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?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: Human Resources Manager

£28000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: A successful organisation...

Recruitment Genius: Internal Recruiter - Manufacturing

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Internal Recruiter (manufact...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager (CIPD) - Barking / East Ham - £50-55K

£50000 - £55000 per annum + 25 days holidays & benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Man...

Recruitment Genius: Operations / Project Manager

£40000 - £48000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This software company specialis...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

That's a bit rich

The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference
Rugby World Cup 2015: The tournament's forgotten XV

Forgotten XV of the rugby World Cup

Now the squads are out, Chris Hewett picks a side of stars who missed the cut
A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

Britain's Atlantis

Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

David Starkey's assessment
Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

'An enormous privilege and adventure'

Oliver Sacks writing about his life
'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago
Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

Orthorexia nervosa

How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition