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- Arts + Ents
Sunday 7 December 1997
No one's safe from his satire
New Labour has breathed new life into Britain's leading impressionist. PROFILE: Rory Bremner
The audience laughs. The piano collapses and we laugh again. Another statement has been issued from the comedic offices of the unofficial Leader of the Opposition. For sharp observations on New Labour or well-researched reminders of abandoned policies, there's little point relying on the House of Commons. Better to tune in to Channel 4 late on a Friday night, and watch Rory Bremner ... Who Else? His caricatures of Blair, Prescott, Brown, Cook, Harman - and best of all, his unearthly, computer-generated Peter Mandelson - are as sharp as That Was The Week That Was in its prime, or Spitting Image during the Thatcher years.
Now that the latex puppets have all been melted down and Radio 4's doomed topical revue Weekending is justifying a derisive respelling of its name, Bremner and his team have hit a rich vein of form. The impressionist and his regular guests, the veteran satirists John Bird and John Fortune, seem the only comedians consistently willing and able to express the doubts many are beginning to feel about the People's Government.
"The honeymoon is coming to an end," says Bremner, as a make-up artist applies the false ears and nose crucial to his impression of our prime minister. He admits running out of steam during the dog days of the Major administration, since it was difficult to come up with an act more ridiculous than, say, Neil Hamilton. But the new vigour of New Labour has meant a new challenge. "They have presented us with a surprisingly large target. Peter Cook said that for satire you needed a right-wing government. That's fine. That's what we've got."
When his latest series began in October, Bremner was a worried man. "I was seriously thinking that I'd hit a brick wall and run out of characters. But so far this year we've had Frank Dobson, Kirsty Wark, Betty Boothroyd, Mohamed Al Fayed, Michael Cole, William Hague ... and Peter Mandelson of course."
According to the show's producer, Jon Magnusson, the idea of a virtual reality Minister Without Portfolio seemed natural, "because he represents all of the virtual elements of New Labour. It is all image, trickery, sleight of hand and marketing."
One of the most telling sketches of the series was a recreation of Tony Blair's interview for On The Record in the wake of the Formula One sponsorship debacle. "It's all presentation," said Bremner as John Humphrys. "That's what won you the election. That's all New Labour is. It's what you do all day. Isn't it a bit much to say, 'Oh, it's a presentation problem,' now?"
As the sinister cartoon Mandelson hovered at his shoulder, the impressionist's Blair replied, "John, it can't be a policy problem ... we don't have a policy." The sketch ended with Mandelson collapsing as Blair proclaimed his desire to be the Prime Minister of People's Hearts.
"This autumn is very rich in irony," says Bremner, sliding into the precise, pious tones of Blair: "Thank God we're away from the era of a government that wasn't sure when and if it was going to get involved in a single currency; we're away from a government that was immersed in sleaze and stories of funding rows and donations; and away from stories about ministers having affairs with their secretaries. What a relief it is to find those days are behind us."
Laughing at his own characterisation, Bremner (as himself) adds, "If that isn't irony, I don't know what is. It is in that space between reality and image that irony and satire live. You've got the reality that has hit them in the last few weeks, and the presentation that they've been trying to push all summer, and somewhere between the two is our playground."
Whisper it, but in 1979 Rory Bremner voted for Mrs Thatcher's Conservative Party ("I was fresh out of public school. We needed a change, just as we did this year."). He has also voted for the Liberal Democrats and Labour in his time, but claims not to remember which of them won his backing on May 1.
"I know you think that's entirely disingenuous, but voting for the opposition where I live, in Kensington & Chelsea, is rather like shooting tanks with a peashooter. We knew Alan Clark was going to get it. And that's rather like having Leslie Phillips for your MP." Adopting the voice of the elderly charmer oozing over a pretty young filly: "He-llo ..."
Bremner was born in 1961, in Edinburgh. His father was an army officer, so young Rory was educated in Sandhurst, at Wellington College. He started acting in revues and cabarets while at King's College, London, where he graduated in French and German. Instead of attending lectures he appeared by day in satirical radio shows such as Weekending and LBC's News Revue, and by night learned his craft on the alternative cabaret circuit in London.
From early television appearances on The Tube, Spitting Image and Wogan, he graduated to his own BBC series. It was rather tame stuff, most notable for impersonations of people from the cricket world like Geoff Boycott and Richie Benaud; in 1985 he released a cricketing parody of Paul Hardcastle's hit record "19", which reached the Top 20.
Bremner continues to be passionate about the game. He is surprisingly tall and athletic, with wide shoulders and powerful-looking arms that must help his performances with the bat for the Lord's Taverners cricket team. It was at a Taverners dinner last week that he met the Conservative leader William Hague, who insisted on making his own speech after Bremner's. "I made a few jokes about Ffion meeting the convergence criteria for marital union. Then Hague came on and said, 'Well, nice listening to Mike Yarwood.' And how we laughed."
You get the impression that Mr Hague will be made to pay for the Yarwood reference, one way or another. Rory Bremner is not a man to be crossed: he seems an intense and thoughtful character, whose good breeding and manners do not disguise a tendency to get what he wants from those who work with him.
Gratuitous insults of MPs aside, Bremner did look to be following the same safe career path as Mike Yarwood until 1992, when he switched to Channel 4 and changed his act. It became sharper, more political, and won prizes: two Baftas and a British Comedy Award over five series. His portrayal of John Major as a forlorn figure trapped by circumstances and mutinous colleagues was rather more human and truthful than other less subtle satirists managed and sat naturally alongside Bremner's impressions of such minor television personalities as Trevor McDonald and the weatherman Ian McCaskill. They are still an important part of his act, leaven for the heavy political bread and a reminder that Bremner's intention is humour, not polemic.
Poking fun at the Conservatives led to him being asked to help Labour, a request he turned down. "I've got to be able to do things without fear or favour. You can't identify with a political party on a Thursday and take the piss out of it on Friday. Likewise, if Labour people have laughed for years at sketches we did about John Major, they can't turn around now and say, 'How dare you!'" Although they do, of course.
However, Bremner insists his show is not recorded in a moral vacuum. Last month his voice raised the profile of a campaign to help Crisis find premises in which to provide shelter for homeless people at Christmas. He has also performed in aid of sporting charities, Friends of the Earth, Transport 2000 and Greenpeace. Predictably, for a man who spends his whole life pretending to be other people, he does not like to be tied down to a single cause. "Also, I'm slightly ill at ease that a disease or cause is not accorded any attention unless there's a celebrity attached to it. That shows the primacy of personality above issue - but it's all very well me saying that, when my whole career is based on the enjoyment and celebration of personalities."
This Series, like those before it, has drawn on the experience of Bird and Fortune, who have been ribbing the Establishment for as long as Bremner has been alive. Their meticulously researched dialogues routinely exposed the hypocrisies of the Major government, and look like doing the same to Labour.
Bremner's own long-standing writing partner is John Langdon, an unassuming man with a drooping moustache and lugubrious style whose body language says he was born to be behind the scenes. They were thrown together by a BBC producer during the Edinburgh festival 12 years ago. Langdon's job seems to be quality control, reining in Bremner's enthusiasm and wading through the many jokes sent in by freelance writers each week. On the studio floor he and the star of the show seem telepathic, communicating with nods and grunts, and finishing each other's sentences.
The producers, Geoff Atkinson and Jon Magnusson, are also part of the team, which decides on a Monday which topical issues it will tackle, writes material on a Tuesday, and records sketches on Wednesday. On Thursday the monologues are recorded before a live studio audience in Wembley, and on Friday the show is edited down before transmission. Langdon shares his partner's belief that New Labour has set itself up for parody, "in the same way nouvelle cuisine set itself up. That was French for, 'Fucking hell, is that all you get?' This is Nouvelle Labour."
Like Bremner, he has a special place in his heart for the virtual Peter Mandelson. "What is this creature of darkness?" asks Langdon. "Mandelson is the reincarnation of Gerald Ratner [former head of a chain of jewellery shops, deposed after an indiscreet speech]. One day he's going to say, 'Well, the Labour Party's a load of old crap ... oops!' And it will all be over."
The next day Bremner left a message on my answering machine.He had been thinking about our discussion of the Government, and had something more to say. "You've got Labour holding to Conservative economic policies, and the Conservatives criticising them for the very same policies that they had when they were in government. And they think we're cynical?
"Ultimately, it's a change of cast, isn't it? The script hasn't changed. It's a mirror image. At least we've got better jokes than they have."
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