Wednesday 17 January 2018

A political satirist who lampooned the British establishment

Obituary: John Fortune

John Fortune
John Fortune

John Fortune, who has died aged 74, was part of the satire boom of the 1960s, and continued to lampoon the establishment during the New Labour era in Britain.

As Tony Blair's government, encouraged by a hopeful electorate and a compliant media, took power in 1997, satire seemed a thing of the past. The 1960s spirit of Peter Cook's Establishment Club had long since faded; the barbs that poured from the latex mouths of Spitting Image's puppets had fallen silent in 1996. The Conservative Party was on the run. When in 2001 Nigel Wattis, the television director, made a documentary on Fortune and his longtime comedy partner, John Bird, he noted: "Along with [the impressionist] Rory Bremner, they're the only real political opposition we have."

It was a double act, broadcast first on Rory Bremner's Who Else? programme and then on Bremner, Bird and Fortune (1999 to 2008), that seemed almost effortless. And so indeed it was. Bird and Fortune would meet for a few hours before each broadcast, pick a topic, and then try to make each other laugh. The result was that their performances were neither improvised, nor scripted, but somewhere in between.

Each statistic or detail was rigorously researched, and the sketches were run past lawyers before being broadcast. On one occasion, John Bird was playing a corporate executive, and Fortune asked him: "So wouldn't you say that everything you have ever done in your life has been a complete disaster?" When Bird answered: "Yes", the lawyers objected. So the patter was modified -- if only very slightly.

Fortune claimed not to enjoy working too hard to get in character. "We don't rehearse because I'm far too lazy," he said. "You know what people are like. If you did rehearse, they'd make you do it for hours."

It seemed the pair did not need to work too hard. The send-ups of assorted oleaginous figures was lent particular credence because, as Oxbridge-educated performers, Bird and Fortune always appeared convincing in role. Fortune -- tall, eyebrows arched -- was credible as the patrician politician or corrupt banker. But in reality, such characters could not have been further from his origins.

The son of a commercial traveller for small engineering firms, John Fortune was born John Wood on June 30, 1939, in St George, a working-class district of Bristol. There was no bathroom and the lavatory was outside. At Bristol Cathedral Choir School, where English master, Teddy Martin, introduced him to TS Eliot's Four Quartets, he abandoned an early ambition to become a laboratory assistant and went up to King's College, Cambridge, on an open scholarship to read English. There he met Peter Cook, became a founding director of the Footlights club and flirted with Trotskyism before graduating in 1960.

His early stage career began the following year at Cook's Establishment Club in Soho where he was paid £20 a week (his father was only earning £16). Having settled in Scotland, he made weekly trips to London to appear in Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life (1964-65); BBC3 (1965-66); The Late Show; and The Frost Report.

Latterly, Fortune appeared in the award-winning Radio 4 sitcom Ed Reardon's Week.

John Fortune married Susannah Waldo in 1962, with whom he had three children.

The marriage was dissolved in 1976, and in 1995 he married Emma Burge, a film producer, who survives him along with the children from his first marriage.

Irish Independent

Promoted Links

Style Newsletter

Stay on top of the latest fashion, beauty and celeb gossip in our Style newsletter.

Promoted Links

Also in this section