John Walsh meets... The Long Johns

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The Independent Culture
Last Friday, two men in suits walked onto the stage of the Hexagon theatre in Reading, and proceeded to tell the audience some news from their own backyard: that, unknown to most of Reading's citizens, one of its two hospitals, the Royal Berkshire, was about to be shut down. That, as an early warning of what was in store, the hospital had closed down its Accident & Emergency Unit on two occasions in the last two weeks (and if you rang the NHS's press office for confirmation, you'd hear them say, "Yes we did close down the A and E ward - but we didn't tell anyone," as if that made it more acceptable). And in place of the Royal Berkshire, the audience heard, plans are now afoot to build a huge public-service complex that will feature two multi-storey car parks, an office block, a restaurant, a shopping mall and a health farm, but nothing of any actual medical use at all...

"We've talked to local journalists, of course, and it's news to them," Bird said with satisfaction. "It's very odd when you can just turn up at a theatre and tell the audience what's happening to them..." It is indeed odd. There's something almost medieval about a brace of travelling players arriving in town with news for the townsfolk about their own fate. It's a combination of news, entertainment and plain shock that no other arts medium offers. But spiking the convivial bowl with harsh facts from the real world is what John Bird and John Fortune do best. Their monologues in which one of them interrogates the multi-faceted George Parr, fixer, trouble-shooter, spin doctor and apologist supreme - started as five-minute chats on Rory Bremner's comedy show in 1992. Then Channel 4 gave them an extended 15-minute slot, for the fuller version of their monologues, around midnight, and were persuaded to move it earlier. A book of the scripts followed last autumn, entitled The Long Johns.

Now they've taken the show on the road, for a six-date tour (Reading was the second; still to come are Leeds, Newcastle, Wimbledon and High Wycombe), appearing on stage with two armchairs, two lapel mikes and a droll warm-up man called Mike Meier. The first gig, in Bromley, drew an unprecedented burst of applause from the Guardian's veteran critic, Michael Billington. Only a bestselling CD and a phone call from Paramount Studios ("Arnold is very keen to read for George Parr...") seem currently beyond the range of possibilities facing this unlikely twosome.

Satire, of course, depends on taking a portion of the truth - a physical detail, a malevolent tendency - and subjecting it to relentless expansion until it enters a realm of moral absurdity; Swift's babies-for-supper pamphlet, a Modest Proposal, is still the template for the whole genre. Bird and Fortune have the technique cold - "When you're suffering a cardiac arrest," one of them asked the other on the Hexagon stage, "what's the first thing you need when you get to the hospital? That's right - a parking space" - but so smoothly plausible is the language of their lethal antiphons that many people have been fooled. When they made their first appearance on Rory Bremner's newly politicised comedy show, some viewers couldn't tell if a) the dialogue was faithfully transcribed from a real-conversation with this or that ministry; b) wholly invented but with a core of genuine statistics; or c) completely made up, figures and "facts" included. "Our favourite phone call to the duty officer [the person who monitors viewers complaints at a television station] was when somebody'd ring up and say, `Look, is this real? Or is it meant to be funny?' " Fortune said with delight.

The two Johns have been meaning to be funny for some 36 years now. They come across as a neatly complementary pair: Bird is short, serious and mildly irascible, as if beset by a constant neural itch; Fortune is bulky, humorous and genial, beset only by a desire to buy you a drink. Bird drinks lo-alcohol things, smokes and does most of the talking and ad hoc theorising; Fortune drinks Guinness, doesn't smoke and cuts in with droll anecdotes. Bird, who was noted in the mid-Sixties for his seamless impersonations of Harold Wilson, now bears a distinct look of Neil Kinnock; Fortune, with a mouth as thin as a razor-cut and a spectacular cocked eyebrow like an astonished pigeon, looks born to play Perplexed Bystander roles.

When were they last on tour? "Never," Bird said with distaste, "but of course John here is the Man of the Theatre." "I was in On Approval," Fortune said dreamily, "that old thing by Frederick Lonsdale, four or five years ago. It toured for 11 weeks. It was a fairly major disaster. The touring was... awful." It is not, however, for actorish tales of seaside landladies and weekly rep that you sit in with the two Johns. Professional satirists for half a lifetime, they talk in an unbroken succession of conjectures and sarcastic riffs on the week's political news. On the Millennium dispute, for instance: "That picture of Heseltine being driven to Tony Blair's office, Bird said with a genuine chuckle, "You realise their people must have spent all day trying to decide who goes to whose office. It shows Heseltine's desperation...You just know he's been knocking these captains of industry's heads together, saying, `You know your knighthood's out of the window if you don't cough up the money.' "

"It's something that both sides are likely to talk up because it's not really controversial," Fortune said. "It's like constitutional reform. In both cases the real question is `Who gives a shit?' "

"But John Major does," said Bird. "He gets all pink when he starts talking about `The Union'. It's the one thing he gets absolutely passionate about. I don't know why." I suggested it was because the 1951 Festival of Britain was a Labour initiative and the PM wants to make sure the Millennium is a Tory Millennium. Bird: "So that every time you see the dome you'll think of John Major?" Fortune: "Particularly if there's nothing in it."

What did they look forward to satirising under a Labour administration? "Rather the same things as we do already" said Bird with his clubman chuckle. "You know how everything is supposed to be about `instinct' now? The Tories say, `Yes it is true that we put up taxes but our instinct is to cut them. In Labour, it's the other way around. No, they say, we're not going to spend more money on the Health Service, although our instinct is to do so. They're dying to show that their hearts are in the right place." "And now they've started talking about `trust'," Fortune said, adopting his the-world's-gone-mad expression."Tony Blair said, `This election is all about trust' Trust in what?" "Trust our instincts," Bird explained "They're saying `Do you believe us when we say we would like to do this but we can't? Or do you really think we just don't want to?' Believe me, Labour governments in the future will be about the things which they'd like to do but can't."

The main focus of their scorn, as regular viewers will know, is not necessarily the pursuit of a malign policy but the use of rhetoric to defend the indefensible. Again and again they come back to words: "Customer services when it means ignoring the customer completely. Offering people a `choice' when the choice is `You can have it if you can afford it'. And `We have made our position absolutely clear'..." They were incensed by Labour's claims that Kenneth Clarke was going to impose VAT on food. No evidence was advanced to corroborate this accusation. "This is not about policy," Bird said. "It's about the shadow of policy. Labour said `Well it's true they never said they were going to put VAT on food - but it's the sort of thing they'd like to do...' " Fortune chimed in: "Labour might just as well bring out a poster saying `The Tories are going to kill all babies under 18 months. Can you trust them not to?' "

They met at Cambridge in the late Fifties, Bird was from Nottingham, where his father managed a chemist's shop; Fortune, two years younger, came from Bristol, the son of a commercial traveller, and both read English at King's. Fortune remembers walking down towards the Arts theatre with a second-year student, who suddenly clutched his arm and pointed at a little cottage with a steamed-up window. "Look!" he hissed, "It's John Bird." "Who?" Fortune asked. "He's a brilliant director," gushed his friend. "He's just like Brecht."

Bird was, Fortune explained, that peculiar thing, a very famous undergraduate. Bird directed the Cambridge Footlights company in his last year; Fortune did likewise. In his middle year, he directed and wrote for a not-untalented newcomer called Peter Cook whose apotheosis in Beyond the Fringe was two years in the future. Fortune gave the fledgling show the first notice of its London run, in the pages of Cambridge Review.

When you're looking for clues as to why these two talented men emerged from university to spend their entire working lives mocking the political orthodoxies of Westminster and Whitehall, and subverting the language of political control, it's tempting to screech to a halt at the words "FR Leavis". Leavis, who insisted that the teaching and appreciation of English literature was a lesson in profound morality, tutored both men at different times in their university career. If anyone could be responsible for insisting on the primacy of truth in a jungle of tentacular logic and slithery rhetoric, it'd be he. But, typically, Bird and Fortune play down his effect on them into anecdote. "I used to go to seminars at Downing, his college," Bird said, "just two Downing undergraduates and I. We never exchanged a word during the first seminar, but as I left he rushed after me and said, `Mr Bird, I'd appreciate it if you didn't tell people about coming to me from outside the college. My colleagues at Downing are not happy with me. I'm on the ground floor, and they look through my window as they pass by, and they say, `There's old Leavis - raking in the fees again.' "

I asked if he was as earnest and serious as his image suggested. "No, no," said Fortune. "He was wonderfully down to earth. He once told me [Fortune adopted an accent disconcertingly like that of Enoch Powell, MP] `I rrremember going down King's Parade when I was a young man and seeing Lytton Strrrachey walking towards me with Dadie Rrrrylands on one arm and Rrrupert Brrrooke - the golden-voiced orrrator of King's College - on the other. And do you know, I didn't know where to put myself...?" So did he teach them anything? "What he really taught us was how things worked," Bird said. "That the things that work best are the best. And that even if your own standards aren't particularly high, or particularly clear, at least you believe in standards. That's an unfashionable belief when everything's supposed to be `relative' and `ironic' and `post-modernist,' which means, in fact, that nobody gives a shit about anything."

After Cambridge, Bird plunged into serious dramaturgy; at 22, he was telling Lotte Lenya what to do at the Royal Court in a tribute evening to his beloved Brecht. And as for Fortune, "When I went to university, I'd always wanted to do something in adult education. In my last year, I went for an interview, and these people said, `Well fine, if you want to teach miners to love DH Lawrence, we can get you a room in a mining town and pay you, ooh, eight quid a week.' And I thought, do I want to do that - or do I want to go and open a nightclub in Soho with Peter Cook?"

Incredibly, he chose the latter route. The club they founded in 1961 was called The Establishment, and served drinks, meals and twice-nightly cabaret, featuring the likes of the newly arrived Barry Humphries. Originally Bird and Fortune were to be only writers, and Fortune was meant to co- direct performances with Cook. But after auditioning a succession of actors, they'd found hardly anyone who shared their sense of humour. "Peter said, `Why don't you do it for three months, just until we find somebody.' And now, 36 years later..."

With the benefit of hindsight, one can only wonder what happened to Bird and Fortune. Two of the architects of the Sixties satire boom, which produced Private Eye, That Was the Week That Was, their careers seemed to run a parallel course to the comedy mainstream of the next 30 years. There was one moment on which cultural history now seems to have hinged. John Bird shared a flat with an ATV researcher called David Frost, who did occasional cabaret turns. One day, Bird was approached by Ned Sherrin and asked if he'd like to write for the pilot edition of That Was the Week That Was (TW3), which Sherrin was to produce. Bird agreed, "and Ned asked me if I'd front it. So I had to ask myself, `Do I go and set up another Establishment Club in Chicago, as I'd more or less already agreed, or do I stay in London? So I turned it down. Ned said, `Do you have any suggestions for front men?' And I said, `Well, David Frost, who shares my flat, does cabaret...' "

You can almost hear the wings of fate beating o'erhead. Frost, of course, took over Sixties TV, TW3 begat The Frost Report, which begat I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again, which begat The Goodies and Monty Python... By the time Bird and Fortune returned from their years in America, things had moved on. They won enthusiastic audiences for satirical excursions like Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life, but subsequent visits to the well, like The Late Show and BBC3, showed a dwindling interest. John and I did a couple of sitcoms for the BBC," said Bird, "but we were always pretty bad at getting scripts in on time. And by then I was very interested in Jean-Luc Godard, and I kept wanting to have background shots of posters with the word `WAR' on them."

They are both a little vague about how life has treated them in the intervening years. Fortune has found himself living, at different times, in a Scottish castle, a Georgian mansion in Cork and a certain degree of marital disharmony; he now lives in Chiswick with a film producer called Emma. Bird lives in Reigate with a piano teacher called Libby. "We moved there in 1985," he says, "only about a mile from the previous house. I moved from George Gardiner's constituency to Kenneth Baker's constituency, two of the biggest Conservative majorities in the country..." Both former hard-line radicals would still, they say, vote Labour but wouldn't go so far as to call themselves Labour supporters. "I mean," Fortune said, "the idea of waking up on the Friday after the General Election and finding Major, Howard, Heseltine, Virginia, Portillo and Gummer still in power - and knowing they're going to be on the Today programme for another five years..."

Before we said goodbye, I suggested that the turning point was when Mike Yarwood's comfy impression of Harold Wilson arrived to supercede Bird's far superior embodiment of the devious pipeman. "My Wilson was political; his wasn't," says Bird, shortly. But there had been a definite bifurcation of taste, and the world went with Yarwood..." That's the world for you. I've come to terms with all that." Could it be, I wondered, that you were too smart for your own good? Bird reflected grumpily. "Yeah, `smart' is probably the word. Especially in that pejorative English sense - just too clever by half..."