Satire: Arrows in search of a target

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A fortnight ago at the National Television Awards, the producer of Have I Got News For You collected the trophy for Most Popular Quiz Show and, in among the usual thank-yous, paid tribute to Ron Davies for making his job so much easier. Yes, I know, I know, he was only joking, but it does get you thinking. Isn't the job of Have I Got News For You to satirise people in the news? And, with the deepest respect for the expertise of Paul Merton's delivery, it's not exactly satirical to say, "Clapham Common ... it's a bit of a mouthful, isn't it?"

But it is easy. And so far, satirists have found life under New Labour distinctly difficult. Ugly Rumours, a play sending up Blair and Blairism, has just opened in London to ugly reviews. And Rory Bremner began his current series with the words: "I remember thinking when Tony Blair came to power in May last year, what on Earth am I going to do now?" The punchline was that Tony Blair was thinking the same thing himself. Not a bad joke ... except that the image of Blair moving into number 10 with no ideas beyond a bit of wallpapering is one that not many of us would recognise.

New Labour MPs must be adept at camouflage, because today's satirists are reduced to taking pot shots at the old, bullet-ridden carcases of yesteryear. On this week's topical Drop the Dead Donkey, one character came up with licking Norman Tebbit's scrotum as the most revolting torture she could think of, and you could hear the champagne corks popping in Millbank: 18 months in power, and still no one in the party is deemed to have sufficiently grotesque genitalia for the joke.

And last Sunday, Harry Enfield starred in Norman Ormal: A Very Political Turtle as the embodiment of Tory sleaze. He flogged landmines to Saddam; he discredited a health scare by spooning dogfood into his daughter's mouth; he ran off with his topless typist, then piously informed the Press that he had agreed to make the ultimate sacrifice for his party: "At midnight tonight, I shall be returning to my wife." I doubt it was intentional, but he also bore an amazing physical resemblance to Bernard Ingham.

This mock documentary was written by Craig Brown, Britain's leading parodist (and a close personal friend of the IoS's Wallace Arnold), and the jokes were as acute as you'd expect from him. Harriet Walter was painfully credible as Ormal's Jane Clark look-alike wife. And Enfield was revolting both as Ormal and as a roll call of other Tory grandees - here quaintly renamed Julian Bitchily, John Selwyn Swott, Douglas Weird, and so on. But what was the point? The secret of comedy is timing, and these punchlines arrived two years late. A Very Political Turtle was heaving its flippers down memory lane, and Ormal was such a stupid, laughable character compared to Rik Mayall's Alan B'Stard that he was more likely to induce a rosy glow of nostalgia than a fiery rage.

I was reminded of another of last month's awards programmes, Booker Live, on which Will Self dismissed Julian Barnes's abilities as a satirist: "He has the terrible English problem of whimsy, and of wanting things to be slightly nice and likeable." This is certainly true of most TV comedians. The trouble with the current batch of satirical programmes is that they don't actually have very much satire in them. They might giggle at a hard-to-shift dress stain or a walk on the Clapham wild side, but they are rarely forces for truth and justice. There is only, as Ben Elton might say, a little bit of politics. I don't expect anyone to match those ancient Greek satirists whose targets would hang themselves in shame, but someone might at least give viewers the urge to spit at some fat cats in the street.

Monday's Clinton: His Struggle With Dirt, by comedy overlord Armando Iannucci, was another mockumentary, this time looking back at the Lewinsky affair from the year 2028, when Cameron Diaz is president and the American language is so garbled that Brits can't understand it without a translator (isn't the depressing likelihood that we'd be speaking Americanese ourselves?). Iannucci has his own masterful brand of cerebral silliness, but I came away with the impression that he doesn't particularly dislike or despise Tripp, the Clintons, Starr, or anyone else involved. If he was motivated by any indignation it was directed at television's fondness for flashy graphics and music - as it was on The Day Today in 1994. The individual who was dealt the harshest blows was Newsnight's Gordon Brewer. Maybe Iannucci is bothered by the fact that Brewer's voice is an excited version of his own.

Rory Bremner can be closer to the bone, although, as we've seen, his material is often not up to the peerless standard of his impersonations. There are jokes so feeble that WeekEnding would have used them, and sketches which lead you to suspect that some ratings-conscious executive has forced Bremner to balance the political stuff with a skit or two on Ainsley Harriot and Vanessa Feltz. His best moments in this series come when a genuine newscaster interviews him at length in the guise of Blair or Clinton, so that he has enough time to develop his impersonation beyond the notion that the PM is someone who can't take a breath without saying you know, come on, look or I mean.

The series is nothing if not hit-and-miss, and embarrassingly, it's Bremner who does most of the missing, and his right-hand men, John Bird and John Fortune, who do most of the hitting. The nominal star must regret choosing the title, Rory Bremner ... Who Else? Bird and Fortune, also using the interview format, pick apart a particular speech or policy with meticulous, merciless logic every week, and are fluent in the rhetoric of managerial buck-passing. Thanks to these two, at least a few privatised utility bosses must have had an expectoration in the eye.

They remind us that satire shouldn't necessarily be an easy job; it shouldn't be about sitting and waiting for the Welsh Secretary to be taken for a ride. There are news stories which demand satirical treatment every day, but you sometimes have to look past the most obvious figures of fun to find them. Have I Got News For You is by no means as lazy as some of its rivals, though. The Ron Davies jokes may be barn-door marksmanship, but the programme is still surprisingly healthy, especially considering how long it's been going. If you watch archive episodes now, half the laughs arise from seeing how Angus Deayton's hairstyle has changed.

You can still rely on Ian Hislop for some moral indignation, even when it's entirely unjustified, while Paul Merton and the show itself are never half as funny without each other. And if it seems like many years since Deayton's links were more amusing than they were irritating, look at all the comedy quiz shows which have appeared in Have I Got News For You's wake. The urbane Deayton model is still the one the other quizmasters follow.

So our most effective political satirical programmes are the ones which have run for the longest. But what about the next generation? Channel 4 has The 11 O'Clock Show, which is written and recorded in its entirety on the day of broadcast. The pilot series was hampered by having two humour- free presenters, but it had a couple of highly promising faces in the supporting cast, particularly Iain Lee, who has been cloned from Hugh Laurie's toenail clippings. ITV's Stuff the Week is a post-Fantasy Football satire in that the laidback young comedians flop around a living-room set and chortle at each other's jokes (to be fair, they are usually well worth a chortle). They do a conscientious job of making a bonfire out of the Press, so I'm not going to say anything impolite about them.

Finally, a major new satire starts next week. A Sermon from St Albion's is written by Ian Hislop, and Harry Enfield is again on Kind Hearts and Coronets duty, playing half the Labour cabinet himself, including Tony Blair as the trendy reverend he is in Private Eye. I just hope it's not too gentle. Enfield was quoted in the papers on Thursday as saying: "Tony Blair is a decent bloke, probably, so he won't mind being a happy-clappy vicar." No chance of him hanging himself, then?