Terence Blacker: Even satire has lost its bite this Christmas

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The Independent Online

It is on its way, that sharp, disagreeable moment of jingle-bell-phobia, when peace on earth can go hang and goodwill to all men feels little more than a rather expensive bore. These feelings are natural and part of the human condition. Christmas is all about children, we are told, but that is only half the truth. It as also about introspection, grumpiness and a generalised dishumour.

It is on its way, that sharp, disagreeable moment of jingle-bell-phobia, when peace on earth can go hang and goodwill to all men feels little more than a rather expensive bore. These feelings are natural and part of the human condition. Christmas is all about children, we are told, but that is only half the truth. It as also about introspection, grumpiness and a generalised dishumour.

Some of the fatheads who run TV seem not to have understood this basic seasonal truth. In their world, everyone must be contented over the next 10 days. Any old pap can appear on our screens – animated nonsense with a goody-goody message, films with a dog or a whale as its hero, cod-Dickensian things with fake snow and David Jason – so long as its tone is suitably positive and uplifting.

Forgive my bilious tone, but I have just been previewing Christmas TV for the Front Row programme. It was an odd, out-of-context experience, watching programmes stone-cold sober when they were clearly designed to be seen drunk. After hours of feelgood documentaries and life-enhancing drama, I turned with relief to what should have been an oasis of ill-will, a mock documentary from John Bird, John Fortune and Rory Bremner called Geoffrey Malet: Hero of Our Times, which will be broadcast on New Year's Eve.

It was a severe disappointment, a lesson in what has gone wrong with political satire of late. The documentary purports to follow the career of a man who has slithered self-servingly through the political establishment over the past two decades. So Malet, capitalist hero of the Thatcher years, becomes a star of the sleaze era before fitting easily into the role of a millionaire friend of New Labour.

It sounds all right, if a little obvious. Bird plays the disingenuous man of power, apparently bewildered by the money and influence he has gathered around him. Fortune trudges around looking puzzled. Bremner does his impressions, including a rather good Duncan-Smith. Various real people – Mohamed Fayed, Carol Thatcher, Bernard Ingham, Will Hutton, Eve Pollard – are interviewed, giving cod accounts of their dealings with Malet.

And here is the problem. The appearance in the programme of the very sort of people which any self-respecting satirist would mock draws it sting and makes it appear as harmless as a TV parlour game.

Just as the Hamiltons starred on Have I Got News For You and Fayed spoofed himself on the Ali G show, so now the same sort of personalities – mostly over-exposed self-publicists on the fringes of power – are happy to play along with Bird, Fortune and Bremner. At first glance they seem amusing, these comic turns played by people of influence – a cheeky deconstruction of fiction and reality, like Angela Rippon appearing on The Morecambe and Wise Show.

Then it becomes clear why politicians and their hangers-on are happy to play the game. By self-satirising, they are effectively turning political comedy into something compliant, an establishment circle jerk. In these programmes, nothing is entirely serious and no one can truly get hurt. By asking their subjects, or those who work with them, to join in the joke by lying on camera (which they do revealingly well), satirists are muffled by the embrace of those they should be attacking.

No wonder that one looks in vain for genuine political satire on mainstream TV. Who could be surprised that, to find the last occasion when there were sustained complaints from politicians (a sure sign that satire is working), one has to look back to the days of Spitting Image.

Today the jokes and impressions are about the easily mockable world of showbiz and popular culture. How delighted the true Geoffrey Malets of the political establishment must be.

terblacker@aol.com

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