An Utterly Exasperated History of Modern Britain, By John O'Farrell

The comedic approach to history is a sensible one
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The Independent Culture

By virtue of age, by attitude, sometimes, and because I hail from one of the many parts of the south of England where voters were once rabbits in the headlights of the seemingly unstoppable Tory juggernaut, souped-up with the promise of owning your own home (while Labour's horse and cart, borrowed from Steptoe and Son, lay in a ditch), I am one of "Thatcher's children".

Given this, John O'Farrell's latest book is, for me at least, an engrossing and agonising read. And fortunately, a funny one too. Though the author, whom I once heard described as a "sit-down comedian" because of his gags-per-line rate, has penned a print version of an "I Love the Post-War Years" TV clips show, and a sometimes back-handed tribute to the Labour Party since 1945, it is the Thatcher era, 30 years on, that inevitably proves the most engrossing. This sequence, and passages that anticipate it and follow it, constitute a response to the pundits such as Andrew Marr who see the Thatcher years as painful but necessary. Or, as her successor John Major would put it: "If it isn't hurting, it isn't working".

Bizarrely, perhaps, given the mileage that O'Farrell got out of the Thatcher years during his stint writing for Spitting Image, "1979 and all that" can sometimes prove tricky comedically, with the best belly laughs coming from jokes aimed at the easier target of his beloved ailing Labour Party. Daring to suggest that volumes of Tony Benn's diaries were called Rather Pleased With Myself and Still Quite Pleased With Myself, is one such example. A page later, O'Farrell goes one better by characterising the internal Labour Party strife as if it were some kind of Dungeons and Dragons game with replica models representing cursed talismans for the party, including the legendary mischief-maker Benn and union block votes.

For all O'Farrell's delicious embroidery, he shows that, sometimes, the best topical gags come from the protagonists and politicians themselves. Examples he cites include Mandy Rice-Davies' retort "Well, he would, wouldn't he?", uttered during the Profumo affair after she was challenged in court with Lord Astor's denial of an affair between them; and choice examples from the gag catalogue of Dennis Skinner; as well as a gag that never quite made it, namely Gordon Brown's post-Lewinsky/Clinton conference joke: "In Downing Street, there will be no right turns, no left turns, no U-turns and definitely no interns."

As a writer and a guest on Have I Got News For You, O'Farrell not surprisingly makes the case in his book for the satirical comedy show having played an instrumental role in politics, or at the least in making the careers of Charles Kennedy and Boris Johnson. The wider point is that humour is incredibly effective in painting a picture of political friends or foes, even if – like Supermac, Victor Weisz's Evening Standard cartoon depiction of Harold Macmillan, the Strawb's song "Part of the Union" and Harry Enfield's character Loadsamoney – they can backfire.

An Utterly Exasperated History of Modern Britain: Or, 60 Years of Making the Same Stupid Mistakes, which follows O'Farrell's An Utterly Impartial History of Britain, appears just a few weeks after the former UN security advisor Professor Michael Clarke said that "some of the most valuable counter-terrorism experts are comedians", because comedy strips extremism of any kudos. Perhaps one can extrapolate from this that the best historical harbingers are also comedians, be they sit-down ones such as O'Farrell or stand-up ones such as Robert Newman, Mark Steel and Mark Thomas. Notwithstanding their bias, they all would like to think that they bring with them warnings that will help curb further catastrophic behaviour, and that the message behind the laughter is clear.

While there may never be a British equivalent to the more conservative US political satirist PJ O'Rourke to even out the politics of laughter, and though he may be looking at things through Labour-rose-tinted spectacles, John O'Farrell is as even-handed as it is possible for him to be when he is laughing at, rather than with, his subjects. And he stops short of trying to change history himself by asking the reader to put a smile on Gordon Brown's face come the next election, content to let the shadows of Conservatives past, to which he has added some light shading, do that for him.