Political satire? Don’t make me laugh

Satire may have become the new opposition - but only in the sense that sneering and mocking have replaced politics.

Ed Barrett

Topics Politics

The approach of the general election has sparked a debate about the state of satire. Like everything else surrounding this less-than-momentous event, the debate has not exactly been heated.

One point of view holds that satire has replaced political opposition (one newspaper article recently described Rory Bremner as ‘the real leader of the opposition’). Another view considers that satire is dead. In fact, I would say that both views are right, but not for the reasons that are usually put forward.

It is true that satire has replaced the political opposition, in the sense that there is no serious political opposition. On the one hand there is William Hague, who resembles a teenager impersonating Winston Churchill after drinking 14 pints of bitter. (The teenager having drunk the beer, not Churchill, who could have drunk 14 bottles of vintage wine and a dozen brandies without any noticeable effect.)

On the other hand, there are the anarchists and the detritus of the old ‘extreme left’, who, in the case of the Socialist Workers Party, made satire unnecessary by attending the London May Day protest brandishing placards saying ‘F**K CAPITALISM!’, (It is hard to decide which is worse: the degeneration of their politics to this puerile level, or the fact that they censor their own placards, being too timid to print the word ‘fuck’ at a time when even broadsheet newspapers use it every day.)

TV satire also does seem more ‘political’ than it used to be. Rory Bremner’s show is full of politics, whereas once it was just a Mike Yarwood-style round-up of famous faces. What used to be Mark Thomas’ Comedy Product is full of politics too, but its main aim isn’t to be funny (a fact born out by the show eventually dropping the word ‘comedy’ from its title). Instead, the Mark Thomas Product is a rant from the sidelines.

Thomas’ leftist political tradition is dead, so he has moved into entertainment, where he can express his views as an individual rather than as part of a movement. His contemporaries, Jeremy Hardy and Mark Steel, have taken a similar route, with satirical comedy and polemical newspaper columns. They have been less successful than Thomas. Hardy has just followed Steel on his career path out of the Guardian comment pages. His most recent foray into TV was an execrable ‘satire’ on Red Ken and the London mayoral elections, co-hosted with Linda Smith, a comedienne who almost makes Hardy seem funny by comparison. Almost.

So satire may have become the new opposition, but only in the sense that sneering and mocking have replaced politics. Where does that leave the argument that ‘satire is dead’? Well, political satire is surely dead, because its lifeblood is politics. If politics is dead, satire must be too. It is interesting to note that Chris Morris, by far the most effective satirist of recent years, only dealt with politics indirectly, as an area of life bent and shaped by his real target – the media.

Another problem with today’s political satire is that it doesn’t hit the target – because it is unsure what its target is. To be truly satirical, satire must itself be true. It must choose its targets carefully, and accurately expose what they really represent. It is not good enough to simply create a fantasy world, as Rory Bremner did with his special edition about Tony Blair. Blair is vain and prickly, but he is not by any stretch of the imagination the Messianic figure that Bremner would have us believe. If you don’t nail somebody with total accuracy, then you might as well miss by a million miles, which is what Bremner did.

True satire also needs to have some kind of genuine conviction. It need not be radical – indeed, historically, it has often been highly reactionary. Nor does it need to have a fully formed political alternative to offer: exposure of hypocrisy and humbug can be enough to make a point. But it does need some passion. Mark Thomas has the anger, but it is the frustrated anger of one who knows he is powerless and can do little more than nitpick.

Yet while today’s political satire is dead, the political satire of the recent past has enjoyed an inflated reputation that it doesn’t deserve. Bremner is part of a TV tradition that goes back to That Was The Week That Was (TW3). In 1962, that supposedly iconoclastic show came as a big shock, because TV, like society in general, was very deferential, and it was almost unheard of to be disrespectful towards the monarchy, the church, or even the prime minister.

But the men who wrote and performed the show were completely apolitical, and were largely the product of the very establishment they mocked. During this ‘golden age of satire’ Tory prime minister Harold Macmillan sat in the front row of one of the Oxbridge satirical revues and chuckled away as they lampooned him. Two decades later, politicians bought their own Spitting Image puppets, for the same reason that they cover their walls with framed newspaper cartoons of themselves – it flatters their sense of self-importance. To be lampooned, or even ridiculed, is better than being ignored.

Although TW3 and Spitting Image were produced by non-aligned non-radical Oxbridge/public school types, there is a deeply entrenched myth that both shows had an impact on politics and politicians. It is often claimed that TW3 ‘brought down the Tory government’ by ridiculing it mercilessly week after week. It is true that the show helped to crystallise a section of middle-class opinion that regarded the Tories as exhausted and old-fashioned. But that was a case of the show catching a public mood and helping to shape it.

When Spitting Image ridiculed Thatcher and her ministers in the 1980s (albeit in a rather childish way), it didn’t do Thatcher much harm, and it certainly didn’t do the Labour Party any good.

For the same reason, Bremner and Thomas will have zero effect on Labour’s imminent victory. Bremner is not the leader of the opposition, because there is no opposition. He and his sidekicks Fortune and Bird are simply a substitute. No doubt a prime minister as vain as Tony Blair finds it irritating to be mocked, but if that is the worst he has to put up with, he’ll live with it. And Bremner and Thomas, like the Tories, will have to remain in ineffectual opposition.

Read on:

Spit back in anger, by Dolan Cummings

Bremner, Cook and the politicians’ fortune, by Barry Curtis

Me and my vote: Pub Landlord and Stewart Lee, by Brendan O’Neill

spiked-issue: TV

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Topics Politics


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