On 8 April 2013 I went to a comedy club. I hadn’t been planning to but Margaret Thatcher had just died, the road to my flat in Brixton was blocked with confused, champagne-spraying revellers and I figured if ever there was a time for political comedy to make a comeback, this might be it. So I went to Old Rope, an excellent weekly night in the basement of The Phoenix pub in London where comedians young and old, green and established, try out their freshest, totally unproven jokes on a relaxed crowd.
As it happened, the ghost of Thatcher barely made herself felt that night. There were a few digs here and there but the bill was weighted towards the surreal and whimsical – James Acaster, Tom Wrigglesworth, Tony Law – rather than the righteous Maggie ire that made the likes of Ben Elton and Alexei Sayle famous in the 80s. Perhaps too much time had passed. Perhaps it was too soon to make light of an old woman’s death. Or perhaps all of the best jokes had already been shared to death on Twitter.
One year on, the scene looks a little different. Last night, Handbagged opened in London. Moira Buffini’s playful drama started out as a half-hour short as part of the Tricycle Theatre’s Women, Power and Politics season. The stand-out success of that experiment, Buffini subsequently expanded it into a full-length drama for the theatre, and it has now found a berth in the West End.
The play takes a mischievous look at the weekly meetings between the Queen and Thatcher with each woman played by two actresses, allowing the characters to engage in sparky, often daft dialogue with their younger selves, as well as with each other. Thatcher’s character is frequently played for laughs – “Who ordered an interval? We do not need an interval!” she roars at the halfway point – just as she was in Peter Morgan’s play about the same weekly meetings, The Audience, last year.
On Tuesday night, one comedian marked the anniversary of the Prime Minister’s death by holding a séance for Thatcher in the green-lit basement of the Leicester Square Theatre. This was Nathaniel Tapley, in character as the medium and “ghost heckler” Melmoth Darkleigh. Before the show opened he was accused of being a “bile merchant” and “plain sick”.
“The point was to make people angry, as well as to make them laugh. The coverage of Mrs Thatcher’s death last year was almost entirely hagiographic”, he wrote in an article for the British Comedy Guide. “It sought to rewrite her history, only daring, in some instances to call her ‘divisive.’” And what of the criticism that he is exploiting the death of an old lady for crass commercial gain? “I like to think it’s what she would have wanted.”
In the event the show was more silly than satirical – a mixed bag of mind-reading tricks using Thatcher biographies, poems about Michael Gove (“Michael Gove, Michael Gove. Your clothes from the rent hair of teachers are wove…”) and a rabidly anti-PC Tory MP character called Ian Bowler. There were plenty of jokes about free milk and the Belgrano too.
It is strange that a year after her death and almost a quarter of a century after she left power Thatcher is still the butt of so many jokes. She famously had no time for humour herself. According to her biographer Charles Moore, “I’d say these things called jokes, which have punch lines and a set-up and say things like ‘there’s an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman’… she had absolutely no understanding of them whatever.” And therein perhaps is the key to her comic longevity. Straight-faced always makes for a better stooge. And there were none straighter than the Iron Lady’s.
I interviewed Chris Addison recently and we talked about the fact that no show has filled the gap where The Thick of It used to be. “You couldn't do another political sitcom straight away for the same reason that nobody has done a hotel sitcom for a while. However good your one is, people look on it unfavourably”, he said. “You won’t get one about the home guard, or about an office, or about priests in Ireland, either.” Not so. This week the Men Behaving Badly writer Simon Nye revealed that he is writing a hotel sitcom, Private Parts, and is hoping the BBC will pick it up. Whether he manages to get through that commissioning meeting without anyone mentioning Fawlty Towers is another matter.
What I Watched…
A preview of the first two episodes of the sketch show showed the duo on brilliant form. Ambitious ideas, handsomely filmed and a return for old favourites like suburban Banksy and the Office Flirts. On Channel 4 from 30 April.
Lad comedy at its sharpest. Walsh’s subjects – hangovers and laziness – are well-worn but what a joy to see them done so well. Watch out for his deft slo-mo and impressions, too. At Soho Theatre, London to 19 April, then touring. www.seannwalsh.com
Stewart Lee and Chris Morris
There’s something enormously endearing about two of British comedy’s most revered getting the giggles as they assess the impact of Lee’s latest TV series. “Time passed and something happened.”