The British Satirical Revolution

By Suter, Keith | Contemporary Review, September 2004 | Go to article overview
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The British Satirical Revolution

Suter, Keith, Contemporary Review

FORTY years ago the BBC stopped a very popular television programme because it was offending the British Government. That Was The Week That Was (TW3) was a revolutionary British comedy programme that triggered the television satire boom of the early 1960s. It was a 'live' biting, late-Saturday night programme, that broke new ground in television's relationship with politics, and it ridiculed aspects of British life that were previously too sacred to be attacked: politicians, religion and even royalty.

Satire is a form of comedy that ridicules its subject (individuals, organizations or countries) with a view to encouraging change. It seeks to laugh people out of their follies. It ridicules with caricature and exaggeration. Its popularity rises and falls according to the popular tastes of the day. Satire goes in waves. For example, in the 1820s the British cartoonist George Cruikshank was popular when lampooning the social evils of his day but by the 1830s he was less popular because by that time Victorian prudery saw no place for personal insult in public debate.

Britain in the early 1960s was ideal for satire. Britain had won two world wars but somehow lost the peace. The German and Italian economies were picking up faster than the British one, and even the French now seemed to have political stability. The Conservative Party, led by the elderly Harold Macmillan, had been in power since 1951 and it seemed to have run out of ideas as to how to move the country forward. In January 1961, the elderly American president, Dwight Eisenhower, was replaced by the dynamic youngest president ever elected in US history: John Kennedy. The Americans were beginning to run the world at a time when most Britons could still remember the day when they did. They resented their second-class world status. A century and half of British global dominance was slipping away.

There was no grand plan for the British satirical revolution. It was just one step leading to another. No-one involved in the revolution at the time thought that they were writing a new page of British history. They just felt that something was wrong and something had to be changed--though they had no specific political agenda for doing it. The end result was that after 1961 British politicians would be treated with far more scepticism and far less respect. The British had lost their political innocence.

Satire on the Stage

The satirical revolution operated in three main forms. The first was the stage. Beyond the Fringe began in Edinburgh and then went to London's West End in May 1961. It was a comedy created by four graduates: Peter Cook (Cambridge), Dudley Moore (Oxford), Jonathan Miller (Cambridge) and Alan Bennett (Oxford). Miller and Bennett continued their scholarly interests well after their brief brush with the satire revolution.

The involvement of graduates was in itself unusual: university graduates had rarely been on the comedy stage before. That type of 'low brow' entertainment was reserved for working class comics of limited education. But traditional career choices such as the colonial Civil Service were now closing off for graduates. Meanwhile, the media industry generally was expanding and attracting a new, young generation of well-educated ambitious graduates who were looking for career options different from those of their parents. Some of these new graduates were going into comedy.

The previous generations of comedians specialized in the saucy seaside card humour such as George Formby or absurdist humour such as BBC's The Goon Show starring Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers (all of whom had had little formal education, having left school early). The Goon Show radio programme, which ran initially in the 1950s, was a successor to the stage shows of The Crazy Gang, Take It From Here and It's That Man Again of the 1940s all of which portrayed an England of quick-witted, fast tongued morale-boosting comedians that were too optimistic ever to be pessimistic (not least about the state of the economy or the war).

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