TV Review – The Comic Strip presents…The Hunt for Tony Blair

Brit watches “an exercise in petty catharsis by an embarrassed left-liberal media establishment” and asks why satire isn’t funny any more…

The recent 50th birthday of Private Eye, Britain’s leading satirical magazine, was marked by an avalanche of glowing media tributes. But for Christopher Booker, its first editor and still an important contributor, they have not been quite glowing enough. In a guest piece for this week’s Spectator he complains:

…none of these tributes has done justice to by far the most important ingredient in Private Eye‘s distinctive character. Drawing most journalists’ attention have been two of the three main parts of the magazine, its gossip and investigate journalism. But these on their own would never have given Private Eye its unique role without that third ingredient, which has been at the heart of the magazine for longer than either: the parodies and spoof news items known to those who write them as ‘the jokes’.

I think I can help explain why ‘the jokes’ were strangely absent from the accolades to your magazine, Mr Booker. It is because they are not funny. This has been the case for at least as long as I’ve been (infrequently) buying Private Eye – about 15 years or so. Absorbing yes, often juicy, but funny? With the honourable exception of Craig Brown, not even close.

In the next paragraph Booker unwittingly reveals the reason for Private Eye‘s distinctive unfunniness…

One reason why [the jokes have] remained something of a mystery is that, almost since the beginning, it has been written anonymously and collaboratively by a little team of contributors whose joke-writing sessions, hidden away in the editor’s office, have never been witnessed by any outsider.

Now I can easily imagine that for the first twenty or thirty years of Private Eye Booker and his “little team” (Willie Rushton, Richard Ingrams, Barry Fantoni and later Ian Hislop (“the only outsider capable of joining in with the peculiar alchemy of our collaborative joke sessions”)) were extremely funny, especially when joined by Peter Cook. But today I defy anyone outside of that mirthful editor’s office to manage two titters per issue, never mind a belly-laugh. The comedic zeitgeist has left Private Eye a long way behind. The parodies are lame, the satire heavy-handed and obvious. Even the cartoons look like what they are – cheap space-fillers for the second-division gags not good enough for the dailies or The Spectator. There shouldn’t be any surprise in this – imagine how tired the surreal links would be now if the Pythons had carried on writing the same sort of sketch show in the same sort of way for 50 years. Funny moves on – for topical laughs today we must turn to the subtler, more knowing pleasures of snarkery, and to women: Caitlin Moran in The Times and Marina Hyde in The Guardian knock Hislop’s common-room smart-arses into a cocked hat.

Not that hilarity is a must for good satire. Political comedians are rarely actually as funny as observational or surreal stand-ups. But it does need to be angry and nasty, and it does need to be outsider. Private Eye is, at most, grumpy and snidey, and it is certainly no longer outside the Establishment. Which brings us to The Comic Strip and their curious latest outing The Hunt for Tony Blair (Channel 4, Friday 14 October 9pm – now available to view on 4OD). Curious for many reasons, foremost being the choice of target. Blair and the Iraq War has been done many times before and the key events all happened eight years ago so everyone has by now made up their minds on the people involved. Curious also in the way it was done: as a super-silly 1940s film noir set in the sort of 1950s or 60s.

Two bits were funny: Nigel Planer’s pitch-perfect Peter Mandelson, and the running gag about the plethora of memoirs that have been published since the period, with the major players constantly referring to page numbers of their own books. Otherwise it was either pointlessly obvious (Gordon Brown as a psycho; Alastair Campbell was Harry Enfield doing a watered-down Malcolm Tucker) or oddly bloodless (Cherie got off very lightly). Stephen Mangan was fun as Blair himself, and the whole thing zipped along quickly, but as silly comedy it wasn’t rib-tickling enough (Channel 4’s similar Star Stories were much better) and as satire it was no more than this: an exercise in petty catharsis by a left-liberal media establishment driven not by righteous rage but by the post-Iraq embarrassment of knowing they cheered Blair’s New Labour to the rafters in 1997.

The fact is that political comedy today is nearly all feeble because it is nearly all safe Beebish soft-left. There is one shining exception and we have to import it from across the Pond. In 2004 Trey Parker and Matt Stone made Team America, which remains the funniest and best satire on the War on Terror because it ruthlessly and systematically takes the piss out of absolutely everyone, from gung-ho hawks (the immortal catchphrase “America! F*** yeah!”) to bleeding-heart celebrity dictator-lovers like Sean Penn. The Hunt for Tony Blair, even where it attempted satire, stuck solely to the obvious targets and left the Left (George Galloway? Red Ken?) untouched. The achievements of Parker and Stone should not be underestimated: South Park has been running for 14 years yet, unlike The Comic Strip and unlike Private Eye, it remains tirelessly, viciously, hilariously outside.

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16 thoughts on “TV Review – The Comic Strip presents…The Hunt for Tony Blair

  1. Gaw
    October 17, 2011 at 07:57

    I think it’s very unjust (not to mention inconsiderate) of you not to tip your hat to our own Noseybonk – the ultimate outsider, literally so given his tendency to haunt wells, clees and the fibres of the internet. LOL funny he is.

    Didn’t the Comic Strip team only ever do one truly funny skit, Five Go Mad in Dorset? Perhaps the miners’ strike one was funny too. The ones since have been entirely unfunny.

    I think the only political comedy to make me laugh in recent years is from Stewart Lee.

    October 17, 2011 at 10:16

    Yet another accurate autopsy Brit, at some point in time between TW3 and Nixon, Frost and his bunch of sixth formers turned from poacher into gamekeeper, they became the establishment. Somewhere along the way working class humour was kicked back over the tracks, the wrong side of the M25.
    Upon reflection the targets were large and the banter more elitist jibe than biting satire, all that is left from those days of any merit are Pete and Dud. It is not having the mickey taken out of him that Blair deserves, indictment would be more fitting.

    Ultimately they were a failure, the clowns in the driving seat against whom they railed have today been replaced by even bigger clowns, more immune than ever.

    James Hamilton
    October 17, 2011 at 11:45

    This is one of those times when you thank someone for watching something so that you yourself didn’t have to…

    I agree with Malty that there’s a class division humourwise operating here. I’d take it one step further, and suggest that Blair-hatred is a specifically middle-class hobby. It’s intensifying in overtly Labour circles (such as my own) right now because it diverts attention from the awkward fact that we dumped Blair and his allies and lost power almost immediately. There are those of us on the left who think that one consequence of this is that we share some of the responsibility for the Coalition’s mistakes by having handed them the opportunity to make them. Personally, I find irony in the way Blairites such as myself were always being accused from the left of lacking ideas and conviction, by first Brown, then Milliband, whose claims to have a leftish masterplan waiting in a drawer turn out to be flat lies from men who are revealed to be effective party apparatchiks with little or no interest beyond that. No ideas, no plans, no belief or commitment at all.

    The trouble isn’t that the country’s problems are complex and hard to crack, although they are. It’s that (1) at the moment, the left isn’t about solving problems, but about blaming other people for them, thus this Comic Strip effort and goodness knows how much else, and (2) if we attempt to tackle any of the country’s problems, why, we might get things wrong along the way, and that’s an unthinkable challenge to our self-image.

    So much easier to assuage the conscience with comedy, with ludicrously over-the-top opinions about the Coalition (when people talk about the govt launching “attacks” on this and “assaults” on that, I switch off quite frankly) and blaming it all on Blair. Keeps everyone agreed around the dinner table, keeps up the pretense that we’re the good guys, and we believe in redistribution but tax cuts now! etc.

    Too long! Sorry.. in summary, this might be one period when satire, far from being politically as useful as some think it is, might actually be the last thing we need. Because if our problems really are this dire, then there’s thinking to be done in politics, and if satire’s going to rule that thinking out of court simply because it’s done by politicians, then whom? and when?

    October 17, 2011 at 13:43

    I’d say we have (or had) one true satirist in British TV – Chris Morris. Meanwhile we are indeed in a sorry state.

  5. Brit
    October 17, 2011 at 13:45

    Agreed on Morris, Nige.

    David Cohen
    October 17, 2011 at 17:58

    Perhaps Mr. Booker was being ironic.

    October 17, 2011 at 18:05

    Chris Morris’s Four Lions was a disappointment, though.

    Rory Bremner is a good mimic but a poor satirist – he just lectures, really, like Ben Elton used to. I get really annoyed at being lectured to by a comedian.

    Spitting Image had great puppets and voices but the satire was crude and overdone – Thatcher as a Nazi, for goodness sake.

    Perhaps the satire well that began with TWTWTW and Frost Report has finally run dry, or perhaps it’s that it’s a matter of age – you’ve seen it/heard it all before. A lot of the satire around may seem fresh and clever if you’re seeing something like that for the first time.

      October 17, 2011 at 19:08

      I don’t think Bremner is even that good as a mimic. John Culshaw is much better, though his scripts are feeble.

      Bird and Fortune were the best thing on Rory Bremner but they were the same every time.

        October 18, 2011 at 02:58

        Yes, Rory Bremner… shockingly unfunny. Bird and Fortune: boring. Agree with all of this, only I didn’t realize Caitlin Moran was funny. At all. I’ll have to try one of her columns again one decade.

    October 18, 2011 at 09:47

    South Park, Chris Morris, the general paucity of good quality angry satire – yes indeed (I didn’t watch Comic Strip so can’t comment).

    But I have to take issue with you on Private Eye not being funny. Humour isn’t its most important role – that would be its fearless investigative journalism – but you don’t keep 200,000 readers a fortnight happy with stuff that is entirely “lame”. Clearly it all varies greatly in quality, but I’d say I clock at least a half dozen belly laughs per issue. Unfortunately humour is a subjective thing, and without the current issue to hand, I can do no more than point you to one of my favourite Eye cartoons – though admittedly one that is neither angry nor nasty.

    The comment about Private Eye being part of the establishment is an interesting one. Even its own readers regularly lambast the staff for being some kind of inner circle for privileged private school moaners, but it’s difficult to dispute that in journalistic terms, the Eye is the most proudly independent, vested-interest-free mainstream media outlet in the country. (Unless you want to argue the case for the BBC, but “neutrality” often doesn’t equal good political journalism either.)

      October 18, 2011 at 13:15

      Private Eye had its birthday party at the V&A and Ian Hislop presents BBC programmes on scouts and the CofE.

      But yes, the gossip at the front and investigative stuff, especially the gossip, is good.

      I reckon the editor’s office ‘jokes’ are actually objectively unfunny, a difficult trick to pull off.

    October 18, 2011 at 14:01

    Further to the insider/outsider status of Private Eye, Booker himself compares it to Punch, which started out dangerous and ended up being loved primarily for its cosy familiarity.

    In that light, compare Private Eye with, say, Guido Fawkes’ relentless unpleasantry.(Good old Colemanballs, Pseud’s Corner…)

    Investigation-wise, its power to bring people down is feeble compared with the newspapers (Alastair Campbell famously didn’t give a stuff about the Eye).

    Mind you – and going back to Malty’s class point, to be truly outsider, a satirist should not start from the view that Britain and Westminster are synonymous, but I’m struggling for examples.

      October 18, 2011 at 14:52

      “Investigation-wise, its power to bring people down is feeble compared with the newspapers (Alastair Campbell famously didn’t give a stuff about the Eye).”

      Eye journalists very much delve into areas others don’t (as well as exposing the hypocrisies of their bigger rivals, without political bias) and regularly produce scoops which should be massive. An example would be their recent expose on the Commonwealth Development Corporation. But rather than stealing a march on the Eye, it’s pretty common for the ‘proper’ papers to simply steal its stories, or ignore them until deciding suddenly to claim them as exclusives (e.g. the News International scandal, which the Eye had been peeling back layer after layer for years).

      So it isn’t the quality of investigations that’s at fault, but the Eye’s ability to be taken seriously. Is this because of the humorous tone of much of the rest of it?

    October 18, 2011 at 23:50

    Agree on Four Lions, although it still beats a lot of today’s comedy. Some of Charlie Brooker’s stuff can be quite good. Morris is still the all time best though:

    October 19, 2011 at 00:30

    Also when Private Eye was the essential funny outsider it came from the misanthropic pessimistic and frequently offensively racist and sexist (and hilarious) right.

    The affluent preachy authoritarian left that has been the establishment for some time now are the opposite of funny. I cant listen to The News Quiz because I find the real hatred it broadcasts sinister and disturbing in a way that Private Eyes objectively vile parodies of Idi Amin actually werent.

    Saeva indignatio (and comic talent of course) is what is needed. Chris Morris has it (but not often enough). Charlie Brooker had it but has clearly sold out for the opportunity to hang out with Adam Curtis and feel culturally significant. Its what makes Nosybonk so bloody funny; and private eye (and the comic strip presents) are perfect illustrations of what formerly talented satirists will produce when they are just not angry or hungry or outside enough.

    And speaking of the funny girls there is also Catherine Bennets roccoco scorn.

    October 20, 2011 at 18:37

    Well I have to say Private Eye’s most recent front cover made me chuckle.

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