Terence Blacker: Why satire no longer stings the powerful

It no longer hurts because the satirised are now part of the game
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So now we know how to get a reply from a dodgy banker or a beleaguered MP. Flowers do the trick, and the odd present, sent with warm words. "Your friendship and support mean a great deal to me," Sir Fred (the Shred) Goodwin wrote in response to this approach. Sir Anthony Steen, the duckhouse MP, replied with heartfelt gratitude, as did the former head of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan. Shortly after she had resigned from the Government, Caroline Flint wrote that "letters like yours keep me going".

The correspondent whose letters earned warm-hearted responses from the most unlikely sources was a retired teacher called Colin Nugent, occasionally assisted by his granddaughter Sophie. Together, they love-bombed the unlovable with letters and presents (a model car and chocolate presents for Sir Fred, flowers for Greenspan, the offer of a kitten to the head of Unilever, and so on), and the ensuing correspondence has just been published as Colin Nugent Saves the World.

Nugent sounds too good to be true, and so he is. His letters, the website colinnugent.co.uk reveals, are the invention of the TV writer and producer Geoff Atkinson, and are a funny, contemporary re-working of the idea which worked so brilliantly 30 years ago for Atkinson's late friend Willie Donaldson. In his book The Henry Root Letters, Donaldson heralded a new age of celebrity in which newsreaders, politicians, models and senior policemen all essentially belonged to the world of fame. Root wrote them hilariously inept fan letters, sometimes with an insultingly small bribe attached, and let vanity do the rest.

Atkinson has noted that today the famous are more likely to reply in person to letters rather than leaving it to underlings as they did back in 1979. But there are greater differences between the two spoofs, revealing how celebrity and satire have changed over the past three decades.

Root was a brisk, vulgar, ambitious man of the right; even when attempting a compliment, he managed to offend: "you seem a sensible old trout," he once wrote to the doyenne of Fleet Street columnists, Lynda Lee-Potter. The hard edge to the humour was what made it so funny. Years before Sacha Baron Cohen or Chris Morris, Donaldson had recognised that the best way to satirise the conceited or the pompous was to let them do it themselves.

Atkinson is altogether gentler. "I hope Sir Fred sees this book as healing rather than ridiculing," he has said. "I hope he sits there and chuckles."

The chuckling, one suspects, has started already. Satire no longer hurts because the satirised are now part of the game. The very reason why public figures replied themselves to the Nugent letters was that they wanted to present themselves as warm, normal human beings who have that all-important sense of humour. When Sir Mervyn King responded to Nugent's idea that an Aston Villa footballer should contribute to Bank of England meetings, he was cheerfully and cunningly joining in the joke.

We are all ironists now. Stand-up comedy and saucy TV news quizzes are more popular than ever because they give the illusion of satirising the powerful, while always remaining on safe ground. These days, when blood is drawn, and offence caused, it is never the mighty who bleed but an old actor, insulted over the telephone, or a young female swimmer mocked for the way she looks.

The powerful, meanwhile, enjoy the healing humour and chuckle away, untouched.

Introducing... At Her Majesty's Pleasure

Now that the Big Brother franchise is pretty much played out, the time is surely ripe for a new type of reality show. The last Celebrity Big Brother may accidentally have offered a way forward.

George O'Dowd, better known as Boy George, is currently on parole having been given a 15-month jail sentence for the assault and false imprisonment of a male escort. Now electronically tagged, the singer had been anxious to appear on the show, arguing, with some justification, that there was little danger of his going anywhere. Instead of reporting to the authorities once a day, he would be under permanent surveillance by the British public.

There were other compelling reasons for welcoming the former jailbird into the Big Brother house. With no opportunity for taking illegal substances, a complete lack of clubbing facilities and only limited scope for sexual inappropriateness, it offers the perfect setting for self-analysis and rehabilitation.

The High Court was quite wrong to turn down Boy George's request. Indeed, the logical development from the current format would be to turn the TV prison into a real one. A reality show called At Her Majesty's Pleasure would bring together a zany and interesting group of inmates currently serving sentences – the Premiership footballer who hit a woman in a club, for example, the Duchess of York's friend who murdered her husband, Amy Winehouse's former boyfriend perhaps.

Locked away yet visible, the jailbirds would provide therapy for themselves and insight into the criminal mind for the public at large. Here is a TV idea whose time has come.

Greed is alive and well on the high street

It has been a year in which greed – other people's greed, that is – has been regularly and widely reviled. The bankers, having been saved by the public purse, avariciously pocket vast bonuses. Footballers' salaries have climbed ever higher. Politicians have behaved like Del Boy in Only Fools and Horses, trying to make a bob or two on the side by playing the system.

Yet the true, everyday face of greed is not to be seen in the City or in Westminster but in shopping centres and high streets during this week's sales. There have been queues, fights over the counter. Photographs of customers, grinning in triumph as they emerge from shops, laden with clothes, handbags and other unneeded booty, have appeared in the press.

It is humbug to claim that this stampede for a bargain is caused by need, or even poverty. A survey this week revealed that around £4.1 billion is spent in sales every year on items which are never used. Old-fashioned capitalist greed is at work. It is as alive and unchanged on the high street as it is in the City.

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