Farewell to the satirist whose comedy exposed uncomfortable truths: Bafta-winning comedian John Fortune dies aged 74

Not fame but curiosity drove Fortune to the peak of political satire

Only once in my life have I approached someone I had never met before to blurt out: “I think you’re wonderful!” That was at a social event when I found myself face to face with John Fortune, who died aged 74 after treatment for leukaemia.

Back then, he did not react as I would have expected: he neither mumbled an awkward ‘thank you’, nor swell up with conceit. Instead, he turned the conversation away from himself, wanting to know who I was. On his discovering that I was a political journalist, we began a long, serious conversation about politics, which consisted mainly of him asking questions which I did my best to answer.

I deduce that he spent his life trying to know and understand, without wasting time wallowing in his celebrity status. This curiosity – the very quality that his persona as a witless television interviewer so lamentably lacked – is what made him one of the greatest satirists of our time.

It should also be remembered that when he learnt his trade, during the 1960s satire boom, the public had never heard performers take the mickey out of powerful and people before. Because it was new, it had to be done well, to keep the audience on side.

These days, there is no softer target than a politician. Any comic of modest talent can parody a leading political figure. Doing a Boris Johnson by saying “cripes,” or a Tony Blair by saying “hi guys” with a cheesy grin is not satire: it is mimicry, performed without any insight into how these individuals came to be masters of a complicated trade.

John Fortune and fellow satirist John Bird did not waste their formidable intelligence on mimicry: their targets were the people who actually run the country, and their weapon was political and psychological accuracy.

John Fortune (right) with long-time collaborators Rory Bremner and John Bird (left) John Fortune (right) with long-time collaborators Rory Bremner and John Bird (left)

Their standard format was that Bird would play an important person who is so accustomed to deference that he has lost all capacity for self-awareness. Fortune would be the wide-eyed, hand-wringing, toadying interviewer whose eagerness to agree brought out the worst of his guest’s suave cynicism. Only occasionally would the interviewer accidentally drop a probing question which would be promptly smothered.

These sketches were not played simply for laughs: they were meticulously researched, and used hard facts and quotations to build a convincing picture of blundering chaos. It has been suggested that a Long Johns sketch with John Bird, that parodied the financial ‘products’ concocted by banks, foretold the financial crash of 2008. That level of insight is not achieved by performers interested in showing us how clever they are.

Final sketches: Tributes from friends

Rory Bremner, fellow satirist

“He was, first and foremost a lovely man. He was very much a father figure and a mentor to me... In a quiet way, he was one of the pillars of the anti-establishment. He was fearless as a satirist, because there was nothing that he wouldn’t do. He was braver than many of us in what he would do in a satirical sketch... To my mind he was the best combination of intelligence and humour that I have ever met.”

Geoff Atkinson, producer

“He was an inspiration as a writer, and the funniest person you could ever meet. But it was as a friend that I valued him most.”

Stephen Fry, actor

“He loved puns. He was a very, very warm and extraordinarily generous man as well, but behind it all the most brilliant mind.”

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment & HR Administrator

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Business Partner

£55 - 65k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: A HR Manager / HR Business Partner i...

Recruitment Genius: Senior HR Assistant

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Company's vision is to be t...

Day In a Page

The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'