Only once in my life have I approached someone I had never met before to blurt out: “I think you’re wonderful!” That was at a social event when I found myself face to face with John Fortune, who died aged 74 after treatment for leukaemia.
Back then, he did not react as I would have expected: he neither mumbled an awkward ‘thank you’, nor swell up with conceit. Instead, he turned the conversation away from himself, wanting to know who I was. On his discovering that I was a political journalist, we began a long, serious conversation about politics, which consisted mainly of him asking questions which I did my best to answer.
I deduce that he spent his life trying to know and understand, without wasting time wallowing in his celebrity status. This curiosity – the very quality that his persona as a witless television interviewer so lamentably lacked – is what made him one of the greatest satirists of our time.
It should also be remembered that when he learnt his trade, during the 1960s satire boom, the public had never heard performers take the mickey out of powerful and people before. Because it was new, it had to be done well, to keep the audience on side.
These days, there is no softer target than a politician. Any comic of modest talent can parody a leading political figure. Doing a Boris Johnson by saying “cripes,” or a Tony Blair by saying “hi guys” with a cheesy grin is not satire: it is mimicry, performed without any insight into how these individuals came to be masters of a complicated trade.
John Fortune and fellow satirist John Bird did not waste their formidable intelligence on mimicry: their targets were the people who actually run the country, and their weapon was political and psychological accuracy.
Their standard format was that Bird would play an important person who is so accustomed to deference that he has lost all capacity for self-awareness. Fortune would be the wide-eyed, hand-wringing, toadying interviewer whose eagerness to agree brought out the worst of his guest’s suave cynicism. Only occasionally would the interviewer accidentally drop a probing question which would be promptly smothered.
These sketches were not played simply for laughs: they were meticulously researched, and used hard facts and quotations to build a convincing picture of blundering chaos. It has been suggested that a Long Johns sketch with John Bird, that parodied the financial ‘products’ concocted by banks, foretold the financial crash of 2008. That level of insight is not achieved by performers interested in showing us how clever they are.
Final sketches: Tributes from friends
Rory Bremner, fellow satirist
“He was, first and foremost a lovely man. He was very much a father figure and a mentor to me... In a quiet way, he was one of the pillars of the anti-establishment. He was fearless as a satirist, because there was nothing that he wouldn’t do. He was braver than many of us in what he would do in a satirical sketch... To my mind he was the best combination of intelligence and humour that I have ever met.”
Geoff Atkinson, producer
“He was an inspiration as a writer, and the funniest person you could ever meet. But it was as a friend that I valued him most.”
Stephen Fry, actor
“He loved puns. He was a very, very warm and extraordinarily generous man as well, but behind it all the most brilliant mind.”
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