Page last updated at 11:42 GMT, Wednesday, 30 June 2010 12:42 UK

Coming soon - a satire boom?

Boris Johnson, Harry Enfield as Rev Tony Blair, Ali G and Vicky Pollard

New Labour didn't escape mockery, yet the most biting satire of the past 10 years was aimed not at politicians, but at the uneducated working class, says John O'Farrell. So, does the Clegg-Cameron coalition spell a reawakening of political comedy?

It seems to be one of the unwritten laws of the British constitution that a Tory government will endure more satirical scorn than a Labour one. The dying days of the 1960s Tory government prompted a satire boom that spawned Beyond the Fringe, That Was The Week That Was and Private Eye.

The arrival of Margaret Thatcher was the cue for the rise of political cabaret, Not the Nine O'clock News and Spitting Image.

And now we have a Tory public schoolboy heading the government, with the Liberal leader delighted to secure the key official appointment of Dave's fag (for international readers, this is a British public school term you may want to investigate).

Will the combination of upper class leadership and economic hardships trigger another golden age of satire to rank alongside the centuries of irreverence currently being chronicled at the Tate Britain's Rude Britannia exhibition?

Mike Yarwood as Denis Healy
Satire in the 70s - Mike Yarwood tried his hand at Denis Healy

If the satirical flour bombs do start to fly, the current crop of Conservatives might be entitled to ask where was the Spitting Image of the Noughties? Why was there no defining caricature of Blair or Brown in the way that we remember the grey John Major or Peter Cook's Harold Macmillan?

During New Labour's extended honeymoon the absence of biting political satire was perhaps understandable. After the bitter divisions of the 1980s and the sleaze of the mid-1990s, politics post '97 seemed to be painted in gentler, pastel colours.

Harry Enfield starred in an ITV adaptation of Private Eye's caricature of Tony Blair - the Vicar of St Albion - but it had nothing like the impact or resonance of his famous creations Wayne and Waynetta Slob or Loadsamoney.

But even after the political watershed of the Iraq war, "Teflon Tony" and his cabinet managed to avoid a direct hit from the nation's best satirists.

The automatic assumption might be that comedy writers tend to be left-wing and thus pull their punches when it comes to Labour's turn in power.

But despite the fact that I, a one time Labour activist, have written jokes about and for the last two Labour prime ministers, I think it goes a little deeper than this.

Underclass laughs

Yes, most satirists that I have known are on the left. But they do not go soft with Labour governments because they like them. In fact I think it's the opposite; it is that they are so incandescent with rage at the sense of personal betrayal and disappointment that they lose the ability to be funny.

The Thick of It
The best satirists, such as the writers behind The Thick of It, looked beyond personality and caricature to illuminate the new corridors of power, wherever they may be

And so the same acerbic wit that applies a deft scalpel to Conservative politicians angrily lashes out at Labour ministers with a blunt cudgel, and audiences turn away un-amused.

In fact the satirical bulls-eyes of the 21st Century have landed on characters right at the other end of the social scale - the uneducated, working class and ignorant; Little Britain's Vicky Pollard, Catherine Tate's Lauren or Sacha Baron Cohen's Ali G.

While the Labour government was worthily talking about tackling poverty and education, we decided to laugh at the poor and uneducated.

Maybe it's that by the turn of the century there was nothing any longer shocking about criticising the British Establishment.

Jonathan Coe, whose novel What A Carve Up! is the definitive literary satire of the Thatcher years, thinks audiences want to hear something new.

"Perhaps contempt for politicians is so settled and ingrained that it almost seems pointless for writers to attack them," he says.

The landscape has been further complicated by the politicians themselves "joining the satiratti", getting onto the panel shows and into comedy sketches.

I speak admittedly without a shred of evidence, but it seems that Charles Kennedy would not have won the leadership of the Liberal Democrats and Boris Johnson would not have won the Conservative nomination for London Mayor had it not been for their repeat appearances on Have I Got News For You.

It was these politicians' ability to be entertaining and appealing to a wider audience that won them the votes of ordinary party members who had barely even heard of the other candidates.

Days of grey

It has all added to the uneasy sense that the satirists and politicians are part of one well-paid celebrity club. And as power has ebbed away from Westminster, the media has grown in influence and reach.

Blair and Catherine Tate
Satirists seized on the working classes, and politicians got in on the act

That is the reason that the apparatchiks in the BBC's The Thick of It are desperate to influence how ministers and policies are presented - because the Fourth Estate has eclipsed the other three. The best satirists have realised this and so look beyond personality and caricature to illuminate the new corridors of power, wherever they may be.

Political satire under New Labour was alive and well, because of, not despite its disinterest in party leaders.

But perhaps the personalities of the politicians themselves is another factor.

Bill Dare, who produced Spitting Image, Dead Ringers and Radio 4's The Now Show, wonders if the New Labour personalities themselves made them less susceptible to caricature.

"Thatcher and Major could be captured in a one-word idea - 'man' and 'grey'," says Dare. "[They are] both ideas that came with a strong visual image. Blair seemed much more complex."

Spitting Images' 'Two Davids' and Clegg and Cameron
Spitting Images' 'Two Davids' and Clegg and Cameron

Now it seems to me the chaps from the Bullingdon Club have a clearly identifiable comic attribute, and their plans to trash Britain after a drunken night of champagne swilling have already been chronicled on the news parody website I edit.

My favourite NewsBiscuit take on the coalition so far was "Nick Clegg to play with tiny steering wheel during Prime Minister's Question Time" but it won't be until television satire turns its attention to the new government that we will see whether the British public have the appetite for a new satire boom.

The idea of a dual leadership at Downing Street certainly brings hope of a comic double act to rival that of Spitting Image's "two Davids" (for those too young to remember, the forerunners to the Liberal Democrats had two leaders... both called David.

And as the effects of last week's budget start to be felt, and the austerity measures really start to bite, we are really going to need something to laugh about.

John O'Farrell is creator of the satirical website Newsbiscuit and author of An Utterly Exasperated History of Britain


Below is a selection of your comments.

The fact that there were so many nondescript ministers in the previous cabinet was a deciding factor. Rory Bremner openly admitted that the lack of real characters made it a real challenge for him to do recognisable impersonations. Prescott, Blair and Brown might have worked, but, take the leadership contest as an example, Milliband, Milliband, Balls, Burnham, McDonnell. Who would honestly recognise an impression of any of them?
Fi, Gloucestershire, UK

The surge in satire at the end of the 60s (Beyond the Fringe, That Was The Week That Was and Private Eye) was more due to the genius that was Peter Cook than the fact we had a Tory government.
Ben Skinner, Leeds

Apart from the long-standing, heavily political and mainstream satirical output of Rory Bremner, John Bird and John Fortune. Armando Iannucci. Have I Got News For You. Dead Ringers. Plus all-time circulation highs for Private Eye as the New Labour project imploded; figures not far behind those of The Guardian. Not to mention the steadily increasing and popular growth of satirical and political hatchet blogging on the internet - Guido Fawkes, Devil's Kitchen, The Daily Mash to name just a few. Culturally, we've had a bumper decade of sophisticated satire that's become increasingly multimedia in nature - hitting the stupid and feckless at all levels of both society and government through a variety of outlets. If you think the satirical bellwether of the Noughties is Vicky Pollard and Lauren Cooper, then look again ... it's the brutally Campbell-esque Malcolm Tucker. And uniquely, The Thick of It also made a Hollywood cross-over.
Jules Wright, Hallaton, Leics

The point John makes about the trend to laughing at the poor and ignorant is a good one. But he doesn't mention the two Johns (Bird and Fortune) on the Bremner Bird and Fortune shows; they managed savage satire at the expense of the really powerful people in our society, not politicians, but the unelected bankers, generals, top officials and others.
Sue Sparks, London, UK

It is one of the most irritating facts of British life that political so-called satirists are all leftwing and all seem to be born with the same little chip in their brain. This results in unbearable sanctimonious smugness and an absolute predictability which is as depressing as it is unoriginal. Spitting Image was so successful because it hit everyone (think Roy Hattersley as well as the more obvious targets such as Thatcher and Tebbitt) whereas today's crop are simply brainwashed anti-Americans (unless it's Obama of course).
David Husband, Cardiff

I'm a regular follower of Newsbiscuit, but too often for my liking it has preferred the calmer shallows of gentle social comment to the Mexican Gulf that Spitting Image typified. Until the general election, that is, when one political "front page" followed another, often displaying great savagery. The merciless topical genie was out of the bottle and has continued its work with the World Cup. Maybe New Labour was already too much of a parody of politics for satirists to be able to add anything new, with one or two notable exceptions. Maybe no one realised how dreadful Brown was until Bigotgate. Maybe odd-couple Dave and Nick will indeed herald a new age of satire. Maybe the BBC needs to take the lead: there are enough good writers out there to choose from.
Dave Miller, Haywards Heath

Vicky Pollard, Catherine Tate's Lauren or Sacha Baron Cohen's Ali G - I wouldn't term any of these satire (I hesitate to even use the term comedy). Not all comedy and sketch shows are satire. If you look at what I would consider true satire programs, for example Mock the Week, Have I got News for you, The Now Show, it is easily noticeable that no politician, whichever tribe they belong too, is safe. The issue is that these shows just aren't as well received by the public, and thus don't have as much presence as they once did. So it's not that satire is changing, more that satire itself is becoming less popular and the fault of that lies with us, the general public and our general apathy about the news and especially politics and especially anything which makes us think, or challenges our poorly misplaced, media-misguided views of the world.
Alex, Cambridge

Nice try, John. But it IS because most satirists are left-wing. They slunk away to the sidelines, being too embarrassed to give New Labour its deserved pummelling and crawl back out now there's a Tory government.
Carl T Holden, Wrexham, UK



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