DJ Taylor: Jumped-up lotharios and dictators make us laugh...disability doesn't

The new film about George VI's struggle with his stammer suggests attitudes may be changing, but the British will always find pompous little men funny
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The Independent Online

It was left to Peter Popham, The Independent's man in Italy, to decipher last week's most baffling international news story: the ability of Italy's embattled Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to raise himself from the mire of sleaze scandals and WikiLeaks allegations to win a parliamentary challenge to his premiership by the slim margin of three votes.

As Popham pointed out, the outside world wrote Berlusconi off from the moment The Economist produced its famous "unfit to govern" cover. And yet, he concluded, "the awkward fact is that after 16 years at the centre of the nation's politics, Mr Berlusconi occupies such a huge space that it is difficult to conceive of life after him". Vainglorious old scandal-magnet though he may be, Berlusconi's bold stroke in uniting the neo-fascists and the Northern League in a coalition – with a party "cooked up", as Popham delicately anatomised it, "by his advertising men" – has lasted longer than any recent Italian political arrangement.

What might be called the Berlusconi phenomenon – an obvious crook who swindles his way into office yet still, mysteriously, emerges with the public on his side – is always a source of puzzlement to British onlookers. Holidaying in Ireland in the early 1990s, I used to amuse myself by inquiring why the locals kept on electing the late Charles Haughey as Taoiseach. The answer, oddly enough, was always the same. Haughey, Irish friends would cheerfully explain, was simply the victim of serial misfortune. "Isn't he the unluckiest feller?" as someone once picturesquely put it. Did this mean that the smuggled firearms that turned up on Haughey's yacht had been dropped there from the sky or been flipped over the stern by a passing shark? No one quite knew, but there remained the conviction that large parts of Haughey's troubles could be ascribed to his being "unlucky".

The feeling of mystification that takes over the average British newspaper reader when he or she encounters a Berlusconi or a Haughey in full uninhibited flight, can be backdated to the era of international power politics. It has something to do not only with a dislike of autocracy but with an awareness of autocracy's comic potential. Making a radio programme about the 75th anniversary of the Spanish Civil War with the historian Richard Baxell the other day, the two of us ended up discussing the celebrated photograph of Franco alongside Hitler that is reproduced in Antony Beevor's The Battle For Spain. We agreed that the portrait of the Caudillo – plump, diminutive and looking as if he were about to cycle onstage selling ice-cream in a musical comedy – perfectly symbolised why fascism never caught on in 1930s Britain. Had Franco, or his home-grown equivalent, walked down Whitehall looking like this, people would have laughed. There are times when our much-maligned national temperament has its advantages.

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It was a very odd week for premiership football. The manager of Blackburn Rovers, Sam Allardyce, thought to be doing a reasonable job in difficult circumstances, was sacked on a whim by the club's new owners. Manchester City seemed ready to take the extraordinary step – well-nigh unprecedented in soccer history – of declining their "wantaway striker" Carlos Tevez's request for a transfer and forcing him to see out his contract. Meanwhile, Liverpool's manager, Roy Hodgson, granted an immensely candid interview in which he declared that "he couldn't do any more".

Expanding on what, in footballing terms, is a pretty stark admission, Hodgson maintained that Liverpool's owners "have made it perfectly clear they are in it for the long term. They realise it is going to take time. They realise we can't turn things round overnight and they also realise the team I am working with is not the team I put together ... I can't do more than I am doing. I can't work harder and I can't work better." It may be that Hodgson, a garlanded veteran of soccer management, didn't understand quite how many cats he was letting out of the bag but, deliberately or not, he has managed to reveal one of the great truths of modern football. This is that a manager, by and large, is regarded not as a master-tactician or strategist but someone whose job is to buy players and fit them into the appropriate holes.

In the old days of straitened budgets and make do and mend, a manager looked at the talent he had available and worked out how to make it perform to maximum capacity. Hodgson, who commands a squad worth in excess of £100m, merely complains that the team he is working with is not the one he put together. Surely the way out of this impasse is to teach the players he has to play better?

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Already touted as the smash of early 2011, Colin Firth's new film, The King's Speech, also looks as if it will be memorable for its subject matter: nothing less, in fact, than an attempt to capture on celluloid the efforts made to cure King George VI of his stammer. An interesting thesis could be written about the way in which, over the past three decades or so, physical disability has gradually transformed itself from a subject for mean-spirited humour into one guaranteed to attract more or less sympathetic treatment. After all, as recently as the 1980s an entire television series – Ronnie Barker's Open All Hours – could be predicated on the fact that its leading character had a pronounced stutter. Even now, the "Blinky" cartoon strip in The Dandy doggedly extracts its laughs from the hero's short sight.

How far, you wonder, does the media's new-found sensitivity reflect any real change in social attitudes? At primary school, 40 years ago, any kind of physical singularity was fair game. Bespectacled children were routinely hailed as "four-eyes", while every class harboured a solitary and resentful butterball known as "fatty". You get the impression that this kind of mockery is a bit less prevalent in 2010 (for one thing, with one in three school children supposed to be overweight, they can't all be called "fatty"), although I was a bit disconcerted at a South Norfolk Junior League football match to hear the opposition coach yell: "Mark the ginger kid" as my chestnut-haired 10-year-old surged into the penalty area. On the other hand, Channel 4's Frankie Boyle is still regaling his audience with jokes about disabled children, so perhaps we are less enlightened than we think.

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The paperback imprint Vintage, shortly to celebrate its 21st anniversary, recently sent round an author questionnaire asking, among other things, "Which protagonist did you most identify with as a child?". Half-a-dozen names, ranging from Bilbo Baggins to the Pevensey children in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, having been and gone, I eventually settled for Strickland of the Sixth. Strickland (forename unknown), in case you haven't heard of him, was the eponymous hero of a boys' school story by R A H Goodyear, published in the 1930s and given to me by my father: the muscular, square-jawed captain of Havenhall School's football team, whose response, when a supporter confronts the referee during a match against the low menials of the town, is to lay him out on the pitch.

Naturally, I admired "Strick" for harbouring the attributes I didn't myself possess – right hook, man management, sporting ability – while becoming grimly aware, that the advice tendered in these primers of public school life could be horribly injurious. On the one occasion, for example, that I opted to "stand up to the school bully" I ended up in casualty having my skull X-rayed. No doubt about it, I would have been better off rooting for "Sark", the games-evading, fag-smoking softie who edits the school magazine.

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Several newspapers carried accounts last week of 19-year-old Lamar Johnson, a musician who admitted using stolen credit cards to buy his own songs on iTunes and Amazon as a way of amassing royalties. Reprehensible as the Wolverhampton teenager's conduct was – he is the youngest member of a group accused of making approaching £500,000 through fraudulent downloads – it is really only an extreme form of the subterfuge practised by most writers and artists ei-ther to make money or draw attention to themselves: reviewing their own books on Amazon under false names, for instance, or writing pseudonymous letters to newspaper editors commending articles that they just happen to have written themselves.

My all-time favourite stratagem in this line involved a distinguished philosopher who was so enraged at having his column discontinued by The Guardian that he fired off a volley of emails supposedly sent by aggrieved members of the public while forgetting – such was his shaky grasp of the technology – to remove his own name from the masthead.

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