Steve Richards: And now for something exactly the same: cheap laughs at the expense of politicians

Hislop, Merton and Bremner have more power to shape opinion than the spin doctors they mock
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The Independent Online

Monty Python is flying. Spamalot opens in London this week after its triumph on Broadway. Michael Palin's diaries are published. A new DVD version of The Holy Grail is out. The appetite for silliness is as great now as it was in the 1970s.

The silliness is the reason for Python's enduring success. In a recent BBC interview, Palin was asked whether he regretted that Python had not been around for the Thatcher era. The interviewer suggested that Thatcher would have been a great comic source. Palin pointed out that Python did not satirise politicians. Instead it had exposed and mocked the absurdities of life. That is why we turn still to Python. Politicians come and go. The sheer silliness of life persists.

Several members of the Python team have speculated that the series would never be commissioned today. I am sure they are right, and one of the reasons for this would be the lack of so-called "political bite". Now the television schedules explode with so called satirical series that portray politicians as liars, fools and knaves. The silliness has been replaced by increasingly brutal attacks on those that we have elected.

Currently the BBC is broadcasting The Amazing Mrs Pritchard, a series about a housewife that becomes Prime Minister after running a campaign against "politics as usual". That proposal must have ticked a lot of boxes in the powerful and naive anti- politics wing of the publicly funded corporation. The premise is tediously and destructively familiar, that politics as practised these days is a giant con on the voters.

In the BBC press release, the series is described as "bold and engaging ... so angry at the state of politics, so distrustful of the politicians on offer, Mrs Pritchard stands as an independent". The writer is quoted as saying that she was inspired to create the series because at the last election "I didn't really want to vote for anybody because they all seemed as bad as each other."What a lazily dangerous cliché on which to get the go ahead for a series.

The Amazing Mrs Pritchard arises from the same set of assumptions that shapes piles of other peak-time programmes. Recently we have had A Very Social Secretary, a supposed satire on David Blunkett in which his blindness was a pivotal comic device. Currently a "humorous" look at John Prescott is being prepared. What bravery to echo all the front pages on a weak politician who is retiring soon.

Elsewhere, a Christmas special of The Thick of It is ready to roll, this time without the hapless Hugh Abbott seeking to spin his way around Labour's deranged spinning machine. Have I Got News For You continues on Friday nights, winning the easiest laughs when politicians are attacked. Rory Bremner bashes politicians about on a Sunday, becoming increasingly less funny as his cliché-ridden hatred of Blair takes hold. There are several other "satirical" looks at the week's news scattered around the schedules, usually with comedians desperately hoping that a cutting-edge attack on a mighty politician will make them stars.

There is something dangerously wrong with this raging fashion and the essential joke: we take the piss out of elected politicians. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the satirists dared to challenge popular prejudices and media orthodoxy. They ridiculed the extreme deference of the media and the politicians unused to being challenged. They were novel, fresh and bold. Now, in an era when voters lazily assume that politicians are liars and fools, what do we get? We get bucket-loads of satirists showing that politicians are liars and fools. Existing prejudices are reinforced in series that are wearily familiar, stale and timid.

The dynamics are wrong too. A few decades ago, a few insecure comedians exposed mighty politicians. Now, mighty comedians, earning more in a month than cabinet ministers earn in a year, expose the vulnerabilities of insecure politicians. Blunkett's diaries, with their tone of moaning impotence, are the most recent reminder of the limits of power exercised by elected politicians. In contrast, Messrs Hislop, Merton and Bremner have more power to shape public opinion than the spin-doctors they mock. They brainwash their viewers, pick up their mega salaries and remain unaccountable.

Indeed, satire would be more fresh and daring if the tame, wealthy satirists and the naive bureaucrats who lazily commission the work were the target of humour: the vast salaries of the comedians, the six-figure salaries of media managers in jobs for life, working in hierarchies where no one gets the blame when things go wrong. Compare those cocooned worlds with the insecure lives of politicians, in which a word out of place can lead to a political earthquake. This was why, in terms of satire, The Thick of It was off target. It brilliantly reinforced the clichés about Downing Street spin, but did not dare to expose the frenzied world of the modern British media that was the wider political context.

Increasingly, young people do not vote. This is not surprising when their main access to politicians is through these satirists. The real politicians get slots at midnight or during the day. The satirists get the peak-time slots. Viewers are not challenged into reflecting that politics is complicated, and a more civilised way of resolving conflicts than the use of force. Instead they are encouraged to conclude thoughtlessly that Britain is ruled by a bunch of out-of-touch liars.

Obviously, this is a problem for all politicians. Cameron will be torn apart once his honeymoon is over. But, more importantly, it is a problem for the declining numbers that believe in democratic politics. Most specifically, the ubiquitous satirists put up big obstacles for those of us that retain some faith in the importance of active government. Politicians are so vilified they are increasingly scared to act. Look at the latest fashion for giving control of the NHS to an unelected, independent board. Large parts of Britain are government by unelected officials because politicians are fearful of being torn to shreds.

Most modern satirists would probably place themselves on the left. They are not. In their destruction of faith in politics they collude with the small-state right-wingers who argue that government should keep out of governing. This places them and those who commission them well to the right of the current Conservative leadership.

Originally it took bold comedians and daringly imaginative commissioners to let satirical onslaughts on politicians take flight. Now new forms of boldness are required to portray the complexities faced by elected politicians. When presented with another proposal that portrays politicians as fools and liars, I hope a comedian or TV commissioner will dare to sit in an empty field in the middle of nowhere and scream as Monty Python did: and now for something completely different.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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