Politics is no laughing matter for comedians

Mrs Thatcher was indirectly responsible for a huge explosion of enraged artistic talent
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The Independent Online

At a time when our own pop stars and models are being asked to eat kangaroo testicles as part of a reality TV show, it is an odd and sobering experience to read of a Eurovision Song Contest winner going on hunger strike for a political ideal. The 27-year old Ukrainian singer Ruslana Lezhychko has, it is true, suspended the fast which she began last Thursday but she has also threatened to resume it should the result of the fiddled election remain unchanged. Meanwhile, as the crisis continues, musicians, comedians and actors have been performing for the many thousands of protesters standing all day in sub-zero temperatures.

At a time when our own pop stars and models are being asked to eat kangaroo testicles as part of a reality TV show, it is an odd and sobering experience to read of a Eurovision Song Contest winner going on hunger strike for a political ideal. The 27-year old Ukrainian singer Ruslana Lezhychko has, it is true, suspended the fast which she began last Thursday but she has also threatened to resume it should the result of the fiddled election remain unchanged. Meanwhile, as the crisis continues, musicians, comedians and actors have been performing for the many thousands of protesters standing all day in sub-zero temperatures.

How distant this passion for democracy seems from our own plump and jaded political scene. What would it take for one of our girl band goddesses - a Girl Aloud, perhaps - to engage in some sustained and unscheduled anorexia? Almost anything before a political cause, one would imagine.

A minor side-effect of the monumental events in the Ukraine is to remind us of how passionless and disengaged a society in which democracy is taken for granted can be. The more obsessed we become with those touched by fame, the more determinedly the famous avoid any kind of political involvement. In America at least, a right-wing president has bestirred rock stars, comedians, film-makers and even novelists into an attempt to influence the vote. Here, the fashion for cool, cynical indifference to public affairs finds expression through our best and funniest stars. The central joke in Sasha Baron-Cohen's Ali G was that he was profoundly ignorant of politics, seeing international affairs only in the context of Hollywood films or his own life in Staines.

The same joke lies behind the latest Ricky Gervais DVD, entitled - ironically, of course - Politics. "I never have a conversation about politics with anyone," Gervais has said in an interview. "It's not just about Blair and Bush and the NHS. They're not as important as the everyday things that affect you: friendship, running out of milk." Maybe this is another layer of irony, part of the joke. The character making the kind of jokes about paedophilia, the disabled, about Hitler and the Jews that would have Bernard Manning arrested is said to be Ricky Gervais's alter ego "Ricky Gervais", whose perspective on politics is both clueless and solipsistic.

All this rings a distinct bell. In the early 1980s, Rik Mayall created "Rick", a wimpish, Cliff Richard-loving student anarchist, first as a stand-up act, then as part of the BBC series The Young Ones. Significantly, the joke then was that, for Rick, radical politics was groovy. It was chic to be radical.

Comedians tend to mock an aspect of their own character and the world in which they live. Just as Gervais laughs at the small-minded selfishness of the 21st-century Englishman, so Mayall needled the modish activism of the moment. Mrs Thatcher had provided the left with the perfect target and was indirectly responsible for a huge explosion of enraged artistic talent.

For almost a decade, political involvement was a good career move for rock bands, comedians and actors. Rock Against Racism concerts, benefit gigs on behalf of the striking miners, angry comic routines about Greenham Common, or school meals, or the Falklands War, were a cool, fashionable part of the entertainment industry.

There was an earnestness, verging on the sanctimonious, that would seem laughable today. I was floating about on the fringe of this scene at the time, editing and putting together books, and one soon learnt that certain kinds of levity were frowned upon. Years before political correctness became a term of abuse, it would be asked, without a hint of irony, whether someone was "politically sound". Selling out, by appearing in TV advertisements for example, was regarded as an unforgivable betrayal.

It passed. Eventually, even the most politically sound was out there selling cars or doing voice-overs for supermarkets. Yet these days, when only a handful of comedians are covering politics, and in a thoroughly predictable way, it is difficult not to feel nostalgic for a time when public issues, even of the demagogic, donkey-jacketed kind, had some connection to the world of the celebrity.

Peter Hain recently suggested that government is out of fashion. The same could have been said in the 1980s; the difference is that many of those in the entertainment industry were prepared to do something about it. When Amnesty International needed funds, the charity gigs knows as the Secret Policeman's Ball were a roll-call of the best musicians and the funniest comedians at the time.

The 25th anniversary of the first of those performances will, as it happens, be celebrated in a documentary to be screened on BBC4 on 9 December. Asked to contribute their thoughts, few of the new generation of comedians stepped forward. According to the programme's producer, "They said they had nothing to say."

That would seem to sum up the situation pretty well. At a time when people are more inclined to vote for a reality TV show than in an election, their entertainers - ironic, flip, morally slobbish - have captured the mood of the moment perfectly.

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