The Funny World of Political Satirists

By Massie, Allan | Daily Mail (London), June 6, 2001 | Go to article overview

The Funny World of Political Satirists


Massie, Allan, Daily Mail (London)


Byline: ALLAN MASSIE

POLITICAL satire is as old as any form of democratic politics; in dictatorships it has to go underground. Wherever there is a free Press, it flourishes, though governments do try to control its expression.

In the 1730s, for instance, satirical attacks on Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole, especially Fielding's play Tom Thumb, led to the passing of a censorship law. It required plays to be licensed by government officials before they could be performed and lasted till the 1960s.

Mention political satire today and most people will think first of Rory Bremner, who embarrassed the Prime Minister this week by impersonating him while he was campaigning.

Bremner has been an acute critic of New Labour, but there is a geniality about his satire that blunts its edge. Besides, his success is such that he is now a member of the Establishment himself, even if not yet reduced to the pussycat status of Sir David Frost, ex-frontman of the first really successful TV satire show, That Was The Week That Was.

On Bremner's TV show, the sharpest, sometimes savage, satire is in the exchanges between John Bird and John Fortune, both survivors of the 1960s satirical shows. They still give the impression of being what satirists must be to be really effective: outsiders.

Satire aims to wound, to draw blood. Nineteenth century cartoonists like Gillray and Cruikshank were often painfully savage, far more so than any modern satirist. But to be effective, the satirist must not stray too far from accuracy.

YET it's not enough merely to set out to make the target ridiculous, as the TV programme Spitting Image did.

That was let down by the poverty of the scripts, which also departed too far from what the objects of the satire might actually have said. It had occasional good jokes, but you couldn't take it seriously.

Good satire demands to be taken very seriously. It is fuelled by anger and contempt; it doesn't just invite a giggle. A good example is an epigram by Hilaire Belloc, On A General Election: 'The accursed power that stands on Privilege And goes with women and champagne and bridge Broke, and Democracy resumed her reign, Which goes with bridge and women and champagne'.

That is as applicable to the 1997 election and the coming to power of New Labour as it was to the 1906 election which inspired Belloc to write it.

Good satire is based on observation of realities. Private Eye's regular sketch, St Albion's Parish Magazine, works well because Tony Blair really is much like a trendy Church of England vicar. …

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