Rory Bremner's International Satirists, Radio 4
The Alps, Radio 4
When it comes to cynicism in satire, the Brits win hands down
Sunday 14 March 2010
I went right off Rory Bremner one Saturday morning a while back when he was on Radio 2 with Mark Lamarr, who was standing in for Jonathan Ross.
They played the Johnny Cash version of John Lennon's "In My Life", and Bremner came over all sniffy. "I prefer to hear the correct notes," he said, or something similar, which I thought was missing the point in spectacular fashion. I gave him another chance, though, with the first of a three-parter on satire in different countries, Rory Bremner's International Satirists, in which he talked to the Dutch comedian Hans Teeuwen.
Teeuwen – for whom life suddenly got serious in 2004 when his friend Theo van Gogh was shot dead by an Islamic nutcase for daring to suggest that Muslim women get a bum deal – comes from the Dutch cabaretier tradition, which has lots of music and poetry and storytelling. They do satire, but not like the British. Liesbet van Zoonen, a media studies professor (and what a lovely job), made the comparison: Brits are sharper, meaner and more cynical. Dutch satire "is not meant to bring politicians down – that viciousness you find in British comedy. I've never seen that in the Netherlands". I must say, it made me feel proud of my comedic countrymen.
Teeuwen, who says that putting politics into his act would "break the spell of surrealism and fantasy", is likened to Bill Hicks and Andy Kaufman; on the evidence in the programme I'd say more the latter. A routine about his father trying to teach a rabbit to speak seemed to leave the audience baffled. "You have to keep on a little longer," he told Bremner, "then someone breaks and they take the rest with them." I'm not sure how well served he was by the clips chosen; the funniest line was: "I had sex with a water buffalo a few weeks ago. Never again. What put me off most was the feeling of indifference I felt coming from the animal."
There weren't many laugh-out-loud bits in the first of Misha Glenny's three-part exploration of The Alps – "an icy semi-circle of teeth biting off Italy from the north". But it was interesting stuff, not least the revelation that they are actually a bit of Africa, formed by the crashing together of tectonic plates, ripples from which collision can be seen today in our South Downs.
Though the Alps form a barrier between northern and southern Europe, Glenny made the point that their passes act as funnels for trade: Venice, for example, wouldn't have become the commercial powerhouse it once was without the Brenner Pass, across which silver flowed from German mines. But they did divide Europe as well: in 1494 the French king Charles the Affable dragged 40 cannons over the peaks (well, his men did), and found in Italy "a refinement of civilisation unknown to the north". He liked it so much he conquered it. As for Napoleon, Jacques-Louis David pictured him negotiating the peaks on a magnificent white charger. A nice bit of painterly spin: he actually made the trip sitting on a mule.
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