Magazine article The Spectator

Comic Timing

Magazine article The Spectator

Comic Timing

Article excerpt

New Labour inspired a golden age of political comedy. William Cook looks to satire's future

A lthough few will mourn Gordon Brown's departure, his drawn-out demise should be a source of sadness for comedy aficionados, be they red, yellow or blue. For New Labour's most unlikely legacy was to inspire a renaissance in political comedy. It may have ended with a disgruntled whimper rather than a bang, but for anyone with a taste for satire these were 13 golden years.

When Tony Blair first swept into Downing Street in 1997, a lot of left-wing comics seemed bemused. They'd been attacking the Tories for 18 years. Now that the Labour landslide they'd yearned for had happened, they didn't quite know what to do. 'We were scuppered, ' admitted Paul Thorne, a standup comic at London's top comedy club, The Comedy Store, recalling the wave of euphoria that greeted New Labour's triumph. Yet it didn't take these comics too long to get their second wind. Cracking jokes about John Major and Tory sleaze had become far too easy. Faced with a more elusive foe, political comedy became more sophisticated, and on the stand-up circuit satirical comedians found a new lease of life. Leftwing comics like Mark Thomas and Mark Steel (who now writes a column for the Independent) acquired a sense of betrayal that sharpened their acerbic wit.

What starts in the comedy clubs soon finds its way on to the airwaves, and this improbable revival quickly filtered down to TV. Chris Morris's masterful Brass Eye, broadcast in the last months of the Major era, had anticipated this brave new style of satire - darker and more malevolent than anything that had come before. It's no coincidence that Spitting Image finally ran out of steam when John and Norma moved out of Downing Street and Tony and Cherie moved in. Looking back today, those pantomime puppets seem as tame and harmless as an old-fashioned Punch & Judy show.

Under Labour, shows like Have I Got News For You became more astute and successful, winning promotion to BBC1 from BBC2.

Today, BBC2's Mock the Week is far smarter than any panel show from the Thatcher or Major years, but the apotheosis of New Labour comedy was The Thick of It, Armando Iannucci's brilliant depiction of backroom spin. With its obsession with media management (and a wonderfully foul-mouthed Peter Capaldi) this sublime show would surely never have happened if Alastair Campbell or Peter Mandelson had never come to power.

Ironically, it was Margaret Thatcher who had inspired the previous new wave of political comedy in this country. The Comedy Store opened (above a Soho strip club) just a fortnight after she became PM. Yet although 'alternative' comics like Ben Elton made their names lambasting her, in the new comedy clubs and then on TV, these attacks soon descended into trite abuse. Most of the jokes about her were just as banal as the old mother-in-law gags that had preceded them, as Mrs T became a politically correct Aunt Sally. Conviction politicians are bad for satire. Whether you're for them or against them, there's nothing funny about a crusade. The trouble was, for most comedians, Mrs Thatcher was too big a target. You either loved her or hated her, and the comedy was crude and clumsy either way. There was no friction, no creative tension. …

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