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

Share
Related Topics

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

React Now

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

QA/BA - Agile

£400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are currently seekin...

Primary Supply Teacher

£121 - £142 per day: Randstad Education Luton: Primary supply teacher Hertford...

KS1 & KS2 Teacher

£115 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Luton: We are looking for infants and...

Secondary Trained Teachers for the watford area

£120 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Luton: Qualified secondary teachers - ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Ebola virus in the US: How did the disease ever spread this far?

Sophie Harman
 

The most common question I am asked is 'How do I become a YouTuber?' This is my reply

Jim Chapman
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?