Jeremy Paxman: Britain needs a new 'Spitting Image' to restore faith in politics

Britain needs new satirical comedy, veteran broadcaster says

Adam Sherwin
Tuesday 02 September 2014 00:52 BST
Jeremy Paxman has said satirical comedy could be the solution to a widespread public disengagement from mainstream politics
Jeremy Paxman has said satirical comedy could be the solution to a widespread public disengagement from mainstream politics

“Where is the Spitting Image of today?” Jeremy Paxman has lamented that a dearth of satire in the British body politic is the reason that voters have come to despise politicians.

The former Newsnight presenter, who performed a one-man show at the Edinburgh Festival, said the experience taught him that a return for satirical comedy could be the solution to a widespread public disengagement from mainstream politics.

“It is almost impossible to exaggerate the public’s contempt for politicians,” Paxman writes in Radio Times. “But – contradictory as it sounds – that they believe in voting and still have faith in the possibility of improvement.

"They’re tolerant and pretty unshockable, and more amused than angry. There is something that these people need, a way of being reconnected with the political process they so despair of. And humour is part of the answer.”

Paxman, 64, continued: “Unfortunately, the great Tom Lehrer declared satire to be dead when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973. Where is the Spitting Image of today? The David Owen/David Steel puppets during the time of the Liberal-SDP Alliance were funny enough.

“Imagine the sport the show could have with Cameron and Clegg. But I don’t care whether it’s puppets or cartoons or real people. Just give us some decent satire. Wit is not the same as saying you don’t fancy the Home Secretary or making jokes about farting.”

British political satire is arguably enjoying a golden age – but in America. John Oliver, the Birmingham-born stand-up, who became a sidekick on The Daily Show now hosts his own acclaimed HBO series, Last Week Tonight, in which he skewers issues such as the American prison system and income inequality through vitriolic diatribes.

HBO is also home to Veep, the Emmy-winning US adaptation of Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It, which utilises the British writing and directing talent of the BBC Whitehall comedy. House of Cards, Kevin Spacey’s Netflix-screened drama about a scheming Washington politician, was originally adapted by the BBC in 1990.

But political satire has largely disappeared from UK screens. The final Thick of It episode aired in 2012. Channel 4 has dropped its weekly Rory Bremner show and 10 O’Clock Live, the ambitious comedy and current affairs show hosted by David Mitchell, Jimmy Carr, Charlie Brooker and Lauren Laverne, struggled to find an audience and has not returned since a 2013 series.

Matt Forde, a former Labour advisor turned stand-up comedian, who will be joined by Michael Portillo at his next Political Party shows at the St James Theatre in London, said: “We’ve still got Have I Got News For You? which remains a biting satirical show and topical panel shows. But in the US there’s a bigger potential audience for a niche late night show.

Forde added: “I’m hoping those US shows will create a market in Britain for a passionate, satirical desk-based programme within five years and I’m constantly talking to broadcasters feeding that demand for more satire.”

Channel 4 said it is about to air Scotland in a Day, mockumentary-style comedy set on the day of the Scottish Independence referendum. It will “take a snapshot of a nation on the brink of both triumph and disaster”.

Topical satire lives on in Russell Howard’s Good News on BBC3, Channel 4’s The Last Leg as well as the venerable Have I Got News For You?

This Week, Andrew Neil’s late night BBC1 Thursday political round-up, incorporates comedy guests. But attempts to inject humour and comedic stunts into BBC2’s Newsnight have been widely criticised.

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