Where's the satire?
Political comedy thrives under the Tories... except this time, says Chris Hallam
It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that political satire only tends to truly thrive under Tory Governments.
This has been true ever since the birth of the first modern satire boom of the early Sixties. Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Beyond the Fringe, Private Eye and That Was The Week That Was all prospered during the dying days of the Tory regime of Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas Home.
Likewise, although rarely overtly political, Monty Pythonís Flying Circus (1969-74) enjoyed its true heyday under the government of Ted Heath (1970-1974). Then came Thatcher and Major. Margaret Thatcherís election in May 1979 coincided almost exactly with the birth of alternative comedy. But it wasnít just that. Not The Nine O'Clock News, Spitting Image, Have I Got News For You, Bremner, Bird and Fortune, IfÖ, Dear Bill, The New Statesman, The Friday Night Armistice and Drop the Dead Donkey undeniably got a boost from there being a Tory Government in power.
Why should this be the case? Partly, itís because true satire rails against the Establishment and the Tories embody the Establishment better than Labour ever can.
Itís also because, in general, right-wing people tend not to be very funny. Lady Thatcher, despite inspiring great satire herself, famously had virtually no sense of humour. Boris Johnsonís buffoonery amuses but he rarely says or writes anything which is deliberately funny. Jeremy Clarkson, meanwhile, is quickly out of his depth in the world of politics (as opposed to motoring) and rarely gets beyond saying anything shocking or childish when he venture into the political arena.
The myth that the politically correct Left lack a sense of humour is ill-founded. Itís actually hard to think of anyone funny who isnít on the Left. Ask anyone for a list of funny right wingers, meanwhile, and most likely their list will solely consist of the obscure, the racist or the dead.
After the 2010 General Election something clearly went wrong, however. We now have a Tory Prime Minister again. So why are we not enjoying a new satire boom?
Part of the problem might be that because New Labour were arguably almost as conservative as the Tories, satire never really went away under Blair and Brown. The Thick of It owes its origin to these times and in fairness, is still great. But Have I Got News For You and Mock The Week are clearly past their best and 10 OíClock Live has never really got off the ground.
I blame the politicians. Whereas in the Eighties, politics was filled with colourful characters ranging from the Bennite ultra-Left to the uncaring Thatcherite Right, the Blairisation of British politics has been fatal to satire.
Blair was the most successful politician of recent times: little wonder everyone wants to be like him, elect a party leader like him and fight for the centre ground like him. Cameron, Miliband and Clegg are all essentially Blair wannabes: posh, PR friendly men in suits. Miliband would never wear a donkey jacket, Cameron would never drive in a tank. From a comedic point of view, this is bad news.
The Coalition confuses things further. Try as we might to pretend Cameronís lot are the new Thatcherites, this is only partly true. They are occasionally uncaring, more often incompetent, sometimes liberal and, yes, sometimes actually Liberal as in Democrat.
The global scene doesnít help. The idiotic George W Bush was satirical gold, just as President Reagan had been two decades before. But Barack Obama, an intelligent, moderate, slightly disappointing but well-meaning president is hardly the stuff great satires are made of as the failure of O: A Presidential Novel demonstrates. In this respect alone, perhaps Mitt Romney would be better.
British politics seems to lack the colour of the past too. But perhaps I am wrong to blame the political set-up. Take the former Tory Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd. He is a decent man, yes. An exciting man? No. Trust me: I have seen him speak. And yet in the hands of Spitting Image, voiced by Harry Enfield, with his hairstyle strangely coiled, his puppet was frequently hilarious.
There is surely enough material in the current political class: Michael Gove, Boris Johnsonís eternal rivalry with David Cameron, Ed Balls, the never-ending evil that is Rupert Murdoch Ė to inspire great satire? Perhaps itís simply a case of 'could do better, must try harder'.
- Chris Hallam blogs here
Posted: 24 Oct 2012