TELEVISION We Are Not Amused (BBC2) Like the monarchy they mock, cartoonists have a dwindling role.

When he sat on the front bench, Kenneth Baker was portrayed by cartoonists as oleaginous and sluglike. As Mrs Thatcher's last party chairman, he fell on his sword, or whatever slugs do when they're topping themselves, then slithered on to the backbenches to beef up his extra- parliamentary earnings and await a peerage. He discovered that he hadn't been as pro-European as he'd been telling everyone when chairman, and will doubtless perform a similarly slippery manoeuvre when explaining away We Are Not Amused.

This history of royal caricature interleaves Baker's account of how cartoonists used to inveigh against the monarch with an analysis of the way they do it now. The next time he meets the Queen socially, this will no doubt cause a moment of awkward silence, but Baker will be able to say he didn't actually approve of tabloid caricatures of royalty, or scarcely even mention them. As on Europe, he was merely reporting the views of others.

It was never explicitly stated, but the history of royal cartoons tells of the gradual erosion of monarchy's political clout. The amount of vitriol poured on the Hanovers corresponded to their capacity for genuine influence. Modern cartoonists are nearly up to speed on the frankness front after a century and a half of deference. But they will never match Gilray and co for sheer bile, because any attack on current royalty can only be personal. You can't criticise the Waleses for the work they do because they don't do any.

Baker might have referred more to the frame of reference available to modern cartoonists. There is a more or less exact parallel in the marital sacrifices made by current and previous heirs to the throne. But where the Prince Regent could be depicted as Aeneas, with his mistress as Dido on a funeral pyre of phallic logs, the only element modern readers would get would be the logs. (Depicting the royal phallus, incidentally, is an area in which we are still way behind the 18th century.)

Similarly, when the widowed Queen Victoria withdrew from public life, a cartoonist represented her as Hermione, the living statue in The Winter's Tale. These days, only a couple of Shakespeare plays could still be borrowed with inpunity. Instead, on the night of Panorama's Bafta-winning chat show, the Mirror's Charles Griffin toyed with less classical images - Diana as 007, breast-baring temptress or gun-toting urban guerrilla. The editor eventually went with the last of the three, but it was cropped and put on page 11. These days, like royalty, cartoons have a greatly reduced role.

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