King of the Sketch

The parliamentary sketch failed to make it to the US - what does this say about their politics?

The late Robert Bartley, the great former editor of the Wall Street Journal, regularly tried to introduce the British parliamentary sketch to American journalism. He sent more than one writer to the Congressional press gallery with instructions to cover “the pageant” of the legislative process. The reporters, chosen because of their talent for “colour writing”, would struggle to make lively copy from the arcane and convoluted procedures of the two Houses. They would invariably fail. Their columns would gradually become conventional political commentary.

Why didn’t the parliamentary sketch travel? One reason was that Congress and Parliament belong to different institutional species. Anyone wishing to succeed at Westminster must learn to dominate the chamber. He must develop the debating skills that the sketchwriters appreciate as much as drama critics appreciate theatrical skills.

Congress has almost no noteworthy debates. No one rises politically because of his debating skills. A Congressman’s most contentious battles are fought not with political rivals in the chamber but with corporate executives seeking largesse (or mercy) in committee. The result? Congressmen are dull dogs, debates unreportable, and legislative politics to that extent remote from people.

Bartley wanted to change that. He saw the sketch as a way of making politics more accessible by making it more entertaining. Its brilliant survival despite the televising of parliament (widely predicted to be its doom) suggests he was right. Sketchwriting remains a unique and much-prized job in British journalism, with authors such as Quentin Letts transforming the dross of debate into the gold of humour, and a page to which many readers turn first.

Bartley’s wistful and frustrated desire to import the sketch was also inspired by a particular sketchwriter, the late Frank Johnson. From 1972 to 1979, Frank shared the Daily Telegraph‘s sketchwriting duties with me and became a dear friend. We inherited a venerable tradition — previous sketchwriters had included Dr Johnson, Saki, A. G. MacDonnell and Colin Welch. We both felt awed by it. But Frank found a way of rising above it — or perhaps his metaphors tying the sketch to particular debates became so extended that he soared into a world partly of his own making. What was very occasionally a defect in a particular sketch — it wasn’t always clear what had actually happened at Westminster the previous day — became a large literary virtue in his sketches as a whole. It led to the creation of an imaginary antic village, dimly related to Westminster, peopled by every kind of politician from the smooth to the grotesque, from the old “sea-faring ironclad class of Tory MPs” to “the Beast of Bolsover”, seen from the wry but essentially kindly standpoint of an anarchic Tory wit.

A collection of Frank’s sketches and other writings, Best Seat in the House (JR Books), has now been gathered by his widow, Virginia. Precisely because Frank stood at some distance from pedestrian reality, they read as freshly today as they did in newspapers 20 years ago.

His successors will have to run fast to catch up with him.

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