How the BBC is killing off British satire

PUBLISHED: 18:51 11 August 2017

Keith Allen

Keith Allen

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

Support The New European's vital role as a voice for the 48%

The New European is proud of its journalism and we hope you are proud of it too. We believe our voice is important - both in representing the pro-EU perspective and also to help rebalance the right wing extremes of much of the UK national press. If you value what we are doing, you can help us by making a contribution to the cost of our journalism.

  • Become a friend of The New European for a contribution of £48. You will qualify for a mention in our newspaper (should you wish)
  • Become a partner of The New European for a contribution of £240. You will qualify for a mention in our newspaper (should you wish) and receive a New European Branded Pen and Notebook
  • Become a patron of The New European for a contribution of £480. You will qualify for a mention in our newspaper (should you wish) and receive a New European Branded Pen and Notebook and an A3 print of The New European front cover of your choice, signed by Editor Matt Kelly

By proceeding, you agree to the New Europeans supporters club Terms & Conditions which can be found here.



Supporter Options

Mention Me in The New European



If Yes, Name to appear in The New European



Latest articles

video Al Gore: No lie can live forever

Former US vice president talks Trump, Brexit and climate change denial.

This was neither up-to-date nor a poll. And not a single participant voiced their support for Hard Brexit

A recent poll by well-regarded academics suggested the vast majority of the British public now backed an extreme form of Brexit. Here‘s why that is not the case.

Parliament is filled with “spineless lemmings”

Brexit may not happen at all – when what we need are leaders, not followers, to win this battle

Leave.EU launch deselection bid in hope of dumping soft Brexit ministers out of their jobs

Leave.EU have launched a broadside on cabinet Remainers Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd in a bid to get the pair deselected.

Edward Enninful brings a new way of fashion thinking to Vogue

Fashion can be considered frivolous and in some ways it is.

My sense of humour failure over Brexit has helped clear Scotch mist

I don’t blame the Scots if Brexit leads them to want another shot at independence

The extraordinary story of how the humble spud created the modern world

The rise of capitalism and individualism in the West, and even the current reforms in China, can all be explained by the rise of the potato

Putin is just waiting for the right moment to spear Trump

Vlad the Lad is the supreme master of the macho man holiday snap...

The lesson of Singapore is not one Brexiteers want to hear

Long considered a lodestar of go-it-alone globalisation, Singapore now needs its neighbours more than ever

Truman vs. Macarthur brought the world to the brink as war raged over Korea

The dispute was an ominous warning of problems for our time over where ultimate power lies in the US

EU funding: Brexit’s other looming cliff edge

The loss of EU funding used to help poorer parts of the UK has had far less attention than other ill effects of Brexit. But it will soon be hard to ignore the problem.

Brexiteers, Trump America and the corruption of nostalgia

Manufactured nostalgia always has a political end. Its aim is to create new foot soldiers for The New Vision.

Generation Brexit: Why the young should fear the old

As the realities of Brexit and its economic impact become clearer, alarming generational splits are emerging

Thunder run to Seoul: North Korea’s war plan

As tensions in the Korean peninsula have risen, various apocalyptic scenarios for how a potential conflict might unfold have emerged.

There is no such thing as ‘fake news’

The news industry has a trust problem.

The Brexit vote has created a united Ireland, at least when it comes to the border

New Irish premier Leo Varadkar will play a defining role

Hamburg is the heartbeat of modern Germany

A seamy, subversive, self confident city, Hamburg is also a symbol of an outward-looking Germany

British industry: Brexit fiddles while the economy burns

Even without the complications of Brexit, Britain’s economy is in serious peril. But with attention elsewhere, is anyone in power actually listening?

Unis have grown fat on fees - what happens when the money stops?

The architect of the Labour’s introduction of student fees says the money charged is now nothing more than vice-chancellors profiteering

Enter the Senex: Leader of the Age of Anxiety

An idea for a movie that once upon a time no one would buy – because it was too improbable.

Podcast

Watch us on YouTube

6 excellent reasons to go out and buy The New European this week

Views: 169

The rollercoaster ride of Theresa May's plummeting approval ratings

Views: 592

A year of failure and fiasco in May’s Number 10

Views: 406

Trending

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter