DJ Taylor: Just when you need them most, where have all the satirists gone?

Folly looms up on all sides, yet exposing it is increasingly hard
Click to follow

The man who is probably our finest TV satirist was removed from our midst last week amid a series of charges of sexual assault. In The Thick Of It cannot be the same without Chris Langham, who won't be on our TV screens again for a long time. But there still seems to be plenty of "satire" around. Craig Brown is about to publish a compendium on the extravagances of the past decade, entitled Tony's Years. Simultaneously, modern satire's ancestry has been canvassed in a radio four-parter rather grandly christened The Frost Years.

However absorbing all these re-runs of That Was The Week That Was and its predecessor, Beyond the Fringe, might be to those of us who stared uncomprehendingly from our prams when they were first aired, to revisit them is to experience a faint twinge of alarm. No one who caught a glimpse of the late Willie Rushton's bat-ear impersonation of Harold Macmillan could doubt that what gets marked down as satire has been subject to radical change and re-interpretation over the intervening 40 years, and that mastery of what is a precise art is ever more difficult to accomplish. Satirists believe this themselves, I notice, and Craig Brown has remarked that, from his point of view, certain public figures are "beyond satire" - the sound of, say, Mrs Beckham innocently mangling the Queen's English grown so bizarre as to be all but impossible to send up.

History abets this view. Traditionally, satire flourishes in times of fixed moral standards, or at periods when those standards are beginning to break down. After all, a satirist can only mock the infringement of a behavioural code when his audience knows that the code is being infringed. Worse, perhaps, satire is, of its nature, élitist. The audience has to know that the thing laid out before them - and it might be a regional accent, a government policy or a military intervention - is being burlesqued into fragments. In a world in which magazine surveys reveal that Jordan, Kerry Katona and Charlotte Church are regarded as role models by much of the teenage population, this is horribly difficult to achieve.

To these failings in comprehension can be added two socio-moral developments. The first is the huge downward shift in public expectation over the past 40 years. Part of the shock, to the original TW3 audience, of hearing the skewering of Macmillan's home secretary, Henry Brooke, was that most people assumed politicians to be models of rectitude. Nowadays the reverse is the case. We expect Mr Prescott, for example, to chase after female servants.

The second is the air of faint, quasi-egalitarian disapproval that attends any attempt to mock those who do not possess the educational attainments of those doing the mocking. To poke fun at, say, a celebrity's inability to articulate certain words is to risk conviction on a charge of snobbery. Why should a children's TV presenter who appears in front of millions of people be expected to pronounce her aitches or know about glottal stops?

All this may be very good for our sense of social equality, but it is disastrous for satire. We inhabit a landscape in which folly looms up on all sides, and yet the satirist's ability to expose that folly grows ever more compromised. There is a wonderful scene in Malcolm Bradbury's novel Stepping Westward in which a creative writing teacher expounds Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal (a call to solve hunger by eating babies) to a class of slack-jawed Americans. Most of the students take it at face value. One or two suspect irony. The class anarchist wonders whether we shouldn't re-evaluate our attitude to cannibalism. Quite a lot of 21st-century satire, you fear, goes the same way: to an audience always wondering - my father's remark 30 years ago when I watched Monty Python's Flying Circus - "Is this supposed to be funny?".