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TELEVISION / Personal services: Of course, things have never been the same since That Was the Week that Was . . . Oh yeah? Jim White says satire is alive and spitting

The comedian Victor Lewis Smith once reduced the production staff at That's Life to a pool of gibbering liquid with a particularly savage telephone gag. Posing as a disabled trombonist, Lewis Smith rang to ask if he might be auditioned for the show. A member of Esther Rantzen's team showed growing excitement as Lewis Smith played the trombone passably. But the mood altered dramatically as he pretended to collapse out of his wheel-chair in a death swoon.

'What should we do?' you could hear a voice say, when Lewis Smith broadcast the call on Radio 1. 'Someone fetch Esther.'

It was a brilliant satirical attack, which exposed the programme's salacious core and was very funny. Moreover, it was motivated, according to Lewis Smith, by the force that always drives the satirist. 'It's personal,' he says. 'Of course it is.'

In which case Steve Coogan must really loathe Alan Titchmarsh. This Friday, to some fanfare from the BBC, Coogan's mock chat-show, Knowing Me, Knowing You, arrives on television from Radio 4. Pitched just before Clive 'No, enough, no, thank you, yes,' Anderson, it is set to do for the hosts of lunch-time chat-fests what the same production team's show The Day Today did for local news reporters. Or what Spitting Image did for David Steel's chances of going back to his constituency and preparing for government.

Dressed in a purple blazer and Farah slacks, Coogan dominates the screen as his ghastly alter ego Alan Partridge. A student of the 'ask whatever's on the auto-cue' school of chat-show hosting, Partridge is boorish, ignorant, rude and embittered; a prat. In one show, as he succeeds in depressing, then infuriating and finally enraging his guests, he engages in every chat-show cliche in the canon. There's the badinage with his house band, there's the constant teaser that the big star of the evening is indeed on his way, and there is the abundant use of pointless props: a desk, a horse, a fountain. Messrs Anderson, Ross and Baker will enjoy a rueful smile as they watch on Friday. Alan Titchmarsh, meanwhile, might well consider a return to the allotment.

The conventional wisdom is that satire died when That Was the Week that Was and Peter Cook's Establishment Club ran out of vitriol about the time Harold MacMillan ran out of luck. As usual, the nostalgic urge to suggest nothing is what it was in the Sixties falls to pieces when confronted with the facts. Satire is in fighting form, all over the television and radio, cropping up in disguise in programmes as diverse as Have I Got News for You and The Harry Enfield Television Show.

There is a war going on out there, waged with as much venom as ever. Recent victories have been recorded over the following: Dave Lee Travis and Simon Bates, hounded to a career on local radio by Harry Enfield's Smashy and Nicey; Eve Pollard, evicted from the editor's office at The Sunday Express thanks in part to a systematic campaign by Private Eye; and That's Life, removed from the schedules after BBC programme controllers were wounded by one too many satirical jibes at Esther's penchant for oddly shaped vegetables. Not many will be mourning if, after Friday night, certain chat- show practices and practitioners join them in the out-tray.

That has been the point about satire since Alexander Pope's day, hasn't it? To remove the second- rate, the preposterous and the pompous from positions of authority, influence and power. Also to laugh at has-been disc jockeys.

'We are indulging in day-to-day skirmishes,' Victor Lewis Smith says. 'Inflicting instant justice.' To maintain their vigilance, the forces of righteousness need a sense of purpose. And, they all cheerfully admit, such purpose is provided by personal distaste. You really can't get your teeth into something you secretly admire, however absurd it might be. Ian Hislop, for instance, long campaigned against Eve Pollard, for whom he resurrected the word embonpoint, because she once sued his organ. 'Well, you know how vindictive the Curse of Gnome is,' he says.

'Just after she sued, she and Nick Lloyd tried to buy the original of the Gambollards strip we were running. She sent a note saying it was very funny, no hard feelings. I wrote back and said, fine, you can have it for pounds 10,000, plus costs. Oddly, I never heard back.'

Those reponsible for launching the targets for the satirists to have a shot at take a more sanguine view of the enemy.

'If something is working, no amount of spoofing will harm it,' says Katie Lander, who produced Jonathan Ross's Last Resort and who doubts that many chat-show editors will be quaking as Alan Partridge exposes their calling to ridicule. 'Smashy and Nicey said something that everyone was thinking, that Radio 1 was a joke. You can spoof Oprah Winfrey to death but it won't make it any less popular.'

Hislop agrees that his kind of satire will only achieve its aim if the target is wounded and weakened: thus Spitting Image's projection of John Major as a grey man worries the Conservative Party spin doctors far more than attacks on Tony Blair as bland will make Labour change stategy.

'One would like to think that one chipped away long enough to de-stabilise targets,' he says. 'But you can tell how much effect we really have by the fact that we spent all our effort trying to bring down Maggie and she won three elections. In the end it was her own party that did for her. It is very flattering to be considered responsible for the removal of someone like Eve Pollard. But I'm not sure it was true. I suspect the real reason was Lord Stevens grew weary of looking at declining circulation and increasing costs.'

Besides, it is more fun to conduct a long campaign. If Alan Partridge is successful and the plethora of chat-shows is severely pruned, what would Steve Coogan and his team do then? Looking for new targets is an exhausting business. And in common with most obsessed folk, satirists miss the mileage their victims provide once they have been laid low.

'There is an element of the Tom & Jerry chase,' Victor Lewis Smith says. 'You want to get them off, but once they have gone you miss them. Once Esther Rantzen has disappeared from the screen you're left with a gaping chasm.'

'You're dead keen to get them,' Ian Hislop adds. 'But when they've gone you're rather sad. The wonderful thing about Fleet Street, though, is that you can rely on it to present you with juicy new alternatives. Eve Pollard goes out one door and in comes Brian Hitchens. Marvellous.'

But, lest we start weeping for them, the glorious thing about being a satirist is that you can never lose. If Knowing Me, Knowing You turns out to be not all it is hyped up to be, you can always have a pop at it. Good-bye Alan Titchmarsh, hello Steve Coogan.

'Knowing Me, Knowing Me' is on BBC 2 this Friday at 10.00pm

(Photographs omitted)