Don’t leave satire to the satirists

The old school of political comedy shares too many of the new elite’s pretensions to be able to make fun of them.

David Bowden

Topics Culture

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Were the satirical targets of the Noughties the uneducated working class? In an article for BBC online this week, John O’Farrell, a leading scriptwriter for the Eighties British satirical puppet show Spitting Image, claimed they were.

From a brief overview of the comedy stars of the past decade, it would seem O’Farrell has a point. For instance, Little Britain’s Vicki Pollard and Catherine Tate’s Lauren the Schoolgirl both became popular bywords for thick, council-estate slags, whilst politicians like current London mayor Boris Johnson used appearances on the satirical panel show Have I Got News For You to kickstart, rather than ruin, their careers. While Tony Blair took the country to war, O’Farrell charges, the British public were busy laughing at the poor.

On the satire point, however, the former Labour activist O’Farrell (who admits that he’s written jokes for politicians as well as against them) is perhaps misplaced. As entertaining a puppet show as Spitting Image was, it was hardly the establishment-baiting Swiftian critique it has been elevated to.

Spitting Image was satire reinvented as sneer, taking a pop at politicians and public figures, not for their ideologies or policies, but for how they looked and sounded. The show was the voice of the indignant liberal-left, which hated Thatcher not because they supported the miners or the Argentine claim to the Falklands, but because she was personally ghastly. The show was funny, certainly, but it also marked a crucial turning point, where political satire became comedy featuring politicians and their personalities (rather than their politics) as the stars. That John Major and Edwina Currie apparently used to take breaks from their trysts to watch their puppet selves engaged in an outlandishly-imagined affair tells you that this was not exactly hard-hitting stuff.

O’Farrell’s claim that Blair somehow got away scot free from the satirical bite of left-wing satirists is a revealing bit of amnesia. As we all know, the invasions of Iraq and the slow realisation that New Labour was not Old Labour hit those cosy media liberals (who had cheered him on) hardest of all. Rory Bremner – who cut his teeth on Spitting Image – was so incensed he stopped telling jokes altogether in favour of preaching about the evils of ‘Bliar’ and Bush. O’Farrell seems to have forgotten that the defining image of Blair was a grotesque, grinning latex mask – which could’ve come straight out of his own show.

Where Sixties satirists such as Peter Cook made their impact by pricking the pomposity of a British establishment still clinging to the pretensions of a fading empire, in the Noughties satire became pure imitation. Ideologically-vacuous personality politicians were being aped by comics whose critique lacked real political substance beyond the petty griping that elected representatives were all insincere corrupt bastards and the people were idiots for voting them in. That Blair was painted as a poodle to the evil empire of the US increasingly came across as the wounded imperialist pride of modern satirists.

Make no mistake: Britain’s broadcasters love chavs. The BBC even has a whole digital channel – BBC3 – dedicated to engaging with them. The channel is home to such delights such as Peckham Finishing School for Girls (posh girls live the authentic lifestyles of chavs), Big Meets Bigger (fat chavs meet fat hicks) and formerly Lily Allen and Friends (fake chav ineptly presents chat show with chav celebrities talking about chav stuff). These shows aren’t sneers: they’re utterly sincere in wanting to appeal to the lowest common denominator, but only in the hope they can educate the working class out of its miserable and feckless lifestyle. But then most BBC3 shows turn out to be flops, which rather implies that the BBC has to do more than dress up in chav clothes to engage with the Great Unwashed.

So it was with some trepidation that I sat down to watch new BBC3 comedy Lee Nelson’s Well Good Show, which features stand-up comic Simon Brodkin playing the eponymous chav alongside his fat, thick mate Omelette, plus sketches where Brodkin parodies rich, thick footballers, stupid foreign doctors and so on. But it’s actually, well, not bad. Lee Nelson began life as a stand-up character as opposed to a TV creation, and much of the show relies on Brodkin doing what stand-ups do: engaging with his audience rather than performing for them. A clown, who we laugh at, is a performer; but a good comedian relies on being the smartest one in the room. So there is a lot of playing on the assumptions of the (largely) middle-class student audience about Nelson’s workshy and ignorant opinions, before turning back on them for laughing along.

Lee Nelson belongs very much in the mould of Ali G: In his article, O’Farrell rather misses that the funniest part of that character was not sneering at thick chavs (because Ali G was a middle-class kid putting it on), but laughing at an elite who are so patronisingly obsessed with being down wiv da kids that they go along with his absurdities. Similarly, one of the other sketches in Lee Nelson takes off the ‘youth issues’-style studio discussion, where a trendy presenter talks in vacuous platitudes about politics, and the audience get clapped or booed for simply having their say. Another sees Nelson fire questions at audience members, based on government safety advice about taking unlicenced mini cabs, drink-and-drug consumption, etc (the ‘right’ answer is always the wrong one, if you catch my drift), while ‘Faliraki Nights’ takes a pop at the ‘chavs on holiday’ horror shows.

The feeling you’re left with is not that Brodkin is sneering at chavs, but taking off the kind of programmes that are usually aimed at them. You suspect BBC3 commissioned it because they thought it was the latter: certainly it has attracted negative reviews from the kind of critics who would rather TV would hug hoodies while it laughs at them. It may not be fantastically artful, or even brilliantly funny, but the subversive and knowing spirit of Brodkin – on the evidence of the first few programmes at least – suggests that if there is a satire boom to take apart society’s follies under the new government, then it’s better when left out of the hands of Britain’s satire elite.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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