This is the week that is

As politicians court satirists in the hope of being seen as one of the good guys, Peter Keighron questions the value of political satire

New Labour. Same old jokes. But what about that great underminer of the politically pompous and hypocritical? Satire: who needs it? What useful purpose does it provide?

Clive Anderson, Jeremy Hardy and Graeme Garden certainly think it's important. They launch a six-week run of a new satirical show, If I Ruled the World, tomorrow.

The new BBC2 show will be joining the likes of The Mark Thomas Comedy Product, Friday Night Armistice, Have I Got News For You, Rory Bremner Who Else? Chris Morris's Brass Eye and It's Later Than You Think in the plethora of recent politically inspired comedy on our screens.

If anyone thought a change of government would mean a waning of politically inspired comedy on TV, they were wrong. It's hardly surprising; after all, if the same old Tory policies apply, the same old Tory jokes will apply, too. As John Fortune says, "I think one of the achievements of Tony Blair is to make the targets exactly the same." Or, as Mark Thomas puts it, "The Labour Party, frankly, are, to paraphrase Alexei Sayle, the same old shit in a different package."

Not since the days of That Was The Week That Was (TW3), more than 35 years ago, has political satire on TV been so popular. And there are striking parallels to be drawn between then and now. TW3 was developed during the crumbling reign of a tired, discredited, ineptly led Conservative government with a new, younger, thrusting Labour Party waiting to take over. MacMillan's government gave satirists a big fat, soft target to aim at. Ditto Major's. MacMillan's successor, Harold Wilson, soon provided satirists (and impressionists) with another easy target. Likewise Blair.

But there were key differences between then and now. In the early Sixties, political satire had never been seen on television before and TW3 was tapping into real social changes.

John Fortune, whose satire CV runs from the TW3 gang through to Rory Bremner, says: "Right at the beginning, when we mentioned Harold Macmillan's name, there was a kind of intake of breath in the audience - a kind of ... gosh, you're not going to talk about him, are you? Because that's very shocking. And I remember that within six months of that, you only had to mention Harold Macmillan's name and people laughed immediately. Now the problem is that you've got to kind of imbue politicians with some kind of dignity before you can take the piss out of them."

So what's the point of attacking them? If it ain't hurting, is political satire working? What's more, bizarre mutation seems to have evolved: politicians who not only are immune to satirical attack, but even thrive on it.

Jeremy Hardy says: "I talk to Labour MPs now and they're obsessed with the idea that comedy is the future of politics. They all want to be funny. They think that TV programmes like Have I Got News For You are subversive. There's a sense now that if you can survive Ian Hislop being rude to you or Clive Anderson making a joke at your expense on telly then you're doing pretty well as a politician. It's clearly not subverting anything, because they want to take part."

Jon Plowman, Head of Comedy Entertainment at the BBC, concurs with this view. "Whenever we've done things where we've asked MPs to appear on something mildly amusing, they're gagging to do it, because you're seen in company of people who make the public laugh, and by implication you're being seen as one of the good guys."

But how politically motivated has satire on television ever been, anyway? Stuart Hood, BBC controller at the time of TW3, denies that the programme makers were ever really trying to change the world. "Yes they were radical and they knew the system was rotten in certain ways. But they weren't going to change anything. It was the boys getting back at the headmasters. It's a kind of high-class clowning, really."

That "clowning" lives on in the smart and smug demeanour of Hislop, Deayton, Iannucci, et al. They're clever, they know they're clever, and they're rather keen that you should know it too. But are they angry? Do they really care? Or are they just grateful that politics provides such a wealth of material?

Of course, some political satirists do care. Rory Bremner has now shifted far to the left of Labour. And clearly Mark Thomas's interventionist style is born of a real and healthy contempt for his victims. But one side-effect of the sinking esteem of politicians is that it seems futile to get too upset about them.

As Bremner says: "There's a tendency if you get too angry and you get too sincere and too earnest, that it ceases to be funny, and in television terms that's a danger."

While Bremner, Thomas and others uphold the satirist's right not to be funny all the time (ratings notwithstanding) there's a growing tendency for serious television to be funny. Or at least to try to be. Jeremy Hardy is not amused. "Comedy is so all-pervading," he says. "It's used to sell absolutely everything. More and more advertisements aspire to be funny - which I find insidious and very depressing and crass."

Recent sightings of Eddie Izzard on Question Time and Jon Snow in a double act with Kathy Lette on C4 News suggests the whole News-lite-with-a twist- of-irony trend is getting out of hand. But then, given the choice of an appearance on Newsnight, with Paxman, and an appearance on Have I Got News For You, most politicians would fear the satirical bile of the former.

Perhaps the truly politically motivated comedian should train up as a newsreader instead of trying to think up more hard-hitting satirical comedy shows. As Jon Plowman says: "I can't imagine a programme, short of one which followed a trained killer with a hand-held camera into a government minister's office and shot him, that would be dangerous, not really. The world is too media-savvy." Coming soon on BBC2, Angus Deayton presents "Have I got an Uzi for You".

`If I Ruled the World', starts Friday 27 February, 10pm BBC2

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