Thursday 23 February 2017

In search of Satire

Paul Whitington

At this stage of a General Election, when the going gets tough and candidates shout and scream over each other on TV debates in a desperate race to reach the finish line, viewers of a certain age might be reminded of 'Hall's Pictorial Weekly'.

For those who don't remember it, 'Hall's Pictorial' was a satirical sketch show that ran for nine series between 1971 and 1980 and showcased the talents of young comic actors such as Eamon Morrissey and Frank Kelly.

Presented by the lugubrious Frank Hall, the show was influenced by the cutting wit of Flann O'Brien and featured some daring and hilarious skits. Then-Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave was recast as the Minister for Hardship, who wore fingerless gloves and broadcast to the nation by candlelight.

Then there was the Ballymagash County Council, an unflattering portrait of Irish politics in which hysterical councillors argued endlessly over irrelevant details and ended up achieving nothing.

Thirty-odd years later it all sounds uncomfortably familiar, but sadly we don't have a 'Hall's Pictorial' to satirise our current predicament. The closest we get to political satire these days are the radio sketches of Oliver Callan and his ilk, but they depend largely on impersonation, and on television the situation is even worse.

In fairness, David McSavage does fly the satirical flag, and one of the best recurring characters on 'The Savage Eye' is his Mary Robinson, our fiercely patriotic President for Life who keeps her husband's head in a birdcage and settles all challenges to our sovereignty with her trusty bow and arrow.

He hits the nail on the head with his trio of parliamentarians: the Minister for the Awareness of Problems, the Minister for Using Three Similar Words in A Sentence and the Minister for Breathlessness to Convey Sincerity.

His version of 'The Frontline' is hilarious. McSavage does his remarkable, over-the-top Pat Kenny impression and a rather tired-looking politician sits glassy-eyed while a rabid audience member shouts at him for minutes on end. In the end, the politician loses it and calls the man a "working class scumbag" who probably "doesn't even vote".

If only the real 'Frontline' were like that. But other than McSavage,TV political satire here is fairly thin on the ground.

Things aren't much better in Britain, where political comedy is generally a bit of a turn-off these days. And Channel 4's recent attempt to buck this trend with the launch of the sketch-based show '10 O'Clock Live' hasn't been entirely successful. With sketches about how to dodge rioting Tunisians and a frank assessment of Sarah Palin's sex appeal, the show tends to come across as patronising.

But up until 20 years or so ago, it was British TV that blazed the satirical trail. Back in the 1960s, political engagement was de rigeur, and with the world tottering on the verge of thermonuclear war, there was plenty to get engaged about. This popular mood was seized upon by the innovative BBC sketch show 'That Was The Week That Was'. Devised by Ned Sherrin and presented by David Frost, 'TW3', as it was known for short, lampooned the British establishment in a manner that would, up until then, have been considered unthinkable.

Hereditary peers and apartheid were among 'TW3's recurring targets, and it even dared broach the Profumo ministerial sex scandal. Politicians were not amused, and began putting pressure on the BBC to drop it, which they duly did in 1963 after only two seasons. And when Frost tried an American version, he soon found that he wasn't going to be given anything like as much latitude by his network.

Frost returned to Britain in 1965 and had more success with 'The Frost Report', which carried on the anti-establishment theme and helped launch the careers of Ronnie Corbett, Ronnie Barker and John Cleese.

'Yes Minister' is often cited by insiders as their favourite political satire, perhaps because it comes closest to portraying the sobering realities of government. Written by Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay, the show ran for most of the 1980s and starred Paul Eddington as a rather confused Minister for Administrative Affairs called Jim Hacker. Nigel Hawthorne played his oily and Machiavellian Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby, a well-connected insider who had long ago understood that the secret of political survival was to look busy but do nothing.

The show found an unlikely fan in Margaret Thatcher, who insisted that the actors perform a specially written 'Yes Minister' scene with her. The results were excruciating.

Mrs T was probably less fond of 'Spitting Image'. A harsh and often grotesque puppet show devised by Peter Fluck and Roger Law, 'Spitting Image' harked back to the crude political cartoons of the 19th century, and tilted its lance at everyone from the royal family to Ronald Reagan. Its most popular target, though, was Margaret Thatcher, portrayed as a cigar-chewing dominatrix who terrorised her cowering cabinet.

'Spitting Image' looked pretty tame beside 'Brass Eye', on which Chris Morris used his usual shock tactics to fool celebrities and politicians into denouncing imaginary drugs and support absurd fake charities. But his episode on paedophilia was too much for some people.

'The 11 O'Clock Show' (the precursor of '10 O'Clock Live') was a kind of fake news show that lampooned the pretentions of both politicians and journalists and kick-started the careers of Ricky Gervais and Sacha Baron Cohen. But by the late 1990s, the most interesting TV satire was happening in America.

Since its launch in the mid-1970s, 'Saturday Night Live' had flown the flag for American alternative comedy, and while never overtly political, it definitely had its controversial moments. In the 1980s Phil Hartman memorably lampooned a chronically vague Ronald Reagan. Will Ferrell honed his hilarious George W Bush routine on it, and the show's finest political moment came in 2008 when former SNL writer Tina Fey performed a series of Sarah Palin sketches that helped destroy the Alaskan's credibility as a vice- presidential candidate.

The American body politic is attacked with more rigour on Jon Stewart's 'Daily Show'. He directly pokes fun at the pronouncements of politicians, and while he made no secret of his support for Barack Obama during the 2008 election campaign, Stewart hasn't been afraid to lampoon the sometimes waffly President since. 'Daily Show' regular Stephen Colbert now has his own very funny spin-off show, 'The Colbert Report', a mock news show that satirises right-wing current affairs programming.

Sometimes searing commentary comes from less likely sources. 'The Simpsons' has always taken a dim view of politics, but in a recent episode the writers outdid themselves by using an alien invasion of Springfield as a metaphor for the Iraq War. And as they surveyed the devastated town square, one little green man turned to another and muttered "You said we'd be greeted as liberators".

Leave it to 'The Simpsons'.

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