Satire's Wry Revolution; That Was Satire That Was. by Humphrey Carpenter (Gollancz, Pounds 20). Reviewed by Simon Evans
Evans, Simon, The Birmingham Post (England)
In our cynical age, when politicians are regarded with the kind of contempt normally reserved for England fans, journalists and the national cricket team, it is hard to imagine the impact a certain satirical revue made when it was launched upon an unsuspecting Edinburgh Festival some 40 summers ago.
Taking as its targets the class system, religion, empire and the military - not to mention Harold Macmillan's Conservative Government - Beyond The Fringe was considered nothing sort of revolutionary at the time.
It was written and performed by Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett, four versatile performers who would leave lasting imprints on English cultural life, and although this remarkable quartet would later play down the significance of Beyond The Fringe, its shockwaves are still being felt, in the form of Have I Got News For You, Weekending and of course Private Eye, the sole survivor of the so-called 'satire boom' ushered in by Cook, Miller, Moore and Bennett.
Satire had once been described by the playwright George S Kaufman as 'what closes on a Saturday night' although a more rigid dictionary definition calls it 'the art by which topical issues, folly or evil are held up to ridicule'. By the end of the 1950s, with Britain still struggling to break free of the constraints of Victorian morality, there was certainly plenty to ridicule.
The satire boom of the 60s - the period roughly from the debut of Beyond The Fringe in August 1960 to the end of the weekly television show That Was The Week That Was (known as TW3 for short) in the winter of 1963 - is covered by Carpenter's entertaining book.
He traces the roots of the satire fashion to the theatrical tradition of 'little revue' and the sardonic 'university humour' bred in the Oxbridge dramatic societies, Footlights and OUDS - and how, in its early 60s manifestation it was created by the kind of people (Cook, the son of a diplomat, Miller, the son of an eminent psychiatrist and a novelist) who would be expected to form part of the very establishment they were mocking.
Beyond The Fringe was originally created as an entertainment designed to exploit the recent growth of the 'fringe' events outside the official boundaries of the Edinburgh Festival. Cook, Miller, Bennett and Moore had all cut their theatrical teeth in Oxbridge productions and their revue was an immediate sensation, perfectly capturing the spirit of rebellion engendered by rock and roll and the Angry Young Men. Something was happening in Merrie England and nobody was quite sure what it was until articulated by this unlikely foursome.
Cook - the humorous powerhouse behind Beyond The Fringe, owner of Private Eye and founder of the Establishment 'satirical night-club' - was perhaps the most important single figure behind the satire boom. Friends would often recall how comedy simply poured in a deluge out of Cook, his mind making ever more bizarre connections between the most unlikely of subjects. Like his creation E L Wisty telling anyone unfortunate enough to be in earshot that 'serpents hear through their jaws you know, it's the bone structure that does it.'
When Miller first heard Cook perform, he asked his future collaborator if he had ever worked with schizophrenics, telling Cook' 'You've perfectly reproduced the schizophrenic speech pattern'.
Richard Ingrams, editor of Private Eye for more than 20 years, recalls how Cook would often drop into the office after a good lunch and entertain the staff for hours an end. …