Arts: The comics' manifesto

This Thursday night, there is a real alternative to Dimblebys, pundits and the swingometer: the team that brought you The Friday Night Armistice are launching their own satirical gloss on the election. James Rampton sits in on an ideas meeting
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The trestle-table in the cavernous assembly-room at Acton Town Hall in west London is strewn with the usual comedy-writers' debris: half- finished scripts, chewed pencils, crumpled newspapers, dreg-filled styrofoam teacups, empty fizzy-drinks cans, screwed-up crisp-packets and semi-munched apples. It all says: "We're tortured artists in mid-brainstorm, far too preoccupied to worry about mess."

A couple of weeks before polling-day, the Friday Night Armistice team of Armando Iannucci, David Schneider and Peter Baynham, and their producer, Sarah Smith, are hunched over notepads on the table, workshopping ideas for an election-night special, three hours-plus of topical comedy due to go out live on Thursday night - and it's a demanding process.

Playing on the notion of the defeated Tory party as a drowning man who sees images from the past 18 years flashing before his eyes, Iannucci unleashes phrases like semi-automatic fire: "The green shoots of recovery ... Unemployment is a price worth paying ... There is no such thing as society ... Everyone needs their Willy." "It sounds like the end of The Generation Game," Schneider chips in. "Yes, if you can come up with 25 bizarre phrases from Mrs Thatcher, you win a kettle," Iannucci replies.

They bat around the possibility of Labour repeating the ill-fated Sheffield "rock star" rally of the 1992 campaign. "Tony Blair will go up to the podium and say `Alright!'," Iannucci speculates, "and then Peter Mandelson will rush on to explain that what Tony is trying to say is `It looks like nice weather'. Or what about Martin Bell? He's ahead in the polls, and then, just before the election, he holds a rally where he goes, `This is Martin Bell. Tatton, alright! - oh sorry.'"

"Because our economic policy is completely in Tatton," Baynham adds. Fizzing around the table at a bewildering speed, new ideas emerge from the comedians with a good deal more regularity than they do from the politicians they are satirising.

Comedians have come to love general elections even more than psephologists. This campaign, they have been popping up on our screens with greater frequency than Peter Snow. Switch on Newsnight and who do you see mugging alongside Jeremy Paxman but Harry Enfield? And who's that interviewing Tony Blair on The Enormous Election? Why, it's David Baddiel. The election schedules read like a Who's Who of modern British comedy: Rory Bremner, the Long Johns (Bird and Fortune), Ruby Wax, Jo Brand, Rhona Cameron, Dennis Pennis.

This sense of levity is infecting the politicians, too, who have had a bad attack of the slapsticks. One Labour poster depicted John Major and Kenneth Clarke as Laurel and Hardy while, for a photo-opportunity to underline the number of Tory tax rises since the last election, 22 Labour supporters donned Major fright-masks (causing several floating voters to laugh so much the Tory candidate almost lost his deposit!).

Just why has there been such an explosion of election-based comedy? Is it merely symptomatic of our increasingly cynical view of politics? Are schedulers hoping to hook the key marginal constituency of 18- to 24-year- olds who are usually turned off by the combination of swingometers and smug politicians?

Jon Plowman, head of comedy entertainment at the BBC, argues that TV execs are indeed trying to sweeten the political pill for viewers. "News has been given huge amounts of air-time and they can't think how to fill it," he says. "There must be a worry that we're boring the public stupid with the amount of election coverage. So the thinking is, `We can't be too po-faced for six weeks, we've got to make it appealing.' There's a lot more news time, and one of the ways to make it palatable is to add more comedy."

Sarah Smith puts it down to "the enormous expansion of both news and comedy. They've collided during the election so that all news programmes now apparently must have some comedy. Next year, they're merging News and Entertainment..." "...and calling it Newstag," Baynham suggests.

"The Day Today was only a little more exaggerated than the real thing," Smith says. Anyone who has seen the hilariously portentous 5 News will know what she means. "Remember the time Alan Clark was on Newsnight after he'd been nominated as the Tory candidate in Kensington and Chelsea? His ear-piece kept falling out and he said, `This is like something off The Day Today.' In fact, news people ask to come on attachment with us."

Baynham is concerned that reality is in danger of outstripping art. "It does become more difficult when you turn on the TV and see Captain Jean-Luc Picard [actor Patrick Stewart from Star Trek: the Next Generation] doing a press conference for Labour."

There is, however, often a dread laboriousness about attempts by news to don a red nose; it's what you might call the News at Ten "And Finally..." Syndrome. "It would be like us thinking, `We'll stop doing jokes in the middle of our programmes and just do social analysis instead,'" Plowman says. "That seems like not having faith in your core business."

Iannucci agrees. "I'm dubious about comedy turning up in news. I don't mind news turning up in comedy, which is what we do. But what I don't like is that wry face on the news-reader." (There was a good example on last Thursday's Nine O'Clock News when Peter Sissons smirked at the end of a report about a cat that had received a polling-card.) "It's just news people being envious of comedy people wearing funny hats. As a result, Newsnight has gone barking mad."

"When they did a feature on the privatised utilities recently," Baynham butts in, "they represented them with men in bowler hats marked `Ofwat' and `Ofgas'. What next? Peter Snow coming down a slide into a pool of different-coloured balls?" Don't joke - one of the graphics for BBC1's Election Night programme will show party battle-buses veering off into a ditch when the results go against them. "It's become a choice between a frothy, wry, light-hearted look at events, and us," Baynham says.

The consummation of this flirtation between comedy and news will come on Thursday evening when BBC2 abandons its traditional election-night schedule of golf and a Woody Allen movie in favour of Iannucci and Co. At 10pm, as polling booths close around the country, an as-yet unnamed celebrity will officially "switch off" the election in Parliament Square, allowing the familiar Armistice blend of the comic, the clever and the cutting to flow forth unhindered by all thoughts of politically correct campaign-trail balance. The quest for "balance" has seen the BBC ban Harry Enfield's Tory Boy persona and sent Labour spin doctors into a spin over last weekend's Have I Got News For You, which flashed a "subliminal" "Vote Conservative" message on-screen while Angus Deayton reiterated the commitment to impartiality. "We'll be making comedy on the hoof," Baynham says. "Rory Bremner will ring up and say, `You've made certain comedy commitments. Where are they?'"

The team have already sent a "Sleaze Cock" to follow John Major and have booked a "prostitute" to be flown in a helicopter to create the first scandal of the new term. A blow-up Paddy Ashdown will be inflated and deflated according to how the Lib Dems are doing, and Valerie Singleton will front reports from a bouncy House of Commons representing the make- up of the new Parliament. Manchester will be declared a politics-free zone, where BBC leisure experts will offer advice on antiques evaluation and archery. "We're confident that we've got enough jokes for this election and another one in six months if there's a hung Parliament," says Smith.

All these ideas display a healthy contempt for politics, but Iannucci rejects accusations that the programme is disrespectful. "It is politicians who have shown a lack of respect for the political process," he claims. "We'll discuss more issues in three hours than they have done over five weeks."

While Dimbleby and the grown-ups are addressing the "serious issues" in the neighbouring BBC1 studio, the Armistice people see themselves as the mischievous younger brother, the Just William of the election-night schedules. "BBC1 have the proper show, and we're having fun down the corridor," says Smith. "One of our props will be a giant glass to put up against the studio wall to hear what's going on over on BBC1."

They claim they wanted to have a link-up and engage David Dimbleby in a head-to-head debate but the attempt failed because "we couldn't meet his demands". If that's the case, Dimbleby had better beware being followed around by a six-foot chicken every time he leaves the house.

"We're providing television for people who get the beers and pizzas in," says Plowman. "They are different from those who want Jon Snow and Peter Snow and anyone else called Snow. If you're a serious newsoholic, you'll be with BBC1, but you might pop over to us for a bit of a party."

But could the Armistice team ever become an election-night institution like the Dimbleby family or getting drunk? And if they did, wouldn't that undermine their subversive status? While Baynham, in pure politician speak says: "Let's just say, we're adopting a wait-and-see policy," Plowman sees it more as a resigning issue: "There is an instinct in comedians that says, `If I ever start taking things too seriously, shoot me.'"

As far as the Armistice are concerned, I don't think anyone need be reaching for the revolver quite yet. They certainly get my vote.

`The Election Night Armistice' is on BBC2 at 10.30pm on Thursday