Bremner, Cook and the politicians’ fortune
Are today's satirists opposition leaders - or just friendly critics of the status quo?
Robert McCrum, writing in the UK Observer, might see impressionist Rory Bremner as the new ‘leader of the opposition’ (1). But while I would happily agree that multi-talented Bremner makes valuable observations, McCrum’s own evidence undermines his dauntless presentation.
‘The day a Downing Street minion asked Rory Bremner: “How do you know Tony Blair likes to eat an apple in his office?” was the moment the impressionist knew his latest series had finally scored a direct hit’, writes McCrum. ‘His team discovered that number 10 was so disturbed by Bremner’s devastating portrait of the prime minister’s subservient relationship to his all-powerful and laconic press secretary that it had authorised a paranoid mole-hunt.’
McCrum is right to note that the Blairs jump at shadows. But why does the portrayal of the PM’s fruit-eating habits amount to substantive mockery? Bremner’s talent is to impersonate politicians. But just as there is a difference between being a good actor and leading a rebellion, there is a crucial distinction between impressionism and satire. An impression is a mark made by a form of pressure; satire, by contrast, is the act of ridiculing a famous figure.
High quality satire, such as Peter Cook’s famous impersonation of Harold Macmillan, includes impressionism, but is not reducible to it. In 1992 Spitting Image mocked John Major’s consumption of garden peas. But Spitting Image was satirical because it intended to convert John Major into an object of ridicule (albeit to lessening success). It also portrayed home secretary Kenneth Baker as a slug, and John Major a grey-skinned robot controlled by Margaret Thatcher (a puppet for which Michael Heseltine reportedly made an offer).
But if all Rory Bremner can say, given his magnificent talents, is that press secretary Alastair Campbell pulls the strings, then he is only reflecting what most MPs already think – as McCrum indicates. ‘Talk to Bremner for more than a few minutes and you find his outrage at the shamelessness of the Government breaking through. “Can you believe it?” he says. “They are actually taxing more and spending less than the last Conservative Government”.’
Unfortunately, McCrum doesn’t realise that such a criticism is one of Bremner’s weaker moments. Seemingly unaware of the profound ambiguity, McCrum quotes Martin O’Neill, Labour MP for Ochil and chairman of the Department for Trade and Industry select committee:
‘I watched it last week. It’s good fun and, like all satire, it makes us feel uncomfortable. He wouldn’t be doing his job if he did not cause us to feel as much annoyance as he did the previous Tory administration. In the Blair-Campbell exchanges he has got the body language of both down to a tee – you almost don’t need any dialogue. It is well observed, good fun, and not really driven by any malicious intent. It does its job, and pricks all the right bubbles.’
But if the dialogue is secondary, you might ask, what is Bremner’s target? And in the absence of a target of ridicule, how is Bremner satirical?
Will Hutton, former editor of the Observer and now chief executive of the Industrial Society, who has briefed Bremner on economics, says: ‘It’s Rory who calls the shots. It was Rory who first saw through New Labour. What’s impressive about him is that he takes no prisoners. He’s nobody’s ally.’
‘People have got a sense of humour’, says Charlie Whelan, former adviser to Chancellor Gordon Brown. ‘We used to get Rory a seat in the Commons so he could watch MPs at work. Gordon Brown was quite happy about [the show]. He does have a sense of humour.’
In another time and place, if a bank manager was ‘happy’ with a piece of comedy, it might set alarm bells ringing. What McCrum would need to explain is how government-approved humour could qualify as ‘satire’. Seemingly aware of this peculiarity, Bremner says:
‘We’re working in a popular medium and producing entertainment. Satire depends on a finely developed sense of irony. If we did a television version of A Modest Proposal we’d have watchdog organisations all over us. Look, I’ve just filmed a sketch of Des Lynam interviewing Sven Göran Eriksson in the sauna. It’s not exactly Swift.’
Indeed, Bremner is not Swift, and irony is not the constitutive feature of satire. The great satirists of the past did not worry about official watchdogs, and had greater targets in their sights than sports personalities.
It’s not just Bremner. Ali G might be said to have criticised the absurdity of government policy regarding the consumption of cannabis. But this was a mild and fleeting criticism, also voiced in private by most Labour MPs, and everybody from Richard Madeley to Prince William has impersonated Ali G. Although it is an hilarious yet unpleasant image, it would not be surprising if future King William V were to knight Ali G.
Meanwhile, Have I Got News for You fails to make satirical headway. Ian Hislop spends more time insulting the audience than politicians, while Angus Deayton can be found in cahoots with international development secretary Clare Short, attempting to stabilise prices with her ‘fair-trade fortnight’. Again, the satirical elements are negligible, and the show is only saved by the surrealism of Paul Merton. If there were no Merton, the ratings would decline to the level of The 11 O’Clock Show.
Even more bizarre is Mark Lawson’s claim in the Guardian that ‘The Cappuccino Years is quietly subversive’ (1). But the subterranean Adrian Mole is hardly a towering comedic figure of the satirical genre, as were, for example, the creations of Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, or Blackadder. The ‘subversive’ character of Adrian Mole is so quiet that Lawson has to invent it.
So why can’t contemporary comedy cut it as satire? It seems to me that today’s clearly talented acts are still mourning the loss of Peter Cook. In terms of satire, Cook was a professor of innovation whose Beyond the Fringe, coauthored with second fiddle Dudley Moore, led directly to Private Eye (with Cook as the Eye’s major shareholder, aka Lord Gnome, and inspired everything from Monty Python to Fawlty Towers.
After an initially tepid response, Beyond the Fringe became a huge hit, transferring from Edinburgh to London in 1961, and to New York in 1962. It ran, with various cast changes, until 1964, and led to Cook, along with Miller and Moore, recording an album with two of Peter’s heroes, Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers, called Bridge On The River Wye.
While in the 1980s Harry Secombe turned to Christian evangelism, and John Cleese to sanctimonious anti-smoking crusades, Peter Cook was influential in the establishment of another comic masterpiece Blackadder. Shortly after the death of Cook in 1995, comedian Stephen Fry remarked, ‘For generations before us and after us, Peter Cook was comedy. He was the idea of it. Monty Python was the practice of it, the embodiment of the sketch, of silliness, of verbal and visual brilliance, but Peter Cook was the essence’.
Cook was a risk-taker who redefined comedy. As Madeleine Page notes, ‘Because his take on the world was a deeply sceptical one, his humour had an edge. He never, for one moment, suffered fools at all, let alone gladly. He early on decided he wasn’t going to wait for the meek to inherit the earth. At his best he took nobody’s word on anything at all. An inspirationally snarly man he was’.
Peter Cook’s black humour altered and greatly improved the character of satire. Black humour criticises behaviour and offers no hope for reform – which, given that you cannot expect comedy to offer solutions to social problems, makes black humour the highest form of satire to date. It is this form of humour that has been in decline since the end of Spitting Image.
When Rory Bremner began his TV life in 1993, he was clearly the most gifted impressionist in the business. Spitting Image had run out of steam and lost its way. Bremner’s mission statement from Channel 4 was to mix ‘alternative’ comedy with ‘variety’. Unfortunately the Bremner project is almost a reversion to the bittersweet Sir Noel Coward. As in the first Blackadder series, the ghost of Cook is sarcastically livid.
But maybe there’s still some hope for black humour. A new netpaper The Brains Trust has risen from the ashes with a spirit that should inspire the development of new forms of satire. From Arthur Scargill leading the Countryside Alliance the way of the miners, to the UN declaring the USA a ‘rogue state’ and the subsequent self-annihilation of a Nintendo-obsessed George Bush, the consumption of internet designer-babies, the dead-and-alive ‘Failtrack’ route planner, The Brains Trust is emerging as the best satirical magazine on the web (3).
Initiated by a clearly intelligent but anonymous team of mavericks, The Brains Trust is breathing life into an otherwise degenerate satirical genre. Launched in February 2001 and published fortnightly, the valiant band aims to ‘provide, minister, undermine and tease the corrupt, the powerful, the smug and anyone who gets up our noses’. As a disclaimer, the editors state that no animals were harmed in production.
That’s all right then.
Political satire: don’t make me laugh, by Ed Barrett
Stewart Lee on satire, by Brendan O’Neill
(1) R McCrum ‘The real leader of the opposition’, Observer, 1 April 2001
(2) M Lawson ‘Adrian Mole returns to the screen’, Guardian, 29 January, 2001
(3) The Brains Trust website
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