When lampooning New Labour's no joke

The Comic Strip are returning with a satire targeting Tony Blair. Their timing couldn't be worse, says Gerard Gilbert
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The Independent Culture

The first half of the headline caught my attention, and not in a disagreeable way. "Comic Strip returns..." it read, hurtling me headlong back into the anti-Thatcherite heyday of "alternative comedy", when a young Jennifer Saunders, hair in an Eighties perm, rubbed shoulder pads against the comedic bulk of Robbie Coltrane, and when Peter Richardson steered the anarchic energy of Young Ones (Nigel Planer, Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson and Alexei Sayle) into such inspired films as Five Go Mad in Dorset, The Strike and The Bullshitters. However, the headline in its entirety had me groaning with incredulity. "Comic Strip returns for a one-off potshot at Tony Blair".

Tony Blair? Would that be the same Tony Blair who left office four years ago, and who has been the subject, or object, of so many impersonations and lampoons – from Michael Sheen's portraits in The Deal, The Queen and The Special Relationship and Robert Lindsay's in A Very Social Secretary and The Trial of Tony Blair, to the more off-the-cuff impressions by the likes of Jon Culshaw, Harry Enfield and Rory Bremner.

And would that be the same Comic Strip who were silent when Blair was invading Iraq, introducing identity cards, imprisoning suspected terrorists indefinitely, and cosying up to Liam Gallagher, George W Bush and the banks? Not quite silent, to be fair. They did parody Richard Curtis romcoms in 2005 with Sex Actually. Forgotten that? I'm not surprised.

Also to be fair, Comic Strip were never exactly Spitting Image, but their spirit was very much of the "Maggie, Maggie, Maggie... out, out, out" age – and The Strike, imagining the 1984 miners' strike as the basis of a Hollywood movie (with Al Pacino as Arthur Scargill), was arguably their masterpiece. But the idea of this nearly 30-year-old collective of comedians ending a seven-year hiatus (actually, for most of the main players, the holiday has been far, far longer) to spoof Blair made me think of a heavyweight boxer coming out retirement to fight a corpse.

And it gets worse. Billed by Channel 4 as a 1950s-style "fugitive" drama, Blair is to be played by Stephen Mangan, the man who once played the adult Adrian Mole. I like Mangan personally, and think that he's excellent at portraying bastards, but I'm not sure he's got the dexterity to paint Blair in anything but the broadest strokes. But then look at the company he'll be keeping – two of the broadest brushes in the paintbox: Jennifer Saunders as Margaret Thatcher and Harry Enfield as Alastair Campbell.

Ah, Campbell. Surely Peter Capaldi's attack-dog spin-doctor Malcolm Tucker in Armando Iannucci's masterful The Thick of It was the last word on New Labour. Iannucci's sitcom is returning next year to take on the Coalition government. Couldn't Comic Strip have joined them? The Lib-Con pact is enjoying quite a comedic honeymoon at present, as the gag-making classes try to get a handle on this multi-headed beast. David Cameron's Oxford contemporary, Stewart Lee, is the only comedian actively taking potshots at the Coalition government. Iannucci has only satirised the new government in print, while Rory Bremner, often the most accurate comic-critics of Blair and co seems to have gone completely quiet.

I would have thought that the dying days of Gordon Brown's government and the back-room dealing that brought Cameron and Clegg to power would be a wonderfully promising scenario for a Comic Strip romp. For starters, who better to play Brown than Robbie Coltrane? With Cameron as Flashman, how about "Gordon Brown's Schooldays"? OK, that's probably a lame idea, but at least it's pointing in a forward direction. They'll probably prove me wrong and come up with a rip-roaring comedy that royally skewers the Teflon Cheshire Cat, Blair – and don't get me wrong, I'd love the Comic Strip to go on till they drop. This sounds wrong on so many levels, however, and a short cut to the knacker's yard.