Magazine article The Spectator

The New Establishment

Magazine article The Spectator

The New Establishment

Article excerpt

Peter Cook's satirical nightclub changed few minds about politics - but it did help make comedy respectable.

The Establishment Club reopens in Soho this week, and it is easy to see why. Peter Cook started the original club in 1961, when there was an unpopular Conservative government, led by a cabal of Old Etonians, presiding over a recession;

and the Establishment Club's Soho premises were at the centre of the satire boom that mocked the Tories and led to their losing the 1964 election. Aside from the satire on the stage, Private Eye briefly had its offices in the club; upstairs there was the studio where Lewis Morley took the photograph of Christine Keeler naked astride a chair which illustrates every article about the Profumo affair. This is the reason for the club's legend: for the first and only time in English history, it seemed that satire worked.

That is the legend: but it's not true. For all the claims made for Private Eye , it was The Spectator that did more to undermine the Conservative government. Sir Alec Douglas-Home himself believed that the single most important factor in his defeat was Iain Macleod's account of the 1963 party leadership contest published in January 1964, which described a 'magic circle' of Old Etonians who fixed the 14th Earl of Home's election, thereby establishing the Conservative party as out of touch and undemocratic more powerfully than Peter Cook's impersonations of Harold Macmillan ever could.

Cook was fully aware of this. He spoke about the Establishment Club as being modelled on 'those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the second world war'. At best, satire is ineffectual;

at worst, it can be counter-productive - even after the Berlin cabarets were closed, Hermann Goering encouraged jokes about himself, believing, rightly, that it is always better to be satirised than ignored. (I was once persuaded, in about 2001, to go to the recording of a pilot for a satirical television programme, and I was prepared for a stream of anti-Tory invective. Halfway through, I realised that there had been no mention of the Conservative party whatsoever. I knew then that the next election was already lost. ) Part of the reason for satire's uselessness is the self-selecting nature of the audience.

The audience came to the Establishment Club to hear Tories being mocked. On one occasion, when a sketch poked fun at the anti-nuclear campaigner Pat Arrowsmith, a woman in the audience shouted, 'That's not what you're here for' before hitting Cook with a handbag and walking out. As Tom Lehrer remarked about his own satirical songs, 'It's not even preaching to the converted; it's titillating the converted.'

Jokes are based on shared premises:

there can be no punchline without the setup. Even in comedy without any political intent, a routine will fall flat when the audience doesn't trust the set-up. I've seen new comics with great punchlines about being single get no laughs if they have mentioned their girlfriend earlier in their set, or even if they're suspiciously good-looking to be unattached. This is exacerbated when it comes to satirical comedy: a joke that's contrary to what the audience believes will not be a joke to them, because they don't buy the premise. …

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