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)
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.”
- 1 How the language you speak changes your view of the world
- 3 Italian police 'reveal' what Jesus looked like as a young boy
- 5 YouTube social experiment shows just how easy it is to kidnap a child
How the language you speak changes your view of the world
'Fire at every person you see': Israeli soldiers reveal they were ordered to shoot to kill in Gaza – even if the targets may have been civilians
Italian police 'reveal' what Jesus looked like as a young boy
First-time buyers in London 'need to earn at least £77,000'
General Election 2015: Photographic history of Bullingdon Club tracked down - including new picture of David Cameron in his finery
Over 50,000 families shipped out of London boroughs in the past three years due to welfare cuts and soaring rents
EU asylum policy is 'a direct threat to our civilisation', says Nigel Farage
In defence of liberal democracy
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
General Election 2015: UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power, Labour warns
Schools forced to act as 'miniature welfare states' with teachers buying underwear and even haircuts for poor pupils
£36000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...
£50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, Stock...
Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join one of...
£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...