Jacintha Saldanha, Kate Middleton, and how prank calls show comedy can be used for both good and ill

From Hogarth to Chris Morris, there is a long tradition in Britain of setting out to make people look foolish. Within that tradition, prank calls are the new lowest form of wit

Share
Related Topics

Not The Nine O’Clock News once announced on air that the TV picture of anyone without a TV licence would go black. It did so, then a phone number appeared and a voiceover invited culprits to call “the Director-General” and explain themselves. From the moment the nation’s screens went dark, the phone in our production office started ringing. Stifling our laughter, each of us in turn fielded calls from frantic viewers promising to pay up immediately. That phone rang continuously for three months.

After 40 years in entertainment, I believe that making people laugh is, by and large, “a Good Thing”, especially if it’s in a good cause. But – like power, intelligence, money, science and religion – comedy is a powerful tool that can be used for good or ill. And, on rare occasions, as we saw last week, it can be a lethal weapon.

In 1975, I was the 23-year-old radio producer of a late-night topical comedy show on Radio 4 called Weekending. We often ran sketches mocking the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, then seen as a buffoon rather than a mass murderer. On one occasion, having heard the programme go out, I lingered for the midnight news. The lead item was a statement from Amin saying that, if the media made any more jokes about him, he would shoot Denis Hills, the British teacher arrested in Uganda for sedition. You can imagine how little sleep I had that night. But I was lucky. The Queen intervened and Hills was released unharmed. We never did sketches on the subject again and, overnight, I grew up to become a more thoughtful broadcaster.

The Queen, unfortunately, was unable to save Jacintha Saldanha, the poor nurse who took the prank call last week from those two hapless Australian DJs. Her death is a desperately sad and appalling tragedy. Leaving aside the fact that the joke was so feeble to start with, why did the radio station allow the hoax to take place at all? The Duchess of Cambridge was seriously unwell; what possible good could have come from pestering her or the hospital staff?

There’s a long tradition in Britain – from Hogarth to Chris Morris by way of Spitting Image – of setting out to make people look foolish, as long as they are public figures who can reasonably be said to have done something to deserve it. But this wasn’t true of Andrew Sachs when Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross called him and it certainly wasn’t true of Mrs Saldanha. Prank calls are the new lowest form of wit.

Meanwhile, as a father of three myself, to Mrs Saldanha’s husband I offer my heartfelt sympathy on behalf of all of us who have been young and foolish and hopefully learned a lifelong lesson: that not everything is a laughing matter.

John Lloyd is a comedy producer whose credits include Not The Nine O’Clock News, Spitting Image, Blackadder and QI.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Mid Weight

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To support their continued grow...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Data Specialist

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are the go-to company for ...

Recruitment Genius: Search Marketing Specialist - PPC / SEO

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the UK's leadin...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This caravan dealership are currently recruiti...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Rafael Nadal is down and out, beaten by Dustin Brown at Wimbledon – but an era is not thereby ended  

Sad as it is, Rafael Nadal's decline does not mark the end of tennis's golden era

Tom Peck
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'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy