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Its beyond parody That Was Satire That Was Humphrey Carpenter Victor Gollancz, pp 384 Looking back on the satire boom, as if into ancient history, Brian Appleyard wrote two years ago that the very environment for satire had dried out. Both ideologies, of Left and Right, had failed to work; in the strange interim regency which is New Labour, nobody knew any more what would work. This is a loss that damps the satirical fire? politics has shrunk from matters of life and death to matters of presentation.
Satire is in danger of shrinking with it. But this thought, quoted by Humphrey Carpenter at the end of his book, is a bad misunderstanding. Satire never depended on faith in an alternative. Juvenal and Swift (the venerable satire twins, always trotted out by archdeacons of the BBC to legitimate their own failures of nerve), were not paid-up supporters of a Roman republican movement or of a Jacobite welfare state for Ireland. Instead, they saw the absurdity that attends all arrogance; they recognised that self-assured pomposity in a world of misery was hideously funny as well as evil. And they knew that uncontrollable laughter was as lethal as daggers.
We have all that arrogance around us today, in abundance. An amazing BBC memo by Donald Baverstock in 1962, written as That Was The Week That Was approached its launch, observed that there was a need for prejudice, cynicism and indignation in times when the BBC was trying to make the viewers more and more earnest: Week in, week out, the public breathes, and we foster, a kind of philosophy of concern, goodwill and public-spirited ness on a massive scale? But isnt that fine-spun earnestness, that hypocritical cult of the correct, back with us again? Between the realism of Superman and Tony Blair, an echo passes. What is missing is not a political climate for satire. It is a nursery or stud for satirists.
Young men and women whose instinctive reaction to their world is sovereign, incredulous mockery occur in every generation but they have yet to find their voice in this one. The most fascinating discovery in this compelling book is that it was the class system that spawned the whole satire boom. In the Sixties, people thought it odd that so many of the highly satirical stars and not only at Private Eye were public schoolboys, many of whom continued for years to vote Tory. But it was not odd at all. This was a long-overdue mutiny within the ruling middle class. If you live on the underside, squashed beneath a ludicrous propertied minority who congratulate you on your deference, satire is an endemic mood.
Prudence keeps it mostly a private mood among consenting proles, but there are plenty of signs that the English common people have thought satirically for centuries. Their betters churned out Victorian satires mostly cartoons lampooning Irish peasants, colonial blacks and the British working man, but seldom mocked themselves. It was not until the late Fifties (Suez, CND, Look Back In Anger) that unthinking attitudes of respect (Michael Frank phrase) collapsed into a sense of betrayal. Barriers began to fall; David Frost called them the traditional cordon sanitaire of sanctimony around public figures. But as Carpenter points out, an equally important barrier was the screen between what could be said in private and in public. Alan Bennett told Carpenter: What was subsequently labelled satire was simply this kind of private humour going public.
Introducing TW 3 in 1962, Ned Sherrin said that he was shy of the word satire: Its sort of adult chat? its simply the kind of thing one says to ones friends at a time like 11 oclock on a Saturday night. This was literally true. Beyond The Fringe and its progeny became possible when, at Oxford and Cambridge, the more risqu&execute; wit traditionally kept for the closed smokers revues leaked out into open university stages such as the Footlights.
Carpenters book is really the tale of four institutions. Beyond The Fringe stunned the Edinburgh Festival in the summer of 1960. The Establishment opened its club doors in Greek Street and Private Eye launched its first issue almost simultaneously, a year later. That Was The Week That Was dazzled its first Saturday night in November 1962, reached a peak of 12 million viewers and was finally strangled by the BBC at the end of 1963.
Two years later, only Private Eye was still alive. As Carpenter realises, the birth of the satire boom is easier and less important to explain than its early death. When TW 3 was near its end, Kenneth Adam (director of BBC Television) noted that audience and performers now form a kind of club, and there is no longer the same power to shock the initiates. He was right: the key element distinguishing true satire from parodic wit is the power to bring the audience comic but appalling revelations about itself. Once satirical revue goes cosy, inviting us to laugh at them in ways that reinforce our own self-confidence, the button is back on the rapier-tip and what remains is just cheeky comedy. This book is full of weird and endearing characters, but the two biggest figures Peter Cook and Lenny Bruce make this point plainly.
Cook, one of the funniest men who has ever lived, was at his very best in comic take-off and parody which might as in Private Eye do awful damage to political figures but might equally well (Dud and Pete) be brilliant Cooking fantasies in the English surreal manner the tradition which links the pre-satire Goons to the post-satire Pythons. But Lenny Bruce, whose season at the Establishment in 1962 was the clubs finest moment, never ceased to torment and often panic his audiences. Get this vile creature out of Britain! howled Fleet Street. Nobody felt safe with Bruce. Jonathan Miller saw another point about the satire craze, before it was imitated to death.
It was adult. It was one of those rare moments when the dumbing industry is out-flanked and the public are addressed as intelligent, sophisticated individuals. They loved it. The media writhed and put an end to this menacing development as soon as they could.
But something remained: the new disrespect, the sense of being conned. Balls to the lot of them, said Private Eye, invited to state its world view. English satire can do better than that, and one day soon, it will.
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