Before 1979, much of British comedy (sit-coms and stand-up comedy) was disconnected from reality and isolated from history; it treated every person who wasn’t white, straight, male or English as objects of ridicule. The Oxbridge comedy was little better; produced in ivory towers, all it could do was gaze longingly at its own navel. In the years preceding the Sixties, political satire was often limited to the print media and, in the mainstream, there was little of that. There was Punch and later Private Eye but the less we say about Punch, the better.
In terms of television, That Was The Week That Was is often cited as the starting point of the British satire ‘boom’. But it wasn’t a boom at all, merely a controlled explosion that was carried out in a car park at BBC Television Centre. It may have thumbed its nose at the political establishment but it was pretty tame stuff compared to the alternative comedy-cabaret of the 1980’s. To get around censorship laws, TW3 was ostensibly a “news and current affairs” programme. Entertainment was seen as a diversion and as such it was supposed to be free of political content.
TW3 did not address social concerns, its primary objective was to lampoon the political establishment. Ironically, the people who did the lampooning were members of the same social class they lampooned. In other words, they fed off each other. David Frost, the son of a Methodist clergyman, used his suave image to launch a highly successful career as an interviewer and anchor. He didn’t do too badly either. TW3 attacked racism in the US cornpone states and South African apartheid but failed to tackle the endemic racism that existed in Britain. It was as if to say “We’re not racist because we’re British”. The class system was also lampooned, as this classic clip shows (up to 1.02),
Britain is a class-riven society and in spite of feeble attempts on the part of some political leaders to reconcile the classes; the upper classes – the dominant social and cultural classes – continue to have the whip hand. But if class is a massive fault line, then racism and sexism are the deep cracks that run from it. We are still a very long way away from a truly classless society and we certainly haven’t seen the end of racism and sexism as I pointed out in this blog.
Perhaps I’m being a little unfair to TW3. After all, it was a groundbreaking programme and it broke through the stuffy, oppressive paternalism of British political system – but only briefly. It also attracted audiences numbers of around 14 million at its peak. But, ultimately, it failed to ignite a satire movement and the heavy hand of the dominant class was once again applied to the writing and performance of satire on television. Those who remember TW3 with a certain dewy-eyed fondness will forget that the programme was produced by members of the same class as the politicians that were mocked.
When it came to live satire, there was only the Establishment Club, its light burned brightly but briefly but, most tellingly, nothing followed it. We also need to remember that theatre scripts and even comedian’s jokes had to be sent to the Lord Chamberlain’s Office for inspection. The Establishment Club could circumvent this diktat by virtue of the fact that it was, for all intents and purposes, a private members’ club. It was the exception rather than the norm. This crushing weight of cultural hegemony had been around since the 18th century, when the paranoid political leaders of England responded to what they saw as the threat of a Jacobite cultural insurgency in the theatres and inns of the country and replied by drafting legislation to outlaw the singing of Jacobite songs and the staging of pro-Jacobite plays. Furthermore, the Prime Minister of the day, Robert Walpole was mercilessly lampooned by satirists like John Gay, who compared him to a leader of the criminal underclass in Beggar’s Opera. Walpole, unable to take a joke, responded with the Theatre Licensing Act of 1737. The steps that Walpole’s government took to curb dissent in the theatre had a lasting effect on British culture. No talk of religion or politics was permitted in the inns. Indeed, some pubs still proudly display signs at the bar which read “No politics or religion”. But this isn’t to say that there was no satire at all: it continued to exist in print but it was never far from danger as the Oz Trial and countless other cases brought to trial under the absurd Obscene Publications Act (1957) tell us.
The Obscene Publications Act and the Theatre Licensing Act were only two of the weapons used by the state and it agents in the fight against ‘smut’ (a rather wide-ranging term that is/was often loosely applied). Libel laws have also been used to great effect. Private Eye has felt the wrath of many a litigant and its coffers are deep – they have to be. Certain organizations and groups like The Freedom Association and individual Tories believe that any criticism of them or their ideas or their idols – whether they are expressed satirically or not – should be met with the threat of taking the offender to court. This makes a mockery the overused phrase of “free speech”, which is routinely trotted out by the likes of TFA and the cult-like Institute of Ideas like some kind of mantra. But it’s a myth and deep down all of us know it is.
After the theatres were freed from the dominance of the state in 1968, few attempts were made to put satire on the television or in any live context for that matter. It was only fringe theatre groups like CAST that made any real effort to tackle social issues, which they did through a blend of popular culture, slogans and biting satire. CAST had been around since 1965 and were improvisers by trade and while the rest of the political fringe theatre movement were obsessed with Piscator and Meyerhold and notions of ideological purity, CAST stood alone by making their work accessible to the masses.
Throughout the Seventies, few attempts, if any, were made to produce real hard biting satire for television. Instead, on the one hand, we were treated to a near endless parade of sexist and racist jokes told by fat Northern comedians who tried to cover up their bigotry by using the “It’s a joke” defence. On the other hand, we had the absurd whimsy of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the memories of which appear to be entirely formed around a handful of decent sketches. Then there was Mike Yarwood, whose impressions of political figures and union leaders was tame, even toothless.
Here’s Yarwood doing an impression of Harold Wilson for the 1974 Election Special
But there was no satire of any note contained within Yarwood’s work. This was not real life and it was a couple of parsecs away from my own lived experience. At least we had Dave Allen and he was the only satirist on prime time television.
The appearance of what would later be coined “alternative comedy” was greeted with brickbats and insults from the comedy establishment. The bow-tied, besuited fatsos of The Comedians claimed that it “wasn’t funny” and all that the young comedians could do to get laughs was to “use bad language”. Bernard Manning, the leader of this pack of old farts, was never averse to using salty language. In fact, in his own Embassy Club he frequently swore. In what the Daily Mail presented as a self-penned obituary from beyond the grave, Manning said,
In their obsession with turning comedy into a branch of Left-wing politics, they forgot that the only point of jokes is to make people laugh.
Manning ignored one thing: alternative comedians made their audiences laugh and those audiences didn’t find Manning in the least bit amusing.
The 1970’s were characterized by social strife and yet none of the comedians of the period made any real references to it, unless it was to ridicule the leaders of the trade unions and striking workers. No effort was made to puncture the façade of harmony and unity, under which lay the ugly realities of urban decay, ethnic tensions and industrial collapse. This was an age when the police could do what they wanted.
This sketch from Not the Nine O’Clock News was the first attempt to satirize the police, who had used Sus laws to detain black people on the basis that the colour of their skin made them criminals-in-waiting.
The popular image of the police in the 1970’s was derived from the mythology of Dixon of Dock Green. Television’s treatment of the boys in blue was deferential to say the least.
Here’s Dixon of Dock Green, your friendly neighbourhood bobby who never put a foot wrong.
This image of the police was worlds away from the day-to-day reality for many people. The police routinely fitted people up, fabricated evidence and assaulted, even killed people who were in their custody. They still do it. Ask the families of Blair Peach, Ian Tomlinson and Smiley Culture what they think of the police and they’ll tell you that they get away with murder.
Not the Nine O’Clock News wasn’t alternative comedy but it was a sign that things were, at last, beginning to change. But, on television, this change moved at glacial speed. On the emerging alternative cabaret circuit, there was no aversion to talking about society and politics on stage. In fact, performers were expected to engage with the here and now.
Meanwhile certain Tory MPs had CAST and others in their sights. The MP for Glasgow Cathcart and Monday Clubber, the god-bothering Teddy Taylor, demanded to know why left-wing theatre companies, particularly CAST, were being given public money for ‘political causes‘. This point of view was supported by Norman Tebbitt, who had railed against the Arts Council since taking his seat in the Commons in 1970, calling it “biased” and “elitist”. The Conservative intention then as now was to impose a sort of monoculture on the country; a form of leitkultur as Shreiking Douglas Murray would say. The hegemony must be total.
While alternative acts were ridiculing the political classes on stage, Spitting Image took satire to new levels on the small screen. Its satirical writing was reinforced by its use of grotesque puppet likenesses of the famous people it sent up. Thatcher always appeared as a tyrannical cross-dresser, who bullied her cabinet. Norman Tebbit was depicted as a leather jacket-wearing bovver boy who would rough up anyone who stepped out of line. While Douglas Hurd’s hair resembled, rather memorably, a Mr Whippy ice cream cornet.
While I’m at it, this parody of Tomorrow Belongs to Me from the film Cabaret is particularly savage. This was the closing scene from the 1987 Spitting Image Election Special.
TW3 was denied an election special on the grounds that it would adversely influence voters. It is likely that the McMillan government put pressure on the BBC. Spitting Image got its election specials but they weren’t shown on the same night as the General Election, which meant that the government was still very much afraid of satire and how it might affect their poll numbers.
By 1990, Spitting Image had been effectively defanged and declawed. The reasons given for this change varied from Thatcher’s resignation to the oft-used ‘change in tastes’ mantra. The image of a grey John Major, with a satellite dish on his head, eating peas seemed to sum up the satirical mood. Spitting Image’s fire became focussed on the emerging culture of celebrity, it dragged on for a few more years but it was hopeless. In 1996, it was axed. The expense of producing such a show was highlighted as a causal factor in its demise. Latex puppets are rather costly to make so it seems.
There was a gap between 1996 and 1999, when Bremner, Bird and Fortune began its run of 85 shows on Channel Four. But this programme seemed to hark back to TW3 for its rather highbrow approach to the material (Bird and Fortune were involved in the Sixties satire ‘boom’). The satire also relied rather heavily on the viewers’ a priori of the intricacies of the British political system, and for those without a working knowledge of Hansard or a familiarity with politicians (who seem to have deliberately made themselves bland to thwart the satirist-impressionists), it was often little more than a collection of obscure political in-jokes. Bremner, Bird and Fortune left our screens in May 2010, which was, by coincidence, the month of the last General Election. Rory Bremner cited the blandness of the current crop of politicians that influenced their decision to pull the plug on the show but there were other reasons.
Here’s a clip from the programme,
Please try to ignore the foreign subtitles.
These days, political satire is in the shadows. I can count the numbers of satirists on the comedy circuit on one hand (well, maybe one and a bit). There is also an eerie absence of satire on television. It seems as though we have entered a new period of deference and this is what right-wing governments want. In Mussolini’s Italy, satirists were attacked on the streets, even killed (Mascha, 1998). We clearly haven’t reached that point yet.
Satire is counter-hegemonic; it works passively to draw people’s attention to social injustice and political hypocrisy and makes them laugh out loud at the same time. The fact that certain political parties are afraid of it shows a weakness of character on their part.
Britain is crying out for satire and now is the time for satirists to sharpen their wits and plunge their comedic knives into the hearts of the enemies!
Gramsci, A., (ed.) (1971) Selections From The Prison Notebooks, London: Lawrence & Wishart.
Itzin, C. (1986). Stages in the Revolution: Political Theatre in Britain Since 1968. London: Methuen
Mascha, E. (1998) “Political Satire and Hegemony: A Case for Passive Revolution During Mussolini’s Ascendance To Power, 1919 to 1925” in Humor, The Journal of The International Society For Humor Studies.