Sinking Giggling into the Sea
- The Wit and Wisdom of Boris Johnson edited by Harry Mount
Bloomsbury, 149 pp, £9.99, June 2013, ISBN 978 1 4081 8352 6
In 1956, James Sutherland, a professor of 18th-century literature, delivered the Clark Lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge on the subject of ‘English satire’. ‘In recent years,’ he announced, ‘there have been signs of an increased interest in satirical writing,’ but even he couldn’t have seen what was about to start unfolding in a year or two, on his very doorstep. Beyond the Fringe is routinely credited with starting the ‘satire boom’, but that accolade should really go to The Last Laugh, the 1959 Cambridge Footlights revue, directed and largely devised by John Bird. CND was just beginning to gather momentum and the show opened with a huge nuclear explosion, following which, in the words of the producer William Donaldson, the audience was treated to a whole evening’s worth of ‘terrible gloomy stuff – the punchline of every sketch was people dying.’ Nonetheless, it was undoubtedly a strong influence on Peter Cook (one of the original cast members) and the other three-quarters of the Beyond the Fringe team (Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller and Dudley Moore), who would go on to present their own take on the nuclear threat, in a sketch called ‘Civil War’.
In that sketch, a worried Moore listens trustingly as a succession of posh-voiced government spokesmen seek to reassure him that all the appropriate measures are in place in the event of a nuclear attack. When he voices disbelief that a four-minute warning would be enough, and Cook drawlingly retorts, ‘I’d remind those doubters that some people in this great country of ours can run a mile in four minutes,’ the satire actually bites. It was certainly one of the most scathing and well-targeted sketches in Beyond the Fringe. Otherwise, if this truly represented the first high point of the ‘satire boom’, the tensions and contradictions inherent in the movement were already visible. Miller’s long-winded monologue about trousers, ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’, is a flight of whimsical fantasy which reminds us that it was fashionable, at that time, to admire N.F. Simpson and his theatre of the suburban absurd. Cook’s ‘Sitting on a Bench’,[*] in which a delusional tramp informs the audience, in a glazed monotone, that he ‘could have been a judge if he’d had the Latin’, is Beckettian in its bleakness and oddity. Altogether, the subjects of each sketch are so various, and the collective point of view is so moveable, that one can pin it down no more closely than by calling it ‘anti-establishment’. Michael Frayn may have excoriated that phrase – in his brief, brilliant introduction to the published text, Beyond the Fringe, in 1963 – as denoting ‘a spacious vacancy of thought’, but really, I don’t see how we can do any better. Any real ‘establishment’ is impossible to define (this being a principal source of its power and durability), but as far as the Fringers were concerned the British version circa 1960 seems to have included at least the Church of England, the army, the government, the judiciary, the public schools and the class system, all of which were held up as worthy of incredulous laughter. And so, in discussing the movement that Beyond the Fringe helped to kick off, perhaps it would be better not to talk of satire (satire being only one of its ingredients) but ‘anti-establishment comedy’. Another thing worth remembering is that practically every one of its leading figures had been to Oxford or Cambridge and could, therefore, be seen to have at least a foothold in the establishment they were criticising: in the words of Cook’s biographer, Harry Thompson, these were not rebellious outsiders but ‘young men questioning a system they had been trained to lead’ and laughing at ‘the society that had reared them’.
The four cast members of Beyond the Fringe soon decamped to New York, where the revue achieved even longer-running success on Broadway than it had in the West End, and were out of the country by the time the BBC discovered anti-establishment comedy and gave it a national platform in the shape of That Was the Week That Was, which first aired on 24 November 1962, presented by David Frost. With the cancelling of that show little more than a year later, ostensibly on the grounds that it interfered with the BBC’s duty of impartiality in the run-up to the 1964 election, the heyday of anti-establishment comedy was already over. Yet its influence on British radio and television has never died out completely. There was never much social comment in Monty Python (until they made Life of Brian), but the (Oxbridge-educated) Not the Nine O’Clock News team at the beginning of the 1980s sometimes aimed for satire, and Armando Iannucci (University College, Oxford) has blazed such a trail through broadcast comedy in recent years that no one would begrudge him the OBE he recently accepted from the establishment he has worked so hard to undermine. Meanwhile, on Have I Got News for You and The News Quiz respectively, Ian Hislop (Ardingly, Magdalen) and old Harrovian Francis Wheen tirelessly carry on the work that the Beyond the Fringe team started more than half a century ago.
When Have I Got News for You moved to BBC One more than a decade ago it began to lose some of its teeth: so much so, after a while, that one regular panellist, Will Self, announced he would no longer be taking part. At its erratic best, however, it remains a worthwhile show. In fact the Guardian columnist Martin Kettle went so far a couple of years ago as to call Ian Hislop, on the basis of his weekly appearances there, ‘the single most influential voice in modern British politics’. He was not paying a straightforward compliment. ‘Week in and week out’, his message ‘is that pretty much all politicians are corrupt, deluded, incompetent, second-rate and hypocritical’. This message, Kettle said, is delivered with ‘enviable deftness and wit’, but it is also ‘extremely repetitive’. Steve Fielding, an academic, went further and argued in 2011 that in accepting this view of politicians as uniformly corrupt and useless, the public are embracing a dangerous new stereotype, since it ‘can only further reinforce mistrust in the public realm, a mistrust that some political forces seek to exploit’. ‘Comedy,’ he continued, ‘has always relied on stereotypes. There was a time when the Irish were thick; the Scots were careful with money; mothers-in-law fierce and ugly; and the Welsh stole and shagged sheep. The corrupt politician is one such stereotype, one that is neither racist nor sexist and seemingly acceptable to all.’ The idea that politicians are morally inferior to the rest of us is ‘a convenient view, for it means we, the audience, the voters, are not to blame for anything: we are not to blame because we are the victims of a politics gone wrong.’
Fielding’s remarks were eloquent and timely; but it is remarkable how fully they were anticipated by Frayn in 1963. Even then – in the very year of That Was the Week That Was – Frayn was using the same analogy, and could see, just as clearly, how anti-establishment comedy was letting its audience off the hook: ‘To go on mocking the Establishment,’ he wrote, ‘has more and more meant making the audience laugh not at themselves at all, but at a standard target which is rapidly becoming as well-established as mothers-in-law. To do this is not to undermine but to confirm the audience’s prejudices, and has less in common with satire than with community hymn-singing – agreeable and heartwarming as that may be.’ And Frayn, indeed, was echoing what James Sutherland had pointed out seven years earlier when he said that ‘certain kinds of satirical writing (political satire is a good example) are not normally intended to convert one’s opponents, but to gratify and fortify one’s friends.’ Or perhaps we should give the final, gloomiest word on this subject to William Cowper, writing in 1785:
Yet what can satire, whether grave or gay? …
What vice has it subdued? whose heart reclaimed
By rigour, or whom laughed into reform?
Alas! Leviathan is not so tamed.
Despite all this, it always seems that successive generations of entertainers, bent on laughing people out of their follies and vices, remain optimistic about the power of anti-establishment comedy at the outset of their careers: it’s only later that reality kicks in. When Humphrey Carpenter interviewed the leading lights of the 1960s satire boom for his book That Was Satire, That Was in the late 1990s, he found that what was once youthful enthusiasm had by now curdled into disillusionment. One by one, they expressed dismay at the culture of facetious cynicism their work had spawned, their complaints coalescing into a dismal litany of regret. John Bird: ‘Everything is a branch of comedy now. Everybody is a comedian. Everything is subversive. And I find that very tiresome.’ Barry Humphries: ‘Everyone is being satirical, everything is a send-up. There’s an infuriating frivolity, cynicism and finally a vacuousness.’ Christopher Booker: ‘Peter Cook once said, back in the 1960s, “Britain is in danger of sinking giggling into the sea,” and I think we really are doing that now.’
The key word here is ‘giggling’ (or in some versions of the quotation, ‘sniggering’). Of the four Beyond the Fringe members, it’s always Peter Cook who is described as the comic genius, and like any genius he fully (if not always consciously) understood the limitations of his own medium. He understood laughter, in other words – and certainly understood that it is anything but a force for change. Famously, when opening his club, The Establishment, in Soho in 1961, Cook remarked that he was modelling it on ‘those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War’. And his comment about giggling (or sniggering) as we sink beneath the sea was developed in a Beyond the Fringe sketch called ‘The Sadder and Wiser Beaver’, about a bunch of young, would-be radical journalists who won’t admit they have sold their soul to a rapacious newspaper proprietor:
COOK: Whenever the old man has a cocktail party, there’s about ten of us – young, progressive people – we all gather up the far end of the room and … quite openly, behind our hands, we snigger at him.
BENNETT: Well, I don’t know, that doesn’t seem very much to me.
COOK: A snigger here, a snigger there – it all adds up.
The sketch makes it clear that laughter is not just ineffectual as a form of protest, but that it actually replaces protest – a point also developed by Frayn in his introduction. Ruminating on where the sudden public appetite for satire might have come from, he wrote:
Conceivably the demand arose because after ten years of stable Conservative government, with no prospect in 1961 of its ever ending, the middle classes felt some vague guilt accumulating for the discrepancy between their prosperous security and the continuing misery of those who persisted in failing to conform, by being black, or queer, or mad, or old. Conceivably they felt the need to disclaim with laughter any responsibility for this situation, and so relieve their consciences without actually voting for anything which might have reduced their privileges.
If anti-establishment comedy allows the public to ‘disclaim with laughter’ any responsibility for injustice, the sticking point is not really satire itself (for satire can take the gravest of forms) but laughter (or ‘sniggering’, to use Peter Cook’s term) in the face of political problems. Have I Got News for You presents thousands of practical demonstrations of this, so let’s look at just one of them, from the edition of 24 April 1998. It was Boris Johnson’s first appearance as a guest on the programme, and Ian Hislop was tormenting him on the subject of his notorious phone call with Darius Guppy, when they are alleged to have discussed the possibility of beating up an unfriendly journalist. Hislop was doing what he does best, remaining genial but suddenly toning down the humour and confronting the guest with chapter and verse for a past misdemeanour. As the exchange develops, Johnson looks distinctly uncomfortable, describing Hislop’s intervention as ‘richly comic’ and protesting: ‘I don’t want to be totally stitched up here.’ He calls Guppy a ‘great chap’, to which Hislop answers: ‘And a convicted fraudster.’ Johnson concedes this, and admits that Guppy made a ‘major goof’, and then begins to ramble and bumble in his characteristic way, groping for a way out of the corner; sensing, visibly, that Hislop has got him on the ropes, he mentions some of the other things that he and Guppy discussed during that conversation, including their military heroes. And suddenly, Paul Merton interjects with the line: ‘Hence Major Goof that you mentioned just now.’
It’s a lovely joke, which gets a terrific laugh and a round of applause. But its effect on the exchange is noticeable. An uncomfortable situation is suddenly defused: Johnson relaxes, the audience laughter gives him room to breathe and gather his thoughts. When he next speaks he is back on track, and says winningly: ‘Since you choose to bring up this unhappy episode I won’t deny a word of it. I’m not ashamed of it’ – and off he goes, into one of those endearing, self-deprecatory apologies of which he is now, 15 years later, a consummate master.
It was the same Darius Guppy incident, brought up by Eddie Mair in his television interview with Johnson this March,[†] that produced one of his most cunning apologies. ‘I fully concede it wasn’t my most blistering performance,’ he admitted the next day, acknowledging that ‘Eddie Mair did a splendid job. He was perfectly within his rights to have a bash at me – in fact it would have been shocking if he hadn’t. If a BBC presenter can’t attack a nasty Tory politician, what’s the world coming to?’ The marked note of sarcasm in that last question suggests, all the same, that Johnson was rattled. As indeed he should have been: the interview, conducted in the cold ambience of a daytime news studio, was truly uncomfortable and damaging. On Have I Got News for You, by contrast – in what we might call the anti-establishment comedy version of the same exchange – it was laughter, more than anything else, that let Johnson off the hook. Hislop had been doing his job – bringing Private Eye’s brand of sceptical journalism to bear on a politician – and Merton had been doing his: making brilliant jokes. But that moment showed that the two approaches don’t necessarily meld. In fact, more often than not, they work against each other.
A number of influences inform Boris Johnson’s persona. One of them, undoubtedly, is Hugh Grant. Johnson’s sister Rachel wrote a comic novel called Notting Hell: her brother has learned a lot about how to charm the socks off people by imitating the star of Notting Hill. But he has also learned a good deal from the anti-establishment comedy of the last fifty years (it’s possible to imagine him turning, in later years, into Peter Cook’s befuddled old aristo Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling), and he understands that the laughter it generates, correctly harnessed, can be very useful to a politician who knows what to do with it. And one certainly shouldn’t underestimate the role played by Have I Got News for You in that process. On four subsequent occasions (in 2002, 2003, 2005 and 2006), Johnson acted not as a panellist but as guest host of the programme, and these appearances cemented the public image of him as a lovable, self-mocking buffoon. In an age when politicians are judged first of all on personality, when the public assumes all of them to be deceitful, and when it’s easier and much more pleasurable to laugh about a political issue than to think about it, Johnson’s apparent self-deprecating honesty and lack of concern for his own dignity were bound to make him a hit.
Anti-establishment comedy was a product of a more naive and deferential age, when to stand on a West End stage and make fun of the prime minister could be seen, briefly, as a radical act. In those days, the laughter of the audience really was something for Macmillan to be afraid of, because it signalled a genuine and profound shift in the public attitude towards him and the whole political class. But Boris Johnson – as Harry Mount’s little volume of his aperçus demonstrates – has nothing to fear from public laughter at all. These days, every politician is a laughing-stock, and the laughter which occasionally used to illuminate the dark corners of the political world with dazzling, unexpected shafts of hilarity has become an unthinking reflex on our part, a tired Pavlovian reaction to situations that are too difficult or too depressing to think about clearly. Johnson seems to know this: he seems to know that the laughter that surrounds him is a substitute for thought rather than its conduit, and that puts him at a wonderful advantage. If we are chuckling at him, we are not likely to be thinking too hard about his doggedly neoliberal and pro-City agenda, let alone doing anything to counter it. With a true genius for taking the temperature of a country that has never been closer to sinking ‘sniggering beneath the watery main’, Boris Johnson has become his own satirist: safe, above all, in the knowledge that the best way to make sure the satire aimed at you is gentle and unchallenging is to create it yourself.