Politics: it's no laughing matter

Arts Notebook
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The apocryphal story of the actor on his deathbed has his friends asking him how it feels to die. "It's hard," he wheezed, "but comedy's harder." Political comedy, it seems, is harder still. I've spent a week ploughing through the stand-up comedy on the Edinburgh fringe, and there was barely a political joke in sight.

The sharp young comedian Boothby Graffoe had a go, deciding that Scottish voters getting rid of the Tories "was not devolution but evolution". But where were the anti-government jokes? Not a titter about Robin Cook's dalliance, though I recall that in 1992 you couldn't go into a bar at the festival without hearing the latest David Mellor joke.

"The Tories were simply funnier," says comedy impresario Bill Burdett- Coutts. Nica Burns, who runs the Perrier Comedy Awards, has an even more curious rationale: "Tony Blair is handsome, charming and clever. That's just not funny."

You can't make jokes about good-looking blokes. Is that really the new credo of comic correctness? Eighteen years of Conservative rule have evidently party-politicised and consequently neutralised the nation's comics. Satire should be even-handed. The Sixties satirists certainly did not shut up shop when Harold Wilson took over from Alex Douglas-Home. Comedy admittedly plays a very small part in the democratic process but it does have a part to play. Yet 220 comedy acts in Edinburgh playing to thousands of students were unable to make a single joke about tuition fees. They should be drummed out of the comics' union.

One person said to be privately appalled at management shenanigans at the Royal Opera House is Sir John Tooley, who was general director a decade ago. His views could soon be public. I hear he has signed a contract with Faber and Faber to publish his memoirs next year, getting in a year before his successor Jeremy Isaacs publishes his.

Enid Blyton's Noddy is to star in a series on American television for the first time. He will have an American accent, and Big Ears will become White Beard as America cannot have an animated character who is "aurally challenged". All of which is defended by Enid Blyton's daughter, though the old girl herself must be turning in her grave. And that's only the two main characters. Gollywog, I suspect, will be taking the first train out of Toytown, Tessie Bear will no doubt become a feisty post-feminist, and if having large ears is ruled out of order, heaven help the Wobbly Man.

Back in Edinburgh, one play chilled the heart, not so much for its content but for its history. The Suicide by Nikolai Erdman was a 1928 comedy satirising Soviet life through the eyes of an unemployed man. After 18 months of rehearsal it was banned at the dress rehearsal as a play that "calumnied Soviet reality".

Stalin himself wrote to the producers: "I do not have a very high opinion of The Suicide. My closest comrades consider it empty and even harmful. I am not against the theatre experimenting and showing its skill. Provided that the theatre achieves its aims... Comrades will judge who know about artistic matters. I am a dilettante on this."

Some dilettante! The ban on the play led to it not being performed for 50 years. Erdman never wrote another play and is thought to have lived many years in poverty. The producer Meyerhold was eventually arrested, tortured and executed.

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