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This Week 416: Satire Boom, The (1963)


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A report on satire.

Bryan Magee introduces this new form of humour which has grown up over the last two years and which has been responsible for an entirely new kind of television programme.

At the Establishment Club, John Bird and Jeremy Geidt perform a sketch in which a Conservative Party chairman defends a poor by-election performance, which includes satirical references to many current political figures. The club was founded by 23-year-old Peter Cook, a recent Cambridge graduate, who explains how and why he created London's first satirical nightclub.

It all started with the opening of Beyond The Fringe at the 1960 Edinburgh Festival, starring Cook, Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller and Dudley Moore. It was immediately notorious for its unprecedented personal abuse, not least Cook's remorseless impersonation of the then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. It transferred to the West End and New York, where American audiences seem to find it equally amusing.

Private Eye magazine was founded in 1961, but its lampooning of public figures is part of a long tradition going back to the Roman era via the caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson. A Rowlandson piece on his contemporary, the Duke of Grafton, is likened to Private Eye's coverage of the then recent Profumo scandal, and similar comparisons are drawn with 19th-century pieces by Charles Greville, Thomas Carlyle, Algernon Charles Swinburne and even Benjamin Disraeli, often displaying a level of savagery that even Private Eye shies away from. Since the Victorian era, satire has been considered tasteless, and so Private Eye and Beyond The Fringe are returning to an earlier tradition.

In November 1962, the BBC broadcast That Was The Week That Was, made by a group of young upper-middle-class satirists fronted by David Frost. This is compared with On The Braden Beat with Bernard Braden. TW3 , as it is popularly known, has become a massive success with far greater viewing figures than the BBC envisaged. William Rushton describes how his financial circumstances have changed, though he still lives with his mother.

The satirists claim that fame means little to them, but their victims think otherwise, and many have complained about their treatment. However, satire appears to be on the decline: TW3 is coming to an end, Private Eye's circulation is falling and the Establishment Club is noticeably less successful. Beyond The Fringe's Jonathan Miller explains that the media are getting bored with the satire boom, but he feels that the use of humour in political satire will survive. Journalist Michael Frayn believes that although many more people enjoy a better quality of life, there is sufficient injustice in the world to justify poking fun at the powerful. But he feels that satire lost its fundamental purpose when it was taken up by the entertainment industry.

Magee concludes that satire has a solid achievement in terms of providing high standards of entertainment and breaking taboos on criticising the establishment. He cannot defend the occasional cruelty, but believes that we all owe it a debt of gratitude. He gives satire two and a half cheers.