Edinburgh Festival of Politics event charts history of political satire
Festival of Politics talk with Martin Rowson, Tom Shields and Tommy Sheppard
This article is from 2012.
From the Kalahari Desert to the offices of Punch, satirists have had a field day tearing into pomposity. Malcolm Jack finds out what makes contemporary caricaturists tick
There was a moment during an especially bitchy session of Prime Minister’s Questions in April that said much about how satire can influence the centre of British political debate. With David Cameron reeling during an angry exchange on the Budget, Ed Miliband delivered his choreographed coup de grâce by accusing his Tory opposite number – in the wake of the charity tax U-turn and pastygate – of presiding over an ‘omnishambles’.
It was an expression lifted from The Thick of It, Armando Iannucci’s multi-award winning comedy series satirising Westminster’s inner workings. More specifically, Miliband quoted the show’s epically foul-mouthed Scots spin-doctor Malcolm Tucker, played by Peter Capaldi, who memorably concludes his merciless, expletive-ridden berating of hapless MP Nicola Murray thusly: ‘You’re like that coffee machine, you know? From bean to cup, you fuck up.’
Make what you like of the first recorded usage of ‘omnishambles’ in the Commons, whose members probably either chuckle at The Thick of It as if it’s a big in-joke, or watch through knitted-fingers at this spot-on slice of reality TV. A major political leader quite without irony using such language as a stick with which to beat another has to represent a triumph for satire. Iannucci joked afterwards on Twitter: ‘Fantastic. With the royalties from Miliband’s “omnishambles” quote we’ve now secured enough funding for a new series.’
And yet, at the same time this was also nothing particularly new. Inspired by ancient Greek writers such as Aristophanes, political piss-takers have a long and rich history in Britain. From the 18th century etchings of caricaturist and printmaker James Gillray through Punch to Yes, Prime Minister, Spitting Image and The Daily Mash, their impact has been routinely felt. Comedy at the expense of our elected officials is a vital safety valve of any semi-functioning democracy, by serving to keep leaders in a healthy pinch: between the ego-shattering fear of becoming the butt of the joke and the cardinally untrustworthy sin of appearing to have no sense of humour.
‘I think it’s an indication of the psychic health of any society that the cunts in charge allow the people to laugh at them,’ blurts political cartoonist Martin Rowson, with a full-blooded laugh. Fresh from drawing ‘a nice Osborne pasty gag’, the celebrated contributor to The Guardian and The Independent recalls being challenged by a grumpy Gordon Brown for ‘always drawing him so fat’ and receiving death threats from every conceivable political and religious faction (‘including atheists’).
Cartoons are one of the oldest forms of political satire. Britain’s earliest recorded precedents to the scathing doodlings of such 20th century heavyweights as Gerald Scarfe and Ronald Searle, and their modern disciples Rowson and Steve Bell, can be traced back to 1695 and an explosion in print freedom following the repeal of the Licensing Act. And maybe much farther still.
‘If you want the first political cartoon, it was probably scrawled somewhere on the wall of a cave,’ reckons Rowson, illustrating his point with an example from an anthropology book. ‘It describes egalitarian hunter-gatherers and the major tactics they used to stop leaders emerging. They used murder, they ostracised people, but one of the most important ones was mockery. There’s a wonderful description of some Kalahari bushmen laughing at some bloke who brings back a springbok, saying, “look what I just brought back, what a great leader I am”, and they all yell, “fuck off! Call that a springbok?”’
Many of political satire’s most popular and iconic moments have occurred on television. The cynical outlook of sitcom Yes Minister and its sequel Yes, Prime Minister were revolutionary in the 80s, while Spitting Image was essential viewing with its pitiless latex caricaturing of Thatcher, Kinnock, Reagan, Major and co. More recently, Iannucci has successfully turned his satirical skills to American politics with his new HBO series Veep, while The Thick of It’s 2009 movie spin-off In the Loop received an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay.
Tommy Sheppard, director of The Stand Comedy Club, points to Spitting Image as a formative comedy experience, though he concedes that the show was sometimes guilty of going too far, an error political satirists are not unknown to make. ‘The David Steel puppet was exceptionally cruel,’ he says, recalling the programme’s portrayal of the then-Liberal Party leader as a tiny non-entity constantly in the pocket of SDP colleague, David Owen. ‘It basically flat-lined his political career, by making him an object of personal ridicule. I think it’s important that a satirist satirises the ideas and the comments a person is making rather than the person.’
One area of entertainment that Sheppard believes trails others when it comes to political satire is stand-up comedy. The likes of Rory Bremner, Stewart Lee and Andy Zaltzman are three examples he points to as master practitioners of the genre, and he always encourages the booking of new satirical acts. But Sheppard admits that it takes a rare breed of seriously gifted and brave comic to skilfully deliver such material that requires refreshing nightly and is, by its very nature, deeply divisive. ‘I’ve seen a few English comics come up here and poke fun at Alex Salmond. It gets a laugh, but it also gets a few sharp intakes of breath. Like, “who the fuck are you?”’
It’s tempting to conclude that news spoof websites such as The Daily Mash and its American precursor The Onion, with their ironic, surreal and wantonly unbiased outlook, represent game-changers for political satire. But even if their capacity to rapidly spread mass hilarity across social media at politicians’ expense might be altering how we consume political satire, according to Rowson, its essential ‘background heckling’ nature and methodology probably haven’t evolved much since the time of Gillray.
‘I remember Steve Bell and I did an event at Cheltenham years ago,’ he recounts. ‘This extremely red-faced man – his whiskers bristling, looking like an outraged colonel – said, “well I don’t know about anybody else, but I’d prefer to have some proper statesmen running the country than a couple of bloody satirists!” Well, that’s not our job. Our job is just to make it slightly harder for the people who do.’
An Incredibly Brief History of Political Satire, Scottish Parliament, Holyrood Road, 0131 348 5405, 18 Aug, 10.30am, free.