Terence Blacker: Fifty years after the satire boom, the country needs it more than ever

The Way We Live: Britain today is just as socially stratified and morally bogus as it was in 1962

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It is a surprise, and rather a pleasant one, that The Establishment club is to make a muted return to Soho over 50 years after its brief and heady success under the proprietorship of Peter Cook and Nick Luard. Towards the end of his life, Cook had mentioned that he would like to revive The Establishment, and now, thanks to his widow Lin, the writer Victor Lewis-Smith and comedian Keith Allen, Ronnie Scott's is to run a series of late-night shows featuring "hard-core comedy and cabaret".

Our smug culture needs a shot of satire every bit as badly as did the Britain of 1961. At that time, the country was run by a dreary, be-suited, public school-educated and apparently respectable elite. The rigid class culture of the post-war years was crumbling, even before the derisive raspberry of youthful comedy helped change it forever.

Unlike now, though, there was such a yearning for change that even those in power seemed to welcome it. The Establishment was hugely fashionable among the Tatler set. At the Fortune Theatre, the satirical revue Beyond the Fringe was attended by the Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and even, rather dashingly, the Queen.

No one could seriously argue that today's Britain is less socially stratified, divided and morally bogus than it was half a century ago, although the way it presents itself has changed. The curse of private education lives on. A new snobbery, based on fame and money, is in place. Hypocrisy is all around us: in supermarkets with their fake green credentials, in a wetly liberal BBC, in publishers now falling over themselves to promote pornography, in a Government that wrings its hands about social problems – sport for children, the erosion of the countryside, gambling, greed – while at the same time busily exploiting and exacerbating them.

The Establishment, on the other hand, is less well-defined. The days of Them and Us are long gone. Politicians who go into entertainment, from Lembit Opik to John Prescott, mingle in the shared world of government and entertainment with left-wing writers and satirists – take a bow, Sir David Hare and Armando Iannucci OBE – who cheerfully accept honours from the very system they purport to criticise.

There are new centres of power. The Groucho Club media set, to which Keith Allen would seem to belong, or the Private Eye gang, which includes Victor Lewis-Smith, are rather more establishment in their way than many politicians or civil servants.

Satire comes in waves. The fearless mockery of Cook and Beyond the Fringe had an obvious target, as did Spitting Image in the 1980s and, more recently, The Thick of It.

Now something different is needed, a type of humour which genuinely discomfits and exposes the many areas of unthinking hypocrisy in our culture. Celebrity self-mocking, of the type pioneered by Ricky Gervais, has had the paradoxical effect of compounding the smugness of the successful. The Sixties satirists were vague about money and careers; today, no one is surprised when a fringe comedian like Frankie Boyle is said to have saved himself almost £1m in tax in a year through cunning accountancy. The satirists are part of the game.

A combination of slightly embittered oldsters like Allen and Lewis-Smith with new music and youthful rage could revive the British talent for satire. A new and truly subversive Establishment might be just what we need.

Self-promotion is a talent, like any other

One of the more cynical ploys of those working in government and in public bodies is to attach a policy to the career coat-tails of an ambitious TV presenter. Notable beneficiaries of this celebrification of more or less everything have been the so-called "Queen of Shops", Mary Portas, and survival expert Edward "Bear" Grylls. Portas now spearheads a government initiative to revive high streets, while Grylls has the high-profile role of Chief Scout of the Scouting Association.

The advantages of using a TV presenter in a public role are obvious. It is surely only a matter of time before Jeremy Clarkson is appointed motorways tsar or Stephen Fry is asked by Michael Gove to promote literacy.

The policy can have disadvantages, though. Market towns visited by the Queen of Shops have claimed that she is more interested in making an amusing, uplifting TV documentary than in improving their high street. Grylls has used his position to promote knives in his own product range.

But who could seriously be surprised by these developments? People become TV celebrities because, among other talents, they have a gift for pushing their own personalities forward. It goes with the job. Self-promotion is in their life-blood.

terenceblacker.com

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