Meet Mr Jolly the politician

Suddenly, comedy is being used to sell politics, as it once helped shift lager and soap powder
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The Independent Culture
IT WAS perhaps an unfortunate piece of timing that the hot new research findings of Oxford's emeritus reader in happiness, Professor Michael Argyle, appeared in the same week that Britain's most miserable politician was, with characteristic tetchiness and ill humour, publicising his memoirs.

The problem was that, by all the criteria offered by the happiness professor, Edward Heath should be the Mr Jolly of public life. Has he been involved in an interesting profession and achieved a fair degree of success? Check. Does he have musical and cultural interests and attend church on a regular basis? Check. Has he avoided the contemporary obsession with money afflicting so many people today, from public utility fat cats down to lamebrains who play the lottery? Check. Has he remained free of any weakness for shopping binges, clothes-buying or adulterous liaisons? Double check.

It's true that Ted falls a little short when it comes to other indicators of contentment - he is not married and, so far as we know, is not addicted to watching TV soap operas - but, all the same, you would expect a man who scores so high on the happiness chart to seem a little less gloomy. Even when he grins (especially when he grins), he emanates a profound air of disappointment and despair. Yet those hardened newspaper interviewers who, having been reduced to a state of helpless rage by his refusal to play the good, heart-on-sleeve celebrity, have dismissed him as a political dinosaur are unwittingly revealing more about the new political culture than they are uncovering any truth about this honest and misunderstood man.

Not so long ago, a sense of humour was seen as suspect in politicians. Like Heath, both Callaghan and Major seemed ill at ease with jokes. The fact that Thatcher was unable to understand any genuine witticism, even scuppering her speechwriters' gags by rewriting the punch line, accorded her a certain gravitas. Consider her po-faced inability to understand why her tribute to Mr Whitelaw, "We all need a Willy", caused such hilarity. They compared her to Kinnock, who laughed easily and told good jokes. They decided that she, not the jolly Welshman, was the true leader.

But now the nation's marketing division has discovered that what the nation wants, above all, is a good old laugh. The airwaves echo to the sound of strained studio laughter, as Radio 4 puts on yet another grim quiz show in which cooks or gardeners or antique dealers attempt to be amusing about their profession, or one of the TV channels churns out another sitcom in which imitation jokes, containing all the right ingredients except wit, are forced on viewers. Comedians move across the national stage like gods, appearing at Downing Street functions, bringing a sense of fun to Question Time on the BBC, winninglucrative contracts to write novels.

Suddenly, comedy is being used to sell policies, just as it once helped to shift lager and soap powder. Speeches at party conferences have become stand-up routines, full of one-liners, silly voices and even songs. Leaders hone their joke-telling skills on The Des O'Connor Show. Those not blessed with any kind of sense of humour either risk being ridiculed, like Edward Heath, or, more pathetically, try to bluff it out, as John Redwood once tried to do with disastrous results.

As for the rest of us, the effect of all this effortful facetiousness is to induce a profound sense of gloom. No wonder that at last week's International Congress of Humour, held (rather humorously) in Switzerland, an expert in comedic matters solemnly announced that we now laugh on average for only six minutes every day, compared to a daily 18 minutes during the Fifties.

"People think they have no reason to laugh, even at themselves in adversity," a German psychotherapist revealed. Another happiness expert, Dr Oliver James, has measured serotonin levels in the brain, and has confirmed that we are indeed more miserable than we have ever been.

The problem lies in media images that make us all feel like ugly, inadequate losers, the doctor claims, ignoring the powerfully depressing effect of humourless politicians, broadcasters and comedians trying to be funny. Antidepressants and the wider availability of therapy will help us all cheer up, apparently. Six minutes? All in one day? That seems like an awful lot of laughter. The answer is, perhaps, to concentrate on events in the contentment industry. An Oxford professor is spending his life researching happiness. Experts from all over the world have been gathering at the International Congress of Humour. And the solution to it all lies in pills, or the couch. If that doesn't make you laugh, you may well be Edward Heath.