Whatever happened to TV satire?

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Whatever happened to TV satire?

April 07, 2017 - 10:37
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Earlier in an eventful day, the Chancellor of the Exchequer had been forced to stage one of the most humiliating Budget U-turns in living memory. With Spreadsheet Phil’s career plummeting into the toilet this unprecedented omni-mess was a political satirist’s dream.

Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live


Earlier in an eventful day, the Chancellor of the Exchequer had been forced to stage one of the most humiliating Budget U-turns in living memory. With Spreadsheet Phil’s career plummeting into the toilet this unprecedented omni-mess was a political satirist’s dream.

As luck would have it, ITV’s newly launched The Nightly Show – which pledges “to make fun of what’s going on in the world” – was in pole position at 10pm to feast on hapless Hammond’s rotting remains. And what happened? They didn’t even take a bite.

As a horrible half hour of anodyne emptiness limped onto the screen amid a cacophony of disco music, the notoriously deafening Davina McCall screamed: “I’m your host for one week only!” Promise? What followed was a hopelessly insipid programme that landed not a single blow on the boys and girls in the Westminster bubble. Bad jokes I would have reluctantly forgiven. But no jokes?

The failure of the British television industry to respond to these febrile post-Brexit times is no laughing matter. In fact, it’s nothing short of a national tragedy. After woefully weak Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn spectacularly missed the chance to rub salt into the Tories’ Budget wounds, there was a wide-open goal for an astute team of writers and a sharp TV presenter to shoot straight into and embarrass the government. Back of the net.

But no one scored. Instead, what did we get? Davina doing her raunchy face mum-dancing thing, Davina pretending to orgasm and Davina interviewing genial comedian Paddy McGuinness about the ninth series of his tacky dating show Take Me Out. Which, by an extraordinary coincidence, is on ITV. As she welcomed Paddy to the studio, Davina wriggled her backside and performed a couple of “slut drops”. No one knows why.

After pointlessly riding a quad-cycle with Julian Clary (“One of the funniest and loveliest men I know”), Ms McCall brought down the curtain on The Nightly Show’s 13th episode. Unlucky for some. Namely, the handful of diehard viewers who were still bothering to tune in. In case you’d forgotten, this is the hugely expensive production that has turned News At Ten into News At Ten Thirty and lost Tom Bradby and his mortified colleagues a million viewers. And counting.

Unveiling his bold initiative to ditch the iconic 10 o’clock bulletins (RIP the bongs) in favour of an American style late show, ITV’s director of television Kevin Lygo stressed that the new series would “not be satire with a capital S”. With puny viewing figures nosediving below the million mark, the question now is: what is it with a capital S? Any suggestions? Next question: why do telly types like Mr Lygo run a mile from the thought of mercilessly mocking the self-regarding bunglers who purport to run the country?

In the United States, where the political landscape has experienced a seismic shift as profound as the earthquake on this side of the Atlantic, political satire is a rocketing growth industry. Trump might not be much of a President, but the strange-haired orange one is God’s gift to comedians. A farcical figure of fun who is being forensically ripped to shreds on the box night after eviscerating night. He hates it. The public loves it. Free and fearless speech in a democracy. That’s how it works.

Featuring Alec Baldwin’s uncanny impression of the preposterous pouting President, Saturday Night Live is pulling in the biggest audiences in its 42 year history. A veritable plethora of late night hosts across all the main channels – Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert, Seth Myers, Jimmy Kimmel – are taking damaging pot shots at disastrous Donald and his weird White House gang every single day. British imports James Corden on NBC and HBO’s very own Brummie John Oliver are also cashing in on the Get Trump act and going great guns. It’s a feeding frenzy.

Meanwhile, here in the l’il ol’ United Kingdom, we’re starving. Political satire appears to have died a death. Whatever happened to it? In the 1960s, the BBC’s ground-breaking That Was The Week That Was effectively ended centuries of deference and fatally wounded old-school patrician politicians like Harold Macmillan. He’d never had it so bad.

For 18 series in the 1980s and 90s, Spitting Image was the talk of the town. Its grotesque puppet versions of Margaret Thatcher and her kowtow cabinet were as hilarious as they were vicious. Thatcher as a sinister cross dressing she-devil taking secret advice from her neighbour at Number 9, a thinly disguised superannuated Adolf Hitler. Norman Tebbit as a skinhead thug in studded leather physically attacking all detractors. Edwina Currie as a vampire. Douglas Hurd with his Dalek voice and Walnut Whip hairstyle. And Michael Heseltine as a manic flak jacket clad defence secretary going bat crap crazy.

Ruthlessly knocked from their pedestals by the lethal weapon of scathing wit, Maggie and her ministers became laughing stocks. How the mighty (and pompous) fall. Fast forward to today and is there anyone even trying to mimic Mother Theresa? Should ITV make the mistake of retaining its pathetic Spitting Image replacement Newzoids, rest assured that Mrs May and her motley crew won’t lose too much sleep.

With its barely recognisable cartoonish puppets, risible impressions and simpering scripts, Newzoids has the sophisticated sense of humour of a five year-old. Who needs satire when you’ve got a custard pie in your hand? In its fawning royal family spoof, William and Kate’s kid George has a rough Cockney accent. Why? Gee, wonder if they got the idea from Spitting Image’s extremely northern Coronation Street Queen Mother? Not original and not funny. Great combo.

Classic 80s TV comedies Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister both dared to lampoon London’s corridors of power and were huge hits. Same story for In The Thick Of It which ran from 2005 until 2012 but is no longer with us when we need it most. Tellingly, its American counterpart still thrives. But in the tumult of 2017, we Brits are on our own.

The USA’s late shows are showbiz through and through. They’re noisy, energetic, brash and fun. But their approach to Washington is dry, sardonic, sarcastic and brutal. Why don’t we dish out the same harsh treatment to Westminster? The reason, I fear, is that the self-styled media geniuses in charge of our channels believe that British audiences are too dim to care about politics. Wrong and insulting. A catastrophic miscalculation.

With Brexit, Scotland, Trump and a fragile world facing the grim spectre of increasing conflict and economic collapse, politics has become a compelling spectacle. Like all disaster movies, it’s box office. The less-than-dazzling politicians flailing around in this swirling mass of uncertainty must be held to account. Not just by a ludicrously under-performing Opposition but by incisive entertainers who speak directly to the people.

The irony is that while British TV bosses instinctively avoid it, satire’s time has come. On the Dave channel, Unspun With Matt Forde does a creditable job pointing the finger at our dear leaders. But hidden in a schedule packed with ancient Top Gears, it’s never going to break ratings records. One of the main factors that led to Channel 4 dumping veteran satirist Rory Bremner was the high cost of quality writing. Which says it all. Bring Bremner back and the clipboard carriers at Four could achieve what eludes them most… decent viewing figures.

Compared to our hard-hitting friends across the pond, Britain is looking like a moronic inferno in which the awfully clever Oxbridgers who run our television companies think the rest of us are so stupid that what we want at 10pm is Davina McCall twerking. Or David Walliams’ gormless gags about his faux bromance with Simon Cowell. Or the most recent temporary host to the slaughter Dermot O’Leary’s asinine monologues. As the dismal ratings prove, we want a lot more. Something that relates to our threatened lives.

And finally, as they used to say on News At Ten, there is the PC problem. In the oh so sensitive 21st century are we afraid that devastating direct hits on defenceless politicians will be seen as – drum roll – offensive? Or, even worse, bullying? Especially, if the targets are female. The Prime Minister, for example. Let’s not let political correctness stifle political satire. Mrs May is getting away with way too much. It’s time to fire the arrows and to make sure they hurt.

This article first appeared in The New European.

There is 1 Comment

RachMathiasNY's picture

Brilliant & spot on! Returning to the UK after 25+ years & failing to see much capitalization on great Brit humor. Seems it's either playing it way too safe or getting it so terribly wrong. I was unable to rate the show in question as one star is beyond generous. Your review deserves 5 stars plus however.