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A Grand Moan

Jonathan Coe, writing last year in the London Review of Books, had some sharp observations on modern British satire, observations which are certainly of interest to anyone even slightly acquainted with that lively tradition, which moved from stage and cabaret (the Cambridge Footlights, Beyond The Fringe) to television and radio in the 1960s and has been a permanent feature there since, though it has been shading for some time into pure comedy – laughs for laughs’ sake. The subject is perhaps of limited interest to Ireland, which doesn’t really seem to have a satirical tradition, though mind you there was Hall’s Pictorial Weekly, whose very popular caricatures of the Fine Gael/Labour government of the time in 1978 delivered Fianna Fáil a surprise twenty-seat majority ‑ which was funny for some but not for Liam Cosgrave or indeed Conor Cruise O’Brien. Coe writes:

When Have I Got News for You moved to BBC One more than a decade ago it began to lose some of its teeth: so much so, after a while, that one regular panellist, Will Self, announced he would no longer be taking part. At its erratic best, however, it remains a worthwhile show. In fact the Guardian columnist Martin Kettle went so far a couple of years ago as to call Ian Hislop, on the basis of his weekly appearances there, “the single most influential voice in modern British politics”. He was not paying a straightforward compliment. “Week in and week out”, his message “is that pretty much all politicians are corrupt, deluded, incompetent, second-rate and hypocritical”. This message, Kettle said, is delivered with “enviable deftness and wit”, but it is also “extremely repetitive”. Steve Fielding, an academic, went further and argued in 2011 that in accepting this view of politicians as uniformly corrupt and useless, the public are embracing a dangerous new stereotype, since it “can only further reinforce mistrust in the public realm, a mistrust that some political forces seek to exploit”. “Comedy,” he continued, “has always relied on stereotypes. There was a time when the Irish were thick; the Scots were careful with money; mothers-in-law fierce and ugly; and the Welsh stole and shagged sheep. The corrupt politician is one such stereotype, one that is neither racist nor sexist and seemingly acceptable to all.” The idea that politicians are morally inferior to the rest of us is “a convenient view, for it means we, the audience, the voters, are not to blame for anything: we are not to blame because we are the victims of a politics gone wrong.”

Fielding’s remarks were eloquent and timely; but it is remarkable how fully they were anticipated by [Michael] Frayn in 1963. Even then – in the very year of That Was the Week That Was – Frayn was using the same analogy, and could see, just as clearly, how anti-establishment comedy was letting its audience off the hook: “To go on mocking the Establishment,” he wrote, “has more and more meant making the audience laugh not at themselves at all, but at a standard target which is rapidly becoming as well-established as mothers-in-law. To do this is not to undermine but to confirm the audience’s prejudices, and has less in common with satire than with community hymn-singing – agreeable and heartwarming as that may be.” And Frayn, indeed, was echoing what James Sutherland had pointed out seven years earlier when he said that “certain kinds of satirical writing (political satire is a good example) are not normally intended to convert one’s opponents, but to gratify and fortify one’s friends.”

Though we may lack a satirical tradition here in Ireland (too soft perhaps, or soft-headed), we certainly don’t lack a complaining one, finding fault, comparing everything we have or have had with the crippling inheritance of the “ideals” the men of 1916 left us with before conveniently dying being something we are rather good at, at both a lower and somewhat higher intellectual level. The English are (and why wouldn’t they be?) a somewhat more light-hearted people than ourselves. Christopher Booker, the founder of Private Eye, attributes to Peter Cook the fear that “Britain is in danger of sinking giggling into the sea.” With us it will be moaning.

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