In 1994, when a television critic, I wrote a viciously dismissive and more viciously ridiculed review of The Fast Show’s debut episode from which this lesson was learned. You must give original comedy time to bed in before coming to judgment. On the basis that 20 years is long enough, I not only reiterate the ritual apology to Paul Whitehouse and friends, but open up a fresh line of praise.
Political life has a habit of imitating televisual art (House of Cards, which opened with Thatcher’s demise, began four days before she resigned), but The Fast Show’s prescience is spooky enough to activate the Twilight Zone theme in one’s head. Here, I have in mind the Whitehouse pub-goer who reverses his every opinion to echo that of whichever of his mates, played by Mark Williams and Simon Day, spoke last. This edited highlight gives the flavour.
Mark Williams: I was thinking of getting one of those C-class Mercedes.
Paul Whitehouse: Nah, you don’t get one of those, they’re rubbish. You wanna get yerself a jeep. Brilliant family car ....
Simon Day: They ain’t that big.
PW: Nah, they’re not that big when you look at them. Bit pokey really ... No, you wanna get yourself one of those C class Mercedes, they’re unbeatable
SD: Yeah, but not as good as the BMW.
PW That’s what I mean. Nothing’s as good as a BMW ...” And so on.
When I mention that the name of Whitehouse’s pastiche of malleability was Indecisive Dave, the quick-witted among you - by which, what with you being Independent readers, I mean every one of you - will discern this train of thought’s direction. If Prime Minister’s metamorphosis into that character continues at its current rate, he will be aping his hero’s affable cockney geezer brogue and argot by New Year’s Eve,
There was a time, far less than two decades ago, when Mr Cameron built a portion of his husky-hugging, modernising platform on the slogan “Vote blue, go green.” With fuel bills a red-hot political spud, he now regards environment-preserving levies as “green crap”.
There was also a time when, in seeking to slip the shackles of the “Nasty Party” image, he informally borrowed the name of another Fast Show legend. But his stint as Dave Nice is over, and vans have driven through inner-city areas targeting menacing messages at immigrants.
And there was a time, some 18 months ago, when he entertained the Dalai Lama to illuminate his grave concerns about Chinese violations of human rights. Today we watch him, as he leading his posse, grovelling to the Chinese for their cash without a dickie bird about Tibet and other nasteries of the kind.
In the Downing Street version of the Fast Show sketch, one pictures Indecisive Dave pincered between on the one hand a moderniser such as Francis Maude, and on the other, Lynton Crosby, that laureate of simplistically brutal ocker messaging. Currently, it is plain which of them is speaking to him last, though this may change before the general election depending on whatever the focus groups and intricate micro-polling tell him he ought to be feeling with all his heart.
It must be extraordinarily tiring, this endless reversing of his core beliefs. He bears the strain stoically, but it is hard to confuse all the swinging in the wind like a weather vane in a gale with a wise long-term strategy. The electorate has a bloodhound’s nose for a charlatan, and while Whitehouse’s ID was likable enough in his soppy way, no one sane would have voted for him to lead the government of Trumpton.
Perhaps one day, our Indecisive Dave will decide who he is and what he believes. In the meantime, recalling the dramatic volte face on penal policy (one minute, it’s Ken Clarke talking of rehabilitation; the next it’s Chris Grayling depriving inmates of televised sport), I refer you to this exchange featuring his role model.
Paul Whitehouse: Crime’s got outta control, eh? What we need is a bit of that Islamic justice ... You step out of line there, and they chop your hand off, wallop.
Mark Williams: What, maim someone for nicking sweets? Talk silly, Dave.
PW: Yeah, what are they like? Barbaric. Chop a little kiddie’s hand off, just for nicking a Mars bar or something?
Simon Day: They don’t chop kiddies’ hands off, Dave. Only grown men who should know better.
PW: Yeah, that’s how it should be. We could learn a lot from them ...
SD: But you can’t have crimmos running about the street willy-nilly, can you?
PW: Nah, it’s gotta be boot camp.
MW: Yeah, but they’ve already tried that.
PW: “What, short sharp shock? Whose bleeding bright idea was that, eh? I mean, it’s so obvious isn’t it? You’ve got to reeducate criminals …”
Three lions? A pride of them won't help
With the 2014 World Cup draw on Friday, to belabour the Fast Show references, the Ron Manager du jour sets about getting his excuses in early. The engagingly old-fashioned Roy Hodgson deflects his fantasies away from jumpers, goalposts and 1966, when the Wembley sun obliged Bobby Moore to wipe away the sweat lest he befoul Her Majesty’s glove; and towards the more challenging heat awaiting England in Brazil.
“The north of the country is where we believe the weather is a major factor, because it becomes more tropical,” warns Hodgson. “If there is any good luck going, I hope it will be in relation to where we are due to play.”
If there is any good luck going, I hope it relates to an inexplicable last-minute FIFA rule change disqualifying every entrant other than England, and replacing the jettisoned 31 nations with squads from the domestic leagues of San Marino and Vatican City.
Failing that, luck of any kind will have no part to play next summer, and please God the draw ensures a painless, dignified exit after a group of death featuring Argentina, Belgium and Nigeria.
“We will hope for the best,” says Hodgson, “but it is like Forrest Gump and his box of chocolates.” No, sir, it is not. With England at World Cups - regardless of the draw, climatic conditions, players and coach - you always know exactly what you’re gonna get. So if I might mirror his own pre-emptive tactic, Hodgson is excused for the humiliation to come.