Casting a private eye beyond the fringe of satire

<i>That Was Satire That Was: the satire boom of the 1960s </i>by Humphrey Carpenter (Victor Gollancz, &pound;20)
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The Independent Culture

During the Sixties, says Humphrey Carpenter, our attitude to authority changed, and the rules about what we were allowed to say in public altered. Carpenter reckons this is what the satire boom was all about. But although he explains how humour shifted, from subservience to subversion, the why remains a mystery.

During the Sixties, says Humphrey Carpenter, our attitude to authority changed, and the rules about what we were allowed to say in public altered. Carpenter reckons this is what the satire boom was all about. But although he explains how humour shifted, from subservience to subversion, the why remains a mystery.

Britannia was bankrupt and defenceless, Suez had eroded old certainty, and satire fed off imperial decline in an era of introspective change. That's the theory. But real history ignores decades. Willie Rushton's early influences, Wodehouse and Beachcomber, both date back to the Twenties. Unlike sexual intercourse, satire didn't begin in 1963.

So what caused this irreverent explosion? The Butler Education Act? True, Alan Bennett's grammar-school generation got greater access to university. As Frankie Howerd said, "these days you can't be filthy if you haven't got a degree." Yet Richard Ingrams claims that David Frost's career ran counter to the "public-school amateurism that characterised Beyond the Fringe and Private Eye." What about National Service? Well, it stopped Bennett becoming a clergyman. And it's funny that Paul Foot was an officer while his less radical pals, Ingrams and Rushton, weren't.

The Lord Chamberlain, satire's public foe, was its private ally, preserving scripts for Carpenter to peruse. This unwitting archivist gave satire a solid structure to kick against. "If there isn't a line drawn," says Bennett, "you're deprived of a tool." As Jonathan Miller says, satire thrived under old-fashioned, indolent repression. Maybe that's why it's an innately anarchic, yet ultimately conservative, device. "It works best if there's an underlying respect for the institutions that are portrayed," says Cambridge satirist turned Tory Cabinet minister Lord Lang.

Yet even this tempting hypothesis trips up on the truth. Beyond the Fringe sent up the national anthem and CofE, but the only censored lines were two camp actors calling each other "love" and "darling". The BBC banned suggestive references to honeymoon couples, ladies' underwear and even commercial travellers, but it was in New York, not London, that The Establishment's crucifixion sketch was forbidden.

Sensibly, Carpenter plays down satire's power. "The lash falls on willing shoulders," wrote Malcolm Muggeridge. The people Peter Cook mocked flocked to hear him. Vicky's cartoon boosted Harold Macmillan's image, and "Supermac" attended Beyond the Fringe.

Satire's more modern incarnations seem even more impotent. "The perceived vision of her, as an extremely strong, arrogant, aggressive woman," says Ian Hislop of Lady Thatcher, "was exactly the image she wanted to project." "The 'Dear Bill' letters made her more human," says Ned Sherrin.

Without censure, satire is a eunuch at an orgy. "It was a revelation that our lords and masters were capable of folly on a grand scale," said David Nobbs, mourning our mockery-proof politics. "Now it would be a revelation if we found that any of them weren't." Satirists helped to create a post-political celebrity culture. Perhaps Private Eye, whose response to the mourning for Diana was a rare instance of true satire, owes its survival to a refusal to develop what Kenneth Tynan pompously called "a point of view".

John Cleese says that it never occurred to him that Beyond the Fringe was satirical. Indeed, much of what Carpenter writes about wasn't satire in its strictest sense. Yet defining funny is a fruitless task, and it's a credit to this uneven yet entertaining survey that humour survives the analysis. Anecdote, not argument, is where its true illumination lies. Did you know that Ingrams wanted to call Private Eye "Bladder"? That its crusading figurehead is modelled on John Wells? Or that when the Queen came to see Beyond the Fringe, Bennett refused to omit the word "erection"? Delightful human details, not theories, make this book enthralling. As for precisely what prompted this brief comic renaissance, we're really none the wiser.

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