is not to support the power structures. That’s one of the weird things about Rory Bremner – he takes the piss out of the government but at the same time he is like the government’s official satirist. By doing funny impressions of Robin Cook and giving him a high voice and a stupid beard, it makes it look like there is a dialogue going on, but there isn’t. It’s just pantomime. And we all know that he used to play tennis with Tony Blair.’
But while Lee doesn’t think much of today’s satirists, he isn’t one of those buffoons who bangs on about the ‘golden age of satire’ of years gone by. ‘When wasn’t satire dull? To me, it’s the absolute lowest form of humour. I used to write for Spitting Image, which people thought was really radical, but in fact it worked to a completely set formula – where we would appear to be talking about an issue but really we were just looking for a gag about a politician having an ugly face or a fat arse.’
And according to Lee, this elevation of personality over politics continues in satire today. ‘Look at The 11 O’Clock Show or Have I Got News For You? – they’re dressed up in the language of issues but the punchline is always some rubbish joke about personality or teeth.’
But maybe politics has just become too boring to satirise. When you no longer have feisty politicians fighting it out over important issues, perhaps all that’s left to laugh at is their fat arses. ‘Possibly’, says Lee. ‘Which might be why someone like Chris Morris is a much better satirist than the others – on stuff like The Brass Eye he takes up the media instead of politics, and how the media presents opinion as truth and all that – and that seems to be something really worth satirising now, rather than whether Ann Widdecombe’s got funny hair.’
‘The problem is’, says Lee, ‘the caricatures often obscure the real issues in politics – and they may actually help the very people they set out to make fun of, by giving them an image. Thatcher loved her Spitting Image pisstake because it made her look strong and determined.’
So if politics is boring and personality is passe, what can comedians do to shake up the ‘power structures’?
‘There are ways of being in opposition to the government that are supportive’, says Lee, ‘by saying, “Come on, look, this is ridiculous”, and moving it on a bit. You don’t have to disagree with a government to take the piss out of it.’
So comedians should be more like advisers to the government than critics of it? ‘No, it depends on the comedian’s point of view. But we do need something funnier and a bit more critical than the dull satire we’ve got now.’
Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.