Is satire really dead?

Chris Hallam thinks not...

Bad news everyone. British satire is dead. Or at least sleeping. For this is 2010, after all. There is a new Tory Government in power and a Labour leadership contest in full flow. The same circumstances existed in both 1963 and 1979, eras which produced That Was The Week That Was and Not The Nine O Clock News. It’s hard to think of a political set-up more precipitous for humour. So why are we not enjoying a new golden age of British political comedy?

At least, this is what some are claiming. Writing on this site recently, Toby Martin highlighted Britain’s failure to produce an equivalent to Jon Stewart’s Daily Show as a troubling indicator of our recent political comedy recession. Contrasting Stewart’s show with the relative timidity of Britain’s closest alternatives – essentially Have I Got News For You and Russell Howard’s Good News – he points to evidence that more viewers get their news from The Daily Show than from the main US news channels as a sign of its success.

There are a few things wrong with this argument. For one thing, great though The Daily Show is, the fact that many Americans are using it as their main source of news is not actually a good thing in itself. If anything, it is a damning indictment of the failure of the US news media.

More significantly, there’s a hell of a lot more good political comedy going on in Britain than Martin suggests. What about The Thick Of It, for example? Rightly hailed as a profane 21st Century version of Yes, Minister, Armando Iannucci’s comedy has provided a savage commentary on the way media-obsessed New Labour operated ever since it first aired in 2005.

Peter Capaldi’s depiction of the monstrous Malcolm Tucker has won the most plaudits, but with an alternative cast of Tories led by Roger Allam’s Paul Mannion MP already introduced, there’s no reason why the series shouldn’t continue long into the Cameron era (assuming this era itself endures). It is already one of the few Britcoms to successfully translate to the big screen, and an American version is also on its way.

Looking beyond TV, the picture looks healthier still with Radio 4’s The Now Show still producing a good dose of satirical firepower throughout the election campaign. On the big screen, Chris Morris’s Four Lions brilliantly satirised the theoretically taboo subject of Islamic suicide bombers earlier this year. The stand-up circuit is hardly apolitical either. True, not every comedian is as overtly opinionated, as say, Mark Thomas. But chances are if you’ve seen any stand-ups in the past six months, there will have been at least some political content in their act. Even the likes of Bill Bailey have grown more politicised in the last five years.

For all that, I do share some of Toby Martin’s concerns. The Thick Of It aside, TV satire is showing signs of timidity. Bremner, Bird and Fortune seems to be slipping into irrelevance after a long run on Channel 4. On the Beeb, favourites like Have I Got News For You and Mock The Week tend to sidestep confronting political issues head on. While live performances by Andy Parsons and Russell Howard are frequently politically charged, on TV they’re generally more restrained.

Have I Got News For You seems to be increasingly dominated by Ian Hislop’s increasingly blatant Toryism as it approaches its twentieth anniversary. Perhaps fearful of violating the BBC guidelines on balance, the show dodged election coverage completely during the recent campaign.

It’s a shame with so many overtly political performers out there – Chris Addison and David Mitchell spring to mind – that TV can’t be a bit bolder. Perhaps part of the problem has been that the political set up in recent years has hardly been in ideal for lampoonery.

Whereas in the Eighties it was a simple case of the Evil Tories versus Silly Labour after 1997, the rules were less clear. A right-wing Labour Government was ever going to provide the satirical bull’s eye that a straight Tory one would have. As John O’Farrell noted recently, this led many comics to mock the underclass instead.

So, yes, TV political landscape should perhaps be bolder. But elsewhere the satirical landscape in Britain is not as bleak as some have claimed.

Published: 5 Jul 2010

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