The Thick Of It, The Establishment, and why British satire is hard bloody work

Monday, September 10 2012

Peter Cook's old Establishment club is back in London after 50 years – will it bring some Armando Iannucci- or Ian Hislop-esque hard satire to the live circuit?

Armando Iannucci

The return of The Thick Of It to the telly and The Establishment to the live comedy circuit demands a brief rumination of satire, that slippery bugger. British comedy fans value it and worry about it. Satire is getting it in the neck for being short on quantity, short on quality, or for being rendered impossible by the actual real-life existence of people like Jeremy Hunt.

The satirists themselves know it – Rory Bremner has bemoaned the career politicians who are dull and interchangeable and therefore difficult to satirise, Chris Morris is so meticulous and choosy in his subjects that his output has slowed to a dribble, while Armando Iannucci increasingly has to pacify critics of The Thick Of It who point out today's politicians are beyond satire. He will have also noticed the luke-warm reception to the first episode of the series (I have to say I was disappointed too. The dialogue's gotten very try-hard. Still, early days).

Iannucci's original angle was to focus on the machinations of politics and the black art of spin, presumably because the front end was bereft of strong personalities and strong politicians. But it's increasingly looking like Iannucci's best bet is to step away from UK politics. He told the Observer in an interview last week that he's started sympathising with politicians – which is no starting point for a satirist, it undermines the entire puncher/punchee relationship. And the fact that even politicians now refer to their own situations as "like something from The Thick Of It", strikes another blow – who's satirising whom exactly? Iannucci also said in the interview that he's already looking elsewhere, to the world of digital media and the faceless corporations who have the real power, like Google and Apple.

Life would be far easier for British satirists if politics ended up evolving as some predict it will, with old party lines of left and right re-emerging as the cuts took hold, and as Ed Milliband edges Labour further left. This problem doesn't exist in the US – the stark Democrat/Republican divide has allowed room for mainstream but weighty shows such as The Daily Show, The Colbert Report and Real Time With Bill Maher. The Bugle podcast with John Oliver and Andy Zaltzman would be a far more difficult 40 minutes to fill if it focussed solely on British politics.

I think that from the off, Iannucci had the right approach to combating the British fog. That is, to be forensic, to apply his bulging brainbox – or at least employ a shit load of researchers. The approach works for Have I Got News For You? as well. It's enduring appeal turned out to be nothing to do with Angus Deayton, and I think it would survive without Paul Merton (although I would miss him from it) – it's all about Ian Hislop. As editor of Private Eye must be one of the most "in the know" people in the country. He brings such journalistic rigour and breadth of knowledge to the show – and first-hand of defamation laws – that he single-handedly gives it genuine satirical heft.

Peter Cook

The life of the satirist in 2012 is not made any easier by pub bores who think it's still the early 60s or the 80s. For them, nothing can compare to Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, David Frost, Alan Bennett et al of the 60s "satire boom", or Alexei Sayle, Ben Elton et al of the 80s alternative comedy explosion. Completely ignoring the fact that Britain is everso slightly different now (maybe they should try Pussy Riot in Putin's Russia instead), and that you can't just transpose the culture of one era onto another era. Cook and co had post-war stuffiness and the close censorship of Lord Chamberlain to rebel against (they cunningly sidestepped the glare of Chamberlain, whose jurisdiction stopped at theatres, by putting comedians such as Lenny Bruce into nightclubs for the first time, allowing more freedom of speech). Sayle and co were kicking against a complacent and bigoted comedy industry, and Thatcher. But comics from that period, such as Boothby Graffoe, have been quoted as saying all you had to do to get a laugh in the 80s was to call the government a load of bastards. An exaggeration I'm sure but you see his point – it wasn't always the hotbed of bracing independent thought that it's held up to be.

Conditions, and therefore comedy, are different today of course. Satire is by definition a reactive concept. It only exists in relation to the conditions of the time. In 2012 we have a liberalised society that is breezy about all the taboo subjects of the early 60s. I don't buy the idea that because election turnouts are low, the British public doesn't care about politics. I think it's more disillusionment than apathy, and if someone's disillusioned, at least it shows they care (although therein lies another problem – how do you convert disillusionment into comedy? All that resignation!). Aside from HIGNFY, Question Time is as popular as it's ever been, subscriptions to Private Eye (of which Peter Cook was a co-founder) are higher than ever, and at light entertainment end of the scale, Mock the Week remains a TV staple, tapping into the generic but indisputable anger there is towards "the banks", "the media" and all politicians (we don't distinguish anymore). The 10 O'Clock Show seems to be attempting a hybrid of the old-school ex-Footlights satire and The Daily Show, with mixed results so far.

So will the returning Establishment club successfully navigate the bloody minefield that is British satire in 2012? The London circuit already has Andy Zaltzman's Political Animal at Soho Theatre and Lolitics in Camden, but there's room for something harder edged. The Establishment could provide just that, as the involvement of Private Eye columnist Victor Lewis-Smith will give it that mix of hard journalism and comedy that underpins TTOI and HIGNFY. Aside from the rigour he will bring, Lewis-Smith also sure knows how to take a hard line on something. A recent email exchange he had with the BBC, leaked by the Guardian, was so rude and contemptuous of the Beeb that it bodes well for The Establishment's power-bashing credentials, even though he did come across as a total arsehole. I do worry that the club has been revived out of sentiment (Cook's widow, Lin, is involved in its return. Peter would have been 75 this year and he had stated his intentions to bring it back prior to his death). Sentiment and satire don't mix. I also hope that it doesn't try to be what it was – Lord Chamberlain stopped repressing the life out of performers in 1968, so pretending it's "underground" might feel forced.

The shows will be hosted by national treasure Keith Allen and feature performers with "a genuine dedication to the art of unrestricted, uncensored performances", says the press release. It doesn't matter if they're old or young, famous or non-famous, it continues. So there will be a fun variety element to the night. How that is reconciled with the satirical element remains to be seen, but I'm looking forward to finding out.

• The Establishment takes place at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club on September 19-20


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