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The British Sense of Humour by Mark Duguid
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Politics and Society Fools and Losers Madness & Surrealism Race    
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Politics and Society
Still from Yes Minister

Yes Minister (BBC, 1980-84)
Nigel Hawthorne, Paul Eddington,
Derek Fowlds

For centuries, the British have used humour - in literature, song and cartoons - to challenge political leaders and social or political attitudes. But strict censorship meant that satire in film and television was rare before the 1950s.

Satire's comedy makes a serious point and it can be a powerful subversive tool. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) mocked the military high command during World War Two, and so infuriated Winston Churchill that he tried to ban it. In the early 1960s, the groundbreaking satirical TV series That Was the Week That Was (aka TW3) was axed, despite its popularity, allegedly due to political pressure on the BBC.

In the 1980s, Spitting Image lampooned politicians, celebrities and the royals with grotesque latex puppets. Although the jokes didn't always match the quality of the puppets, Spitting Image's characterisations - including a domineering Margaret Thatcher and a grey John Major - helped shape the way politicians were viewed. Meanwhile, a new generation of 'alternative' comedians like Ben Elton worked a political message into their material.

In the '90s, satire became more aggressive. The Mark Thomas Comedy Product used comic stunts and hidden cameras to expose political and corporate wrongdoing. The Day Today modelled itself on TV current affairs magazine programmes, attacking the media and the self-importance of news broadcasting as much as politicians. The Day Today's Chris Morris became a tabloid hate figure for his later series Brass Eye, in which he duped celebrities into supporting absurd 'campaigns' - one MP was persuaded to ask questions in Parliament about the fictional drug 'cake'. The Rory Bremner Show used its star's talent for impersonation to play the role of 'unofficial opposition' to the Conservative and, later, New Labour governments. Bremner's co-stars John Bird and John Fortune are satire veterans, both of whom appeared on TW3 in the 1960s.

It's the job of satire to provoke, to attack and ridicule the powerful. So it's inevitable that it can be controversial. In fact, it could be argued that if satire doesn't make at least some people angry, it has failed.

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