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Last Updated: Friday, 4 May 2007, 15:55 GMT 16:55 UK
Blair v satirists
By Hugh Levinson
BBC Radio 4


For 10 years, Tony Blair has had to endure the slings and arrows of outrageous barbs from comedians, impressionists and sketch-writers. But who's had the last laugh - the prime minister or the satirists?

He was Bambi. He was Teflon Tony. He was the future of politics. And he was a nightmare - for professional satirists at least. When Tony Blair first strode into the spotlight, there seemed to be few points of weakness. How could they mock the creator of New Labour?

Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell thought he had one answer when he saw him at the Labour Conference in 1994.

"I spotted this weird flash in his eye," Bell says. "I just did him morphing into Thatcher, because of course where had I seen that gleam before? She had exactly the same manic flashing gleam."

Just a quirk? Or was there more there? Bell says it was the contrast between one staring, angry eye with the other twinkling, benign eye that gave him a clue as to the Labour leader's character.

Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye, was also in a quandary. When Tony Blair became prime minister in 1997, Hislop picked up on two aspects of his character: his mildly rebellious youth and his preachiness. Hislop decided to hedge his bets - running two columns at once.

The first was Blairzone, a fanzine for a failed rock hero from the 1970s. "Tony Lixe: Babes. Flares. An independent Bank of England" ran a typical entry.

Speaking before stained glass
The vicar of Downing St
The other was St Albion's Parish News, which turned the PM into a rather over-eager, happy-clappy vicar, with sermons like: "This week's text: Blessed are the peacemakers - but only so long as they are backed up by a realistic use of force."

To his surprise, it was Blair the vicar that was funnier than Blair the rock god. And the fantasy parish of St Albion's became increasingly baroque.

"You've presumably got someone who does the parish accounts," Hislop says. "Enter dour Scotsman who's adding up the pennies from the plate. Then you've got the working man's club with Prescott. Then there was the Neighbourhood Watch, which inevitably attracts a group of very, very assiduous thuggy individuals. And all the jokes started to flow from that."

Lance Price, former deputy director of communications at Number 10 Downing Street, says St Albion's could hit home.

He recalls when Tony Blair launched the 2001 election campaign at a church school. "There was the prime minister with the stained glass window behind him and these serried ranks of girls in uniforms and boys as well and I just thought 'oh my god, the satirists are going to love this'." And they did.

Nailing Blair

Rory Bremner got Blair's voice - the sibilants and the occasional lapse into Estuary English - quite quickly. But finding a way to satirise his politics was a tougher proposition.

Rory Bremner
The real moment came when we realised that the real heart of this government was the Blair-Campbell relationship
Rory Bremner
"As soon as you got a handle on some area it would just vaporise and disappear and they'd be off somewhere else," he says. "And for us I suppose the real moment came when we realised that the real heart of this government was the Blair-Campbell relationship in Downing Street."

He filmed sketches as if by CCTV, with Andy Dunn as an overbearing spin-doctor. The Alastair Campbell figure would tell Blair what to say, how to say it and even what lager to drink.

Price says the format was uncannily accurate. "It was so close to the kind of discussions that we had seen with our own eyes go on in that very room, that we were convinced that somebody who'd also been around must have been briefing Rory Bremner or his scriptwriters on exactly what it was like, blow for blow."

Bremner denies there was a mole. But he admits he had a lucky break after one sketch where he happened to eat a banana. A Blair insider confronted Bremner at a party and asked how he knew that the prime minister liked to eat fruit. Pure chance as it happens, but after that, Bremner always had a bowl of fruit on set.

Should I stay?

Meanwhile, new forms of satire were emerging. As technology became cheaper, more people could produce satire at home, chopping up audio and video and posting the results on the web.

Mark Thomas with blue plaque reading 'Tony Blair '97-'07 Prime Minister and War Criminal Live Here'
Mark Thomas makes his point
One New York music producer who goes by the alias of Rx had a go at the question of when Blair will step down. He spent two weeks slicing up Blair speeches to create a film of the PM covering the Clash's Should I Stay or Should I Go? - complete with guitar solo (see Internet links on the right).

Other satirists were mixing up fact and fiction - creating TV and stage dramas out of real characters. John Prescott, David Blunkett and Tony Blair himself all got the treatment.

And as New Labour became less popular, the satire became harder-edged and increasingly critical.

"In the early days we were doing jokes about how he's susceptible to spin, he doesn't know what he thinks. Nowadays he does know what he thinks and that's much more frightening," says Hislop. "So over the years our version of his comic voice has gone from bright-eyed and enthusiastic to sort of bitter and mad."

Blair v satirists

Some think it's all gone too far. Steve Richards, a political commentator with The Independent says satirists have now become reflexively cynical and are more powerful than the politicians they mock.

John Culshaw as Tony Blair
Dead Ringers' take on the PM
"I think in the late 50s and early 60s, satirists were bravely challenging orthodoxies, that in the media politicians were treated very deferentially," he says. "Now we've gone to the other extreme where in the media politicians are treated with disdain and are viewed with disdain by the public. And in come the satirists to weekly reinforce all those orthodox prejudices."

The satirists, however, vehemently reject the charge of cynicism. John Morrison cast the prime minister as a school prefect in the comic novel Anthony Blair, Captain of School. "You cannot do satire unless you really believe in things," he argues. "If you want to satirise Blair's approach to democracy and human rights, you've got to believe in democracy and human rights."

So, have satirists succeeded? Perhaps surprisingly, they don't seem to think so. Bill Dare, the producer of the BBC's Dead Ringers, believes that his team hasn't "nailed" Blair in the same simple and stark way as Margaret Thatcher or John Major.

And Rory Bremner agrees. "I still don't feel that we've satisfactorily satirised Blair. Because there's a seriousness about him. He's not inherently comic."

And the final score? A 2-1 win to the man in Downing Street perhaps.

Taking the Mick out of Tony is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday 5 May at 1030 BST. It is available online for seven days at Radio 4's Listen again page.


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