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TV Satire

Political humour from TW3 to HIGNFY

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Despite Britain's long and noble tradition of ridiculing authority figures in literature, theatre and political cartoons, British television was slow to discover satire. This largely reflects the conservatism of the medium in its early days and the duty of impartiality imposed on broadcasters by successive governments. The aggressive political interviewing of today was unimaginable in the 1950s, when politicians were treated with utmost respect, and the function of the interviewer was to listen patiently while MPs explained their party's policies.

The roots of TV's first dabbling with satire are easily traced to the 'satire boom' kicked off in 1960 by Beyond the Fringe - the stage revue which introduced Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller - quickly followed by the launch of Private Eye magazine and Peter Cook's ironically-titled Soho nightclub The Establishment. But the circumstances that led to this sudden flowering of irreverence are less clear.

In part, it was an expression of frustration with the extraordinary conservatism of the 1950s, a decade which had seen unbroken Tory rule from 1951, and in which the programme of social renewal begun by the postwar Labour government had been halted or reversed. One event has been cited as a particularly important factor in undermining Britain's apparently instinctive deference for its leaders. 1956's Suez crisis forced Britain to acknowledge for the first time its much declined global status, and gave the British cause to question the wisdom and judgement of their government.

Despite the folly of Suez, the Conservatives were still very much in power in 1962, when the BBC began to explore the idea of "a new sort of revolutionary programme... a mixture of News, Interview, Satire and Controversy", as producer Ned Sherrin proposed it. In the context of the time, That Was the Week That Was (1962-63) really was something like revolutionary. It was met with as much outrage as delight, but it proved impossible to ignore. For future Conservative PM Edward Heath, the show was to blame for "the death of deference". Many agreed; most felt it was about time, too.

Despite - or because of - its success, TW3 lasted barely a year, pulled from the schedules by anxious BBC executives, who argued that it would be inappropriate to air such a show in an election year. Nevertheless, the series was credited by some for Labour's 1964 election victory.

Initial attempts to recreate TW3's success proved unmemorable, but presenter David Frost's own series, The Frost Report (BBC, 1966-67), though less explicitly political, did include some sharp satirical asides. The series is most notable, however, for uniting much of the future Monty Python team. Monty Python's Flying Circus (BBC, 1969-74) was the culmination of a trend away from satire towards surrealism, absurdity and formal experimentation, but although the Pythons demonstrated far less interest in party politics than their predecessors, they expressed the same frustration with antiquated class hierarchies, while pompous military officers and the like appeared frequently.

Aside from rather tame political caricatures from the likes of Mike Yarwood and Stanley Baxter, satire was largely absent from 1970s schedules. However, after 1979's election of Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government, political comedy began to re-emerge, growing progressively angrier as the new decade wore on. The intelligent sitcom Yes Minister (BBC, 1980-82) brilliantly nailed the dynamics of Whitehall, but the series' exposure of civil service manipulations played well with the Thatcherite constituency, and the PM herself was a professed fan.

Not the Nine O'Clock News (BBC, 1979-82) was brasher and less respectful, with pot-shots at racist police, seedy high court judges and, unusually, the royals, although in many respects the series was fairly conventional post-Python comedy. In a similar vein was A Kick Up the Eighties (BBC, 1981-84), chiefly remembered today for introducing Rik Mayall's first television incarnation, Kevin Turvey.

Mayall was the first of the new 'alternative' comedians to break into television. Initially centred on another Soho club, The Comedy Store, alternative comedy was anti-racist, anti-sexist, determinedly anti-Thatcher and, for a change, largely non-Oxbridge. Nevertheless, the first TV expression of the scene, The Young Ones (BBC, 1982-84), for all its youthful energy, was more radical in form than in politics, and in Mayall's character Rik, actively mocked 'right-on' campus lefties. More aggressively leftwing were Ben Elton and Alexei Sayle, who shared a confrontational, 'ranting' delivery, while Mayall's sitcom The New Statesman (ITV, 1987-92) presented a monstrously corrupt Tory backbencher, a suitable herald for the impending 'sleaze' era.

The satirists of the 1980s notably failed to remove Thatcher - although the grotesque puppets of Spitting Image (ITV, 1984-96) may have inflicted a few wounds, even if the show's scripts didn't always match their satirical bite - and though the Iron Lady eventually toppled, the Tories soldiered on. Drop the Dead Donkey (Channel 4, 1990-98), the first satirical product of the John Major era, highlighted the vacuity of cable television news, but, despite its cynicism, the series was noticeably less fierce than its 1980s predecessors, and the satire seemed something of an afterthought to the straight sitcom character comedy.

1994's The Day Today (BBC) - a series born, like much 1990s comedy, on BBC Radio 4 - also concerned itself less with party politics than with the media, specifically the arrogance and pomposity of TV news and current affairs reporting. Presented by the alarmingly talented Chris Morris, and introducing to television Steve Coogan's highly successful Alan Partridge character, The Day Today combined a razor sharp parody of contemporary news presentation - all slick graphics and booming melodrama - with a skewed, warped humour darker than anything thrown up by Python.

Aside from the Alan Partridge shows, The Day Today spawned two further satirical series, the cynical but genial Saturday Night Armistice (BBC, 1995-98) and Morris's notorious Brass Eye (Channel 4, 1997; 2001). Arguably the bravest satire ever seen on television, and certainly the angriest, Brass Eye broadened its targets to include not just a self-regarding media but an inane, rent-a-quote celebrity culture, and confirmed Morris as a satanic figure in the eyes of the tabloids.

Morris's most striking innovation - the bogus 'interview' exposing the vanity and credulity of celebrities and politicians - was extensively borrowed by The 11 O'Clock Show (Channel 4, 1998-2000), which introduced Ali G and The Office's (BBC, 2002-04) Ricky Gervais, although the series' sledgehammer approach largely substituted abuse for satire. More directly engaged was the 'comedy activism' favoured by American filmmaker and writer Michael Moore, in his UK/US co-productions Michael Moore's TV Nation (BBC, 1994-95) and The Awful Truth (Channel 4, 1999-2000), and by Britain's own Mark Thomas in his Comedy Product (Channel 4, 1996-2002).

The two most enduring satirical shows of the age of New Labour reflect the prevailing cynicism about political parties of all colours, while offering surprising connections to satire's earlier eras. The current affairs quiz Have I Got News For You (BBC, 1990-), another product of Radio 4, thrives on the banter between the inspired reactive comic Paul Merton and his co-star Ian Hislop, the latter not only once a writer for Spitting Image, but also the current editor of the now venerable Private Eye magazine. Rory Bremner, whose Bremner, Bird and Fortune (Channel 4, 1999-) has presented TV's most sustained opposition to Blairism, also contributed to Spitting Image as a voice artist, while his co-stars John Bird and John Fortune (aka The Long Johns) were regulars on the stage of Peter Cook's Establishment club.

Mark Duguid

Further Reading

Carpenter, Humphrey, That Was Satire, That Was: The Satire Boom of the 1960s (London: Phoenix, 2000)
Crissell, Andrew, 'Filth, Sedition and Blasphemy: The Rise and Fall of Television Satire' in John Corner (ed) Popular Television in Britain (London: BFI, 1991)

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