In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick


Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

‘Trick Mirror’

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Gravity’s PythonRaymond Williams

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website ( — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.

  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
From Fringe to Flying Circus 
by Roger Wilmut.
Eyre Methuen, 264 pp., £7.95, October 1980, 0 413 46950 6
Show More
Show More

What is the difference between a satirist and an impressionist? I don’t know – what is the difference between a satirist and an impressionist?

The sad little question is properly cast in the form of a comic routine. There must be some people, perhaps most of us some of the time, who can look back on the wit of the last twenty years and simply revive old laughter. Any book of quotations from Beyond the Fringe to Monty Python’s Flying Circus offers enough occasions, and there is still Not the Nine O’Clock News. But then other memories intrude. The early impersonations of Harold Macmillan seemed at the time to have some political content. But go across from that memory to, say, Mike Yarwood, doing the whole run of political leaders. We still laugh, but with other questions. Isn’t there a certain air of obeisance in this whole exercise with celebrities? Isn’t being impersonated now a mark on the scale of effective image-building? Is it true that all celebrities ask even the hardest cartoonist for their originals?

That may only mean that the bite has gone out of it all. Yet Peter Cook, one of the early impersonators, is quoted here as saying : ‘My impersonation of Macmillan was in fact extremely affectionate – I was a great Macmillan fan.’ On the printed evidence, he could have fooled us. Did he fool us?

It is useful to have even this broadly adulatory record of the last twenty years of – what? It seems that Kenneth Tynan first called it satire. Others have called ‘it’ almost everything, but the only reasonably constant factor, of any importance, is a specific conjunction of university revue with popular television. Yet that can then override the obvious differences of content. There is really hardly anything in common between, say. That was the week that was, Monty Python’s Flying Circus and The Goodies, except this very general fact of formation. Should we then set it aside, as a matter of mere biographical or vulgar sociological interest? Glad of the laughs, I can usually agree to this until I notice a fair number of these performers turning up between the acts, doing their funny commercials. With the commercials still running we remember how often and how brilliantly the commercial mode has been guyed. Take the point across to politicians and official spokesmen, and it begins to seem a problem that after twenty years of mocking impersonation we are stuck with public figures even more ludicrous than any of the original targets.

So satire can’t change the world? But then how much of it was satire anyway? There is one old sense of satire as medley, supposedly derived from a dish of various fruits offered to the gods. That is getting more like it. The range has been very wide, from social and political comment through traditional comic sketches and monologues to prolonged verbal jokes and a kind of late Dadaism. In some of the contributors, it has edged towards a kind of drama, full of intricate subjectivities. In others, it has moved happily towards commercial farce. There has been a general supposition that it was broadly progressive, but it has included its share of racial and foreigner jokes and a persistent proportion of mockery of the English working class. In the early days it included several internal parodies of theatre; lately it has sometimes seemed that its whole content is internal parody of television.

With this range of content it is reasonable to ask why it is still distinguished from the general run of comic entertainment. Certainly the range can be wider, including kinds of educated joke (the persistence of Proust) and more black comedy. There has been wider use of comedy drawn from the mechanics of the show itself: internal mix-ups; self-conscious reference to the sketch while it is playing; the use of devices to undermine the device. It could be said that this is the world of late Modernism and Brechtian influence, but there is no need to say this: the Marx Brothers and the Goons were already in place. What may be distinct, in the use of some of these methods, is a kind of amateurism. It is often difficult to distinguish between deliberate amateurism as a joke on professional routines and the amateurism which has simply run out of writing and rehearsal time. Either is compatible with the brilliance of some of the performers and the high spirits of each new wave.

Without radio and especially television, many of these performers would have passed through comedy in their student and training years, and then dropped it. Some of them have indeed dropped it but with a popular reputation to launch other projects. Others, in larger numbers than in earlier generations, have stayed with the shows. I don’t know whether this is loss or gain. I have met former student performers in such surprising places that I don’t know how there could be any rule of advantage. But this fact of persistence, beyond the generation of student comedy, gives us an unusual opportunity to watch what happens when that frisky irreverence becomes successful, professional, stabilised.

This broadens into the question of the sheer amount of comedy on television. The amounts of drama and of news are equally striking. Many of us can spend more time watching any of these than in, say, preparing and eating food. That is why it is difficult to go along with the opening paragraph of Mr Wilmut’s ‘Prologue’, with its references to the jester in the baronial hall and the ‘continuing and changing tapestry of laughter’. The quantities alter any simple notion of a historical mode. Whether or not the appetite grows on feeding, the slots are still there, in hitherto unimaginable numbers.

This has required exceptional invention. Without this new range of writers and performers, the traditional comedian could hardly have coped. The Oxbridge network, so important in British broadcasting, made opportunities easier to come by than in most cultures. The formation moved through.

Yet it can’t, in some of the cases, be only a matter of quantity. The quality of some of the modes found a ready or almost ready audience. The grim reproductive character of official English culture went on providing occasions for anything from the most studied parody to a kind of helpless, hysterical flatulence. Thus, long after the public-school jokes had faded, the world created and managed by the sober face of the same institutions provoked the same ribaldry. The dissident comic fraction of the governing and administrative class joined the rest of us in our amazement, and because they were much nearer to it could be much funnier about it.

That process happened, but though it’s often told as the whole story, it is, in fact, only part of it, perhaps a small part. For with that specific dissidence came the other attitudes that had not been shed: the funny foreigners, the funny regional accents, the funny house-wives and working men. In a period of anxious mobility and of national decline, the familiar repertory had a new edge. If there was one thing English culture could agree on, at least in off-business moments, it was that it was all bloody ridiculous.

It? We? Of course comedy at its best takes everything on. It can at times be very ridiculous to ask it for a consistent point of view. But there are usually specific forms under any apparent universality, and this period is not an exception. Beyond the general medley, beyond the specific class characteristics, beyond the hurried improvisations to capitalise on success, there are some specific features which invite reflection from the point of view of the Eighties. They are difficult to describe, for they are the most genuinely contemporary elements. Much more than the topical references and allusions, they situate some of this work in a period. I think they can be seen now as a very specific problem about seriousness, which was comically discharged.

There are different levels in this. One obvious effect of some of the best work – for example, in Monty Python – is to create a residual mood in which virtually nothing can be said or done without becoming absurd. Perhaps I am too preoccupied with problems of sequence and flow on television, but I keep noticing a sense of devastation of other kinds of work and statement around this kind of comedy. It often needs a sleep to get back, with any kind of attention, to the straight-faced or poker-faced statements of the dominant programming. Considering what much of that is like, the effect is salutary.

It is interesting that some of the best sketches seem to be centred on this problem of how to take anything seriously. Of course, these vary. How much of the comedy in the Dud and Pete sketches (the Dagenham Dialogues) comes from a shared sense of helpless philosophical rumination, and how much from the fact of helplessness in those precise accents: the absurdity of the thinking working-class man, the autodidact, and his errors in university-style vocabulary? The sketches can be reduced to this latter component, which is often heavy, but at other times behind them there is indeed a shared helplessness. It is in some of Monty Python, and perhaps at its best in The Life of Brian, that this note is most often struck. Somebody is trying to say something, or to think something through, and every kind of interruption and disability not only intrudes and prevents him, but seems marshalled, systematically, to prevent him. At its best, this has much in common with the more officially recognised art of what is called ‘non-communication’. Indeed often, in its exuberance, it is less decadent than these more prestigious currencies of the official art and theatre world. But still, less decadent.

English philistinism has always comforted itself with the half-memory of the man who tried to be a philosopher but found that cheerfulness kept breaking through. What we have in some of this comedy is the opposite and probably now more relevant situation: of the man who tries to be cheerful and amusing, but finds sadness, loss, a sense of arbitrary insignificance, welling up and needing to be hit sharply over the head.

But then the decadence, if it is there, is quite general. It has very little to do with what is officially complained about: the irreverence, the rudery, the cruel jokes and joking cruelty. Those fit the culture like a glove: the comic version of alienation and of hang-up and of overtight nerves. What underlies all this is a determining sense of loss. Most of the old serious statements have moved to at least the edge of absurdity, when at all carefully listened to in this actual world. But there is then a long gap before any new serious statements can be made and really listened to. It has seemed for perhaps two generations to require the thickest of hides and the most rooted or protected of situations even to attempt them, in any sustained way. The laughter of instant parody is at the shoulder of every gravity. An awareness of lightness, of darting and laughing mobility, accompanies most consciousness of weight. Suddenly, and perhaps against our will, the snigger and the belly-laugh rule. And all the time that grim old culture keeps providing their occasions, while directing, at a different level, a cruel danger and misery.

There is no point then in blaming the boys, even when they have become men. They have filled, are still filling, that long gap, at most of the levels from distraction through caricature to wild bursts of anarchic energy. When they got to the BBC, from the early Sixties, their chief patron used to refer back to the Berlin revues of the Twenties, and, characteristically, they both accepted this patronage and laughed about the boring historical reference. It seems less boring now, and not only because of what came after it, in Germany, which was usually left out of the flattering retrospect. What is really in question is how we get through, get out of, a state of disbelief and helplessness which is bound, in all its early stages, to seem comic and edgy: demanding the funny face and the paranoiac prance.

Those at least we have had, brilliantly, in a sketch which hopes it will never have to hear the probable punch line.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.