How the BBC is killing off British satire
PUBLISHED: 18:51 11 August 2017
PA Archive/PA Images
Safe choices and repetition have put lampooning comedy on its knees
No, satire isn’t dead. It’s on life support on a hospital trolley, doctors hurrying to and fro. Some are suggesting the experimental, dangerous treatment option of taking it to America to live with Alec Baldwin. Others say this will only prolong its suffering, and following the complication it suffered with the Mash Report, it would be kinder to just let it go. Oblivious to all this, satire just lies there, its thoughts limited to “hell, this morphine’s great”. But it isn’t dead yet.
This could end up being one of those great laments about how dreadful things are, punctuated with snippets of nostalgia. You can do that with more or less any topic: school, football, your wife and what you assume are your children. Where satire is concerned, though, I’m not convinced it’s all over. That said we are nearing the edge of the precipice, staring down into an eternity of repetitive Brexit jokes and demography-bending BBC panel shows.
‘That British sense of humour’ used to be something the country prided itself on, and satire was integral to it. It went hand in hand with the ‘stiff upper lip’ and respect for institutions of state. If people took themselves seriously and tended not to complain too much when they were offended, it was much easier to lampoon them, and you could go to greater lengths.
Yet today respect for the Establishment, facilitating its mockery, has dried up. Politics has become ferociously tribal, and political junkies more aggressive in scoring their fix. Culturally, we have changed massively. The idea of a stiff upper lip has been bred out of us. People have been brought up taking themselves very seriously. Anything can be taken as a marker of identity, satirising almost anything can be interpreted as a personal attack.
The irony is a lot of this has come from the left. But, traditionally, the very best satire has stemmed from left-leaning people taking on conservative institutions. From Dave Allen’s mockery of the Catholic Church to Spitting Image’s insolence towards Thatcher, there was always an element in British satire of standing up to the bully. Now the scene resembles less a case of slaves breaking free of their chains, and more the lunatics taking charge of the asylum.
This is the reason why satire has feeding tubes up its nose and the glazed look of a Vietnam vet in its eyes, occasionally mumbling about the Bullingdon Club to no one in particular. If you watch BBC comedy shows, that’s more or less all it is; some tosser (or as it’s the Beeb, tosserress, or toss-neutral… or toss-fluid?) talking about Tories, Brexit, Trump and bugger all else. The audience laughs appreciatively, and your grey matter tries to induce a stroke to take you away from this hell. It’s even worse if you listen to Radio 4, where you actually have to visualise the bastards first.
It’s only a matter of time until someone sues Private Eye into oblivion, at which point, this is all that’ll be left. If you want a vision of the future of satire, imagine Jimmy Carr’s boot stamping on a taxpayer’s face forever, with an accompanying soundtrack of canned laughter.
But as I said, I refuse to believe all is lost. We live in an age of vast political wealth; out there, somewhere, are people ready to re-energise the genre. For those who say “it’s not possible to satirise Trump or Farage, they’re already parodies”, I’d say you just aren’t funny, courageous or patient enough to do it properly.
Maybe someone will bring back Spitting Image, or realise there’s more to it than putting on a wig and doing an impression. This revival isn’t going to come from the mainstream. To reach wider audiences, we have to look to counter-cultural television. That doesn’t mean Dave. RT are lambasted by many but gave us the frenetic Tom Walker aka Jonathan Pie, perhaps the only interesting act to emerge in the last few years.
This summer I’m teaming up with our Russian friends to revive one of the great bastions of British satire, The Establishment Club. Originally founded by Peter Cook as a haven from censorship it’s been reincarnated several times over the decades and given breaks to folk such as Stephen Fry, Terry Alderton, and John Cooper Clarke. This time we’re taking the form of a routemaster bus that will travel the country, beyond the London circle-jerk circuit, seeking performers who don’t fit the neat criteria of standard Live at the Apollo fodder. And RT, bless their tortured Dostoevskian souls, have given us the keys.
Outsiders do mockery best, and when the mainstream is sanitised and inoffensive, innovation won’t come from traditional sources. It’s strange that RT is leading the revival of British comedy, but with all the hysteria of Russian interference in politics, it seems appropriate. You may wonder if we’re able to mock our paymasters? The answer is an affirmative da, and you only have to watch RT’s News Thing to see that Russia is attacked regularly in the series. And if I end up in a Siberian labour camp, it’s probably about time.
Satire isn’t dead yet, but perhaps it needs is a dose of Russian Olympic-strength steroids to get it on its feet.
Keith Allen is an actor and comedian. The Establishment Club Road Trip launched in Bristol on August 9 and will travel to Brighton, Edinburgh, Manchester and Newcastle. For more information, go to est.club
Has the Edinburgh Fringe lost its edge? See pages 42 and 43