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
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
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

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the world's leading suppliers and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Multiple Apprentices Required

£6240 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Apprentices are required to join a privat...

Sauce Recruitment: HR Manager

£40000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: This is an exciting opportunity for a HR...

Ashdown Group: Interim HR Manager - 3 Month FTC - Henley-on-Thames

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established organisation oper...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee