All Satirical Passion Spent
Thatcherism provoked great TV but the makers of Headcases are too liberal, too condescending and not nearly angry enough
Satirists are natural conservatives. From the Romans on, they have flourished by pitching an older, superior order against ridiculous and sinister innovations.
Juvenal contrasted old Rome with the vulgarity brought by Greek flatterers and Jewish merchants who had so corrupted the eternal city that they left “no room for honest callings”. All the great satirists followed his example of nostalgia and alarm. Swift hated the Whigs for dragging his peaceful country into the long wars against Louis XIV. The threat of mass society to the old aristocratic order appalled Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell. By the Eighties, it was the turn of Leftists to be Conservatives and deliver furious tirades against Margaret Thatcher’s destruction of social democratic values they had assumed to be settled. Norman Tebbit showed he understood the satirical dynamic better than many literary critics when he wrote of the best satire of the Thatcher years: “Spitting Image’s creators were rooted in a mid-20th-century ‘Guardianesque’ political consensus, which, at the time, was being comprehensively trashed by the Thatcherite reformers.”
Thatcher won, of course. The targets of satire nearly always do. Swift no more stopped the Whigs making England a European power than Michael Moore stopped George W. Bush winning the 2004 election. Politicians should not necessarily worry if their opponents have the best jokes. To call satire a conservative art is another way of saying that it is the art of the defeated. Even Orwell’s Animal Farm only became an obituary for Soviet communism after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Like everyone else in the Forties, Orwell imagined the regime carrying on indefinitely, until “a time came when there was no one who remembered the old days before the Rebellion”.
The exceptions to this rule are the professional satirists who began work in the Sixties. They would have written themselves out of a job if they had committed themselves to a cause. Thus That Was the Week That Was was against the Wilson government as much as the Macmillan government; it had to be or the show would have gone off air. Today Ian Hislop describes his mission as waiting in the hills until the battle is over “then sweeping down and slaughtering the wounded”. This is a commendably unfair attitude for the editor of Private Eye to hold. However, the best satirists are not usually equal-opportunities deriders, but driven by partisan anger. Paradoxically, the successful are often a success because they are political failures: outsiders appalled by the course history has taken. While others accept the new world as it is, they rage against the consensus and scan it obsessively for weaknesses which might prompt the complacent to revolt.
If you were commissioning a satirical series, where would you look for today’s outsiders? Who are the people who loathe everything about the new establishment?
Until recently, Blair’s acceptance of much of what Thatcher had done and his support for Bush kept the ageing Left satirists of the Eighties in work. But Blair has gone now, and it turns out he was nowhere near as Right wing as those who mocked him — myself included — imagined. His administration gave women, ethnic minorities and homosexuals — groups despised for millennia — legal equality, and spent hundreds of billions on public services and relief for the poor. The Tory party no longer quibbles. Just as New Labour once accepted Margaret Thatcher’s settlement, now the new Conservatives have come to terms with Tony Blair’s.
The blending of Blairism and Thatcherism is the new order. Much though I agree with parts of it, I can find and enjoy savage attacks on a spending of public money so vast that Brown has no fiscal tools at his disposal if recession comes, and coruscating assaults on the hypocrisies and injustices allowed by the apparently benign orthodoxy of politically correctness. But I find them in the press, or more often on the Net where libertarian sites are on fire. All television can give us is Headcases.
ITV billed the first series as the successor to Spitting Image. If only this were true. The writers had no energy and no ardour. It did not take long for the viewer to guess that they were happy with the world as it is.
Take their attitude to terrorism. Satirists might concentrate on the government’s threat to basic liberties, as many on the Right and Left have done. Alternatively, they might turn on a judiciary whose rulings allow “Londonistan” to survive.
What no one with satirical passion would think of doing is telling tit gags Benny Hill would have rejected as not funny enough. Yet Headcases had the animated Gordon Brown explaining to Jacqui Smith that she must show more cleavage as the terror threat increases. When an attack was imminent, she must sound the alarm by appearing topless before the Commons. Meanwhile Brown, a politician who has taxed and spent on a scale beyond the dreams of the Left of the 1990s, became in ITV’s hands a Victorian Scrooge who watches every penny from his counting house desk. You could almost hear them saying, “he is Scottish and a son of the Manse so —eureka! — we will show him as a skinflint!” Conservative readers will blame the broadcasters’ liberal bias for ITV’s failure to wound or even graze. I’m sure there’s truth in the charge but suspect that a deeper “bias against understanding” was at work.
In The New Elites, his study of modern culture, George Walden dissected Oxbridge-educated media grandees who make a career out of assuming the masses are ignorant. The makers of Headcases proved his point. Before the series began, they unblushingly told the Times that they wouldn’t pick on Jack Straw, Ed Balls, David Davis and Vince Cable because they didn’t think the viewers knew who they were. Even if they were right, and I’m not sure they are, Straw is Labour’s most devious survivor, while any decent satirist would have thanked the gods for giving him the bombastic, bullying Balls to play with. If their audience didn’t know who they were, they would make them know by the force of their anger and comic invention.
Not so the writers of Headcases. They presumed that the poor stupid little dears would switch channels if presented with anything outside the comfort zone. All the proles wanted to know about was celebrities, so Headcases gave them endless spoofs of Posh and Becks.
The great satirists despised the powerful. Unless the writers of the second series can find an angry intelligence, we will have to conclude that ITV’s satirists despise their audience.