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Making Fun of Parliament & Politicians: A Fine British Tradition

Parliament Can Be Lampooned Inside & Out - Christine Matthews
Britain has long enjoyed a liberty to deflate political pomposity and bring egos to earth with art, print & performance that is envied in other democracies

In July 2007, Press Gazette reported that New Zealand’s Parliament voted ‘far-reaching powers to control satire and ridicule of MPs in Parliament, attracting a storm of media and academic criticism’. The new standing orders dealt with use of images of Parliamentary debates, and made it a contempt of Parliament for anyone to use footage of the chamber for “satire, ridicule or denigration”.’

No such prohibition yet exists in the UK. Indeed, there is a tradition of criticising policies and politicians through comedy, satire, ridicule, lampooning and caricature. The UK Parliamentary website argues that political satire ‘represents a distinctive and innovative tradition in British art and is an important part of the Parliamentary Art Collection, key to documenting the political past and its people’.

Long History of Satire

Parliament has preserved works by ‘William Hogarth (18th century), John Doyle and James Gillray (19th century). End of 19th/beginning of 20th century is seen through images from the weekly magazine Vanity Fair and the work of The Standard’s first political cartoonist, David Low. The collection also has contemporary works by Gerald Scarfe including one of Tony Blair as Prime Minister, a large donated political memorabilia collection and two Spitting Image puppets’.

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) like all members of the public, was forbidden from listening to 18th century Parliamentary debate. He used second-hand account and gossip to produce Parliamentary Debates in The Gentleman’s Magazine, disguised as fiction; literally, a ‘sketch’ like an artist’s impression. Thus was born the sketch writing tradition .

In 1803 debates were opened to public scrutiny, so the need to fabricate was removed. However, Parliamentary sketch writers are known to be creative. Charles Dickens (1812-1870) wrote two sketches in The Evening Chronicle (March and April 1835), The House and Bellamy’s, put together in Sketches by Boz (1837), A Parliamentary Sketch, a Short Story. His incisive character observation and mastery of language led George Gissing (1857-1903) to pay this tribute: ‘Humour is the soul of his work. Like the soul of man, it permeates a living fabric which, but for its creative breath, could never have existed’.

More recently, William Rees-Mogg paid tribute to The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator writer Frank Johnson, in an obituary in The Times, December 18, 2006. It summed up a sketch writer. ‘In a profession that exists for the purpose of criticism… a pretty ruthless satirist, but always showed an underlying affection even for his most preposterous victims… Prime Minister Ted Heath regarded sketch writers as subversives’.

Annabel Crabb, Australia’s ABC Online’s chief political writer described in The Sydney Morning Herald (January 2010) her year in Britain in the 1990s, when she became acquainted with the ‘art of the poisoned pen’ through Times’ sketch writer, Matthew Parris. He served briefly as a Conservative MP (West Derbyshire) but found his niche writing: ‘affectionate and mischievous portrayals of Westminster’s principal cast’.

Most of the paper reported news; Parris gave her ‘the rich lunacy of politics and a whiff of what it was like to be John Major, then Prime Minister, whose promise to bring British politics ‘back to basics’ had rather unluckily coincided with an unprecedented outbreak of conspicuous debauchery among his colleagues. Parris combined a good historical knowledge of politics and a sympathy for his subject with an elegantly whimsical writing style’.

In describing one-time leadership challenger John Redwood as ‘not actually human at but ‘a new creature, half human, half Vulcan, brother of the brilliant, cold-blooded Spock’, Parris found a molecule of truth in a literary sense, and spun it into a myth that perpetuated among an impressionable public.

The Power of Television in Mockery

Crabb also said: ‘Common criticism of sketch writers’ art is that it’s essentially insulting; that in poking fun at politicians and concentrating on their quirks of personality, the sketch writer reduces the noble cause of politics to low comedy’. Low or high, the fact is that Parliament is frequently perceived by those inside and out, as theatre.

This sense of entertainment has been reinforced by television. Dick Fiddy writing for the Museum of Broadcast Communications (2010) explained the idea for That Was the Week That Was (known as TW3) came from BBC Director General, Hugh Greene, who wanted to ‘prick the pomposity of public figures’. It also owed something to earlier student satirical shows like Beyond The Fringe.

Fiddy believed that increased theatre/cinema liberalism in early 1960s Britain, allowed discussion/dissection of news and newsmakers that was ‘savage, unflinching in its devotion to highlight cant and hypocrisy and seemingly fearless in its near libellous accusations and innuendos’. A hard-hitting approach, innovative camera angles, flexible material and lampoons/acid wit was a winning formula, carried into a US version in 1964-65.

Not The Nine O’Clock News, a satirical sketch show broadcast between 1979-1982, owed much to its predecessor and paved the way for even more parody. Spitting Image was a 1984-1992 TV satirical triumph pulling 12 million weekly viewers, employing grotesque latex puppets conceived by two art students Peter Fluck and Roger Law to caricature famous figures. This went beyond joking about Parliament’s players and habits.

Mark McDermott, also writing for the Museum of Broadcast Communications, said the British public were either offended or delighted by ‘lampooning the Royal family: the Queen was portrayed as a harried housewife, beset by randy, dullard children and screaming grandkids. Britain’s most cherished figure, the Queen Mother, appeared as a pleasant, boozy, great-grams’.

Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government was a constant target. He said: ‘her puppet was a needle-nosed Reagan groupie consulting with Hitler on immigration policy and selling off England’s infrastructure to baying packs of yuppies. Her successor, John Major, was portrayed as a dull, grey man who ate nothing but peas. Opposition Labour leaders, including Neil Kinnock as “Kinnochio,” were pilloried for their inability to challenge decades of Tory rule’.

McDermott pointed out that Spitting Image parodies reached status like that of Mad Magazine in the early 1960s, when the caricatured took it as a sign that they had “made it”. One-time Tory leadership contender Michael Heseltine is famous for trying to buy his Spitting Image likeness and keeping framed cartoons of himself on his walls. He is not alone.

In the public eye, even being satirised is better than being ignored. Some, like former MP George Galloway go one stage further: happily ridiculing himself in Celebrity Big Brother without any help from cartoonists.

First published on Suite 101, 20 October 2011.

Photo: Parliament Can Be Lampooned Inside & Out – Christine Matthews

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