Terence Blacker: Beyond the fringe – and wholly safe

Share
Related Topics

Proving that life can sometimes come up with punchlines with which no satirists could compete, Dudley Moore and Peter Cook have both been in the news this week. Moore, who died in 2002, is being remembered by his rather odd-sounding last wife, Nicole Rothschild, who is reported to be writing a memoir in which Cuddly Dudley is presented as drug-addled sex addict.

Cook, who as it happens would have been proud of that characterisation, is being remembered with a heritage plaque in Soho. Thirty-nine years ago, Cook, with Nick Luard, set up the Establishment, a club which was said to have played a significant part in the launch of England's satire boom. At the unveiling of the plaque on its wall this week, the Radio One DJ Mike Read did the honours and Barry Cryer was on tribute duty.

The English are still rather proud of the 1960s satire boom – it is to light-entertainment buffs what the 1966 World Cub is to football fans. According to most social historians, it was the Establishment Club and Beyond the Fringe, the revue which opened at the Fortune Theatre in 1961, which spelt the end of the age of deference. It was acceptable at last to laugh at politicians.

Nothing, it is said, has been quite the same since. But the idea that Peter Cook and the satirists of the early 1960s were involved in something brave and revolutionary has been considerably exaggerated. The name of the Establishment Club, set up by two well-heeled public schoolboys, was less ironic than they may have intended. In its heyday, the club was as near to the epicentre of fashionable London as it was possible to be. The epitome of what a few years later Tom Wolfe would describe as "radical chic", it was replacing one kind of establishment with another.

Reviewing Beyond the Fringe, Alan Brien wrote that "we audiences have tasted our own blood and we like it". The same could be said for members of the political elite. Far from being the sort of show of which the respectable would be wary, it was a mainstream West End hit. The then-prime minister, Harold Macmillan, attended one night, as did the Queen. Its Broadway production played to the Kennedys.

So when old-timers recall the daring of those involved in the so-called "satire boom", and bemoan the fact that there is no one writing now with the savage brilliance of Peter Cook, it is worth remembering that, for all its cleverness, the satire of those days rarely penetrated too far below the flesh; the blade tickled and scratched, but rarely if ever stabbed in the way that the best of today's political comedy manages to do. Imagine Gordon Brown, the Queen and the Obamas attending, say, a stage version of The Thick of It or the premiere of a film by Chris Morris.

By its nature, political satire is always in danger of becoming absorbed into the very establishment which it sets out to mock. The most interesting and dangerous comic writers and performers are aware of the dangers of becoming a much-loved court jester to the nation.

It was those pressures and temptations which made Peter Cook so restless, so uncomfortable in his own skin, once those exciting days of youthful satire were over.

The pen is mightier than the analyst's couch

Here is some good news for the creative writing industry. A Californian neuroscientist has announced that writing is good therapy, confirming the great double fantasy of those who dream of becoming authors: not only can their words make them money, but expressing themselves will also make them happier and saner.

Dr Matthew Lieberman told the American Association for the Advancement of Science that putting feelings into words provides "unintentional emotion-regulation". Writing, in other words, does not stimulate a great cathartic release. It is a suppressant not a stimulant, and actually reduces activity in the part of the brain, the amygdala, that is associated with emotion and fear.

There is a flaw to this theory of writing as a pathway to sanity and tranquillity: authors.

The briefest glance at the private lives of writers, past and present, great and obscure, hardly indicates healthily regulated amygdalas. In fact, it would be difficult to imagine a more psychologically dysfunctional profession, with the possible exception of MPs.

Dr Lieberman is ready for that argument. Authors, he says, are mostly troubled souls who write in reaction to profound emotional problems: "You have to ask yourself what they would be like without writing." That is, they may be nutty, but without that therapeutic scribbling they would be even nuttier.

That's more than I need to know, John

A sure sign that a craze is past its peak is when politicians eagerly but belatedly fall under its spell.

John Prescott has just discovered "25 Random Things About Me", a game of light exhibitionism played on Facebook, and has been eager to join in. His first revelation is that he has seen the film Billy Elliot six times and it is the only film to make him cry. Unexpectedly, this information entirely confirms the claims made for 25 Random Things. In its own quietly humiliating way, it is far more revealing than a full-length newspaper profile.

React Now

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

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Public Accounts Committee found widespread concern among civil servants that they would be victimised if they spoke out about wrongdoing  

Nikileaks explained: The sad thing about the Nicola Sturgeon saga is that it makes leaks less likely

Jane Merrick
New SNP MP Mhairi Black distinguished herself in Westminster straight away when she made herself a chip butty in the canteen  

The SNP adventure arrives in Westminister - but how long before these new MPs go native?

Katy Guest
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?