Book review: No Cunning Plan by Tony Robinson

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Blackadder was not the sort of programme to rely on catchphrases. Most that were deployed such as “You have a woman’s hand, m’lord,” or the lecherous “woof woof! were used by one-off or very occasional visitors to the saga such as Captain Rum (Tom Baker) or Lord Flashheart (the late Rik Mayall).

A notable exception was “I have a cunning plan…” words which Blackaddder’s sidekick Baldrick (Tony Robinson) would use to signal a usually absurd scheme to get the duo out of trouble. These included a plan to rewrite Dr Johnson’s famous dictionary in one night after Baldrick had accidentally burnt it (Baldrick’s helpful definition for the letter C (sea) being “big blue wobbly thing where mermaids live”). Another ruse involved an attempt to save Charles I (Stephen Fry) from execution by disguising a pumpkin as the King’s head.

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This is not the life of Baldrick, however, but the life of Tony Robinson. Although ultimately a tale of success (he is now a knight of the realm), it is an eventful, entertaining life although, as he freely admits, full of mistakes and less governed by any overall “cunning plan” than many.

Starting out as a child actor, appearing as one of Fagin’s gang in the original stage version of Oliver! Robinson was initially just keen to have fun and get out of school. After a long career including run ins with John Wayne and Liza Minnelli along the way, landing the role of Baldrick in 1983 didn’t seem like any sort of big deal. Indeed, as the first series was neither very  good or successful, initially it wasn’t.

But soon it had made his name and he was appearing in other Eighties comedy like Who Dares Wins and The Young Ones before writing his own Blackadder-influenced kids’ show Maid Marian and Her Merry Men. The long years hosting Time Team were still to come. And, yes, hosting The Worst Jobs In History really was his own worst ever job.

It’s not all laughs: he writes movingly about his parents’ descent into Alzheimer’s (one after the other). But this is a hugely entertaining and unpretentious read. Here’s to you, Mr Robinson…

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Six of the best fictional UK TV politicians

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Jim Hacker

In: Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister (sitcom 1980-1984, 1986-1988)

Played by: Paul Eddington

Written by: Antony Jay, Jonathan Lynn

Indecisive, bumbling but ultimately well intentioned. Hacker is generally thwarted at every turn as Minister of Administrative Affairs by civil servant Sir Humphrey (Nigel Hawthorne) who sees his role as to block any attempt at change or reform. Despite this, Hacker (who unusually is never given any party affiliation by the show’s creators) succeeds in becoming Prime Minister, largely on the back of a plan to save the British sausage from European interference.

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Michael Murray

In: GBH (drama, 1991)

Played by: Robert Lindsay

Written by: Alan Bleasdale

The charismatic far left Labour leader of a far left unnamed northern city council (Derek Hatton suggested the show was about him, something creator Alan Bleasdale denied), Murray leads an unholy war of terror against Jim Nelson (Michael Palin) a special needs teacher who refuses to take part in Murray’s headline-grabbing “Day of Action”.  Although totally corrupt, a womaniser and prone to a nervous twitch, Murray grows more sympathetic as a character as we learn he is both the victim of a traumatic childhood prank and a modern day plot by the security services to brand him as a racist.

PIcture shows: Francis Urquhart (IAN RICHARDSON) WARNING: This image may only be used for publicity purposes in connection with the broadcast of the programme as licensed by BBC Worldwide Ltd & must carry the shown copyright legend. It may not be used for any commercial purpose without a licence from the BBC. © BBC 1990

Sir Francis Urquhart

In: House of Cards, To Play The King, The Final Cut (dramas 1990, 1993, 1995)

Played by: Ian Richardson

Written by: Andrew Davies (based on Michael Dobbs’ books)

A very different kettle of fish to Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood of the recent US House of Cards remake, Urquhart is an apparently charming old fashioned upper class Tory chief whip, who begins plotting a bloody path to Downing Street after moderate new post-Thatcherite Prime Minister Henry Collingridge (David Lyon) fails to honour a promise to promote him to cabinet. As PM himself, Urquhart continues to occasionally murder his opponents and overthrows the Prince Charles like new king after he gets left wing ideas.

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Harry Perkins

In: A Very British Coup (drama, 1988)

Played by: Ray McAnally

Written by: Alan Plater and Mick Jackson (based on Chris Mullin’s book)

When former Sheffield steelworker turned Labour leader Perkins leads his party to a dramatic surprise election victory, the establishment are thrown into a state of panic. Perkins is committed to re-nationalisation, nuclear disarmament and probable withdraw from NATO. The press barons, CIA and MI5 thus soon decide to ignore the people’s verdict and get rid of the new boy in Number 10.

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Alan B’Stard

In: The New Statesman (sitcom, 1987-1994)

Played by: Rik Mayall

Written by: Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran

A true Thatcherite to the core, Mayall’s flamboyant occasionally murderous backbench Tory MP easily lives up to his name whether engaged in blackmail, adultery or tormenting fellow backbencher Sir Piers Fletcher Dervish (Michael Troughton).

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Nicky Hutchinson

In: Our Friends In The North (drama, 1996)

Played by: Christopher Eccleston

Written by: Peter Flannery

Nicky encounters numerous politicians in this drama spanning the years 1964 to 1995 but his own bid for parliament on behalf of Labour in 1979 proves a woeful failure. Having initially been led astray in his youth by corrupt civic leader Austin Donohue (Alun Armstrong), a character based on the real life T Dan Smith, Nicky’s campaign is sunk by press hostility, internal divisions, a right wing smear campaign and an attractive female Tory opponent. The son of a disillusioned Jarrow marcher (Peter Vaughan), Nicky rejects politics in favour of a career in photography soon after.

Farewell: some big names who died in 2014

Another year has passed and inevitably the last twelve months have seen us saying goodbye to many famous names for the final time.
But who were the main big names to leave us forever in 2014? Here is just a sample of some of the famous people who died in 2014…
Roger Lloyd-Pack (69)
(January 15th) Most people know him better as Trigger, Del Boy’s slow witted pal who inexplicably always referred to Rodney as Dave.
In addition to Only Fools and Horses, Lloyd-Pack was the father of the actress Emily Lloyd and was a regular in The Vicar Of Dibley.

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Philip Seymour Hoffman (46)
(February 2nd) Undoubtedly one of Hollywood’s greatest ever character actors, Hoffman appeared in everything from The Big Lebowski to an Oscar winning turn in Capote while enjoying high profile roles in Mission Impossible 3 and the later Hunger Games films.

2010 Sundance Film Festival - "Jack Goes Boating" Portraits

Shirley Temple-Black (85)
(February 10) As a child performer Shirley Temple was one of the biggest stars of the 1930s.
In adult life, she found a new role in politics serving as both US Ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia.

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Tony Benn (88)
(March 14th) One of the longest serving Labour MPs there has ever been, Benn never quite made it to the very top.
But as a cabinet minister, diarist, reformer (he battled to change a law which would have forced him to go to the House of Lords) and in late life an anti-war campaigner, Benn had a huge impact.

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Mickey Rooney (93)
(April 6th) Like SHirley Temple, Rooney was another child star of the Depression years. He ultimately enjoyed a long career cropping up in everything from Breakfast At Tiffany’s to the Night At The Museum movies.

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Peaches Geldof (25)
(April 7th) The daughter of Bob Geldof and Paula Yates, Peaches was well on the way to massive stardom as a model, presenter and model before her tragic and unexpected death from a heroin overdose.

Peaches Geldof

Sue Townsend (68)
(April 10th) As the author of the diaries of hapless teenage wannabe intellectual Adrian Mole, Sue Townsend was one of the most popular British authors of the Eighties.

Bob Hoskins (71)
(April 29th) A familiar face throughout the last forty years thanks to roles in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Hook, Dennis Potter’s Pennies From Heaven and The Long Good Friday, Hoskins was one of Britain’s best and most underrated actors.

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Rik Mayall (56)
(June 9th) One of the biggest names of the 80s alternative comedy scene, Mayall shot to fame in the roles of odious student Rick in the anarchic sitcom The Young Ones, evil politician Alan B’stard in The New Statesman and Lord Flash ‘Flash by name, flash by nature!’ in Blackadder before returning in the Nineties with Bottom.
James Garner (86)
(July 19th) US actor best known for his roles in The Great Escape and in TV’s Maverick and The Rockford Files.
Robin Williams (63)
(August 11th) Legendary US comedian and actor who moved from zany TV stardom Mork and Mindy, onto the big screen in Good Morning Vietnam and Dead Poets Society. Although increasingly drawn towards dramatic roles such as The Fisher King, One Hour Photo and an Oscar winning turn in Good Will Hunting, he also continued to appear in often very sentimental comedies including the huge popular hit Mrs. Doubtfire.

Robin Williams as Mork

Lauren Bacall (89)
(August 12th) True Hollywood giant famously married to Humphrey Bogart. Great beauty, superb actress, her most famous roles were largely opposite Bogart in To Have And Have Not, The Big Sleep and Key Largo in the Forties and Fifties.

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Lord Richard Attenborough (90)
(August 24th) Brother of the celebrated naturalist David, “Dickie” enjoyed huge success as an actor in key post-war films such as Brighton Rock, The Great Escape and 10 Rillington Place before becoming the director of the Oscar winning Gandhi and Cry Freedom in the Eighties. He later returned to acting in Jurassic Park and the remake of Miracle on 34th Street in which he played Father Christmas.

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Joan Rivers (81)
(September 4th) Can we talk? Hilarious US comedian famed for sharp often harsh wit and witty one liners. A winning although sometimes controversial presence on the chat show circuit for decades.

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Sir Donald Sinden (90)
(September 12th) Celebrated British actor of stage and screen often noted for his distinctive voice and charismatic performances in everything from Shakespeare to sitcom Never The Twain.
Sir Ian Paisley (88)
(September 12th) Charismatic and controversial, fiercely pro-Unionist Northern Ireland politician.
Lynda Bellingham (66)
(October 19th) Beloved TV star of All Creatures Great And Small, Loose Women, sitcoms such as Second Thoughts and Faith In The Future and those OXO adverts. Although often a strong mother figure on screen, her private life was sadly often marked by domestic discord.

Lynda Bellingham death

Alvin Stardust (72)
(October 23rd) Pop star and stage actor famed for his Seventies hit My Coo Ca Choo.
Warren Clark (67)
(November 12th) Much loved British character actor famous for roles in everything from Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange to Blackadder The Third. He was probably best known for his role in detective drama Dalziel and Pascoe alongside Colin Buchanan..
Phillip Hughes (25)
(November 27th) Australian Test batsman tragically killed when a ball struck him on the head during a match.
PD James (94)
(November 27th) Acclaimed British crime writer. Author of The Children Of Men and Death Comes To Pemberley.
Jeremy Thorpe (85)
(December 4th) Liberal leader of the Sixties and Seventies. Initially, the most successful post-war Liberal leader up until that point, rumours of his homosexuality and his role in a high profile murder trial, in which he was found innocent, wrecked his career.

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David Ryall (79)
(December 28th) Familiar character actor perhaps best known for his later roles in Outnumbered, The Village and Harry Potter.

The trouble with satire

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It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that political satire only tends to truly thrive under Tory Governments.

This has been true ever since the birth of the first modern satire boom of the early Sixties. Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Beyond the Fringe, Private Eye and That Was The Week That Was all prospered during the dying days of the Tory regime of Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas Home. Likewise, although rarely overtly political, Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-74) enjoyed its true heyday under the government of Ted Heath (1970-1974). Then came Thatcher and Major. Margaret Thatcher’s election in May 1979 coincided almost exactly with the birth of alternative comedy. But it wasn’t just that. Not The Nine O Clock News, Spitting Image, Have I Got News For You, Bremner, Bird and Fortune, If…, Dear Bill, The New Statesman, The Friday Night Armistice and Drop the Dead Donkey undeniably got a boost from their being a Tory Government in power.

Why should this be the case? Partly, it’s because true satire rails against the Establishment and the Tories embody the Establishment better than Labour ever can.

It’s also because, in general, right wing people tend not to be very funny. Lady Thatcher, despite inspiring great satire herself, famously had virtually no sense of humour. Boris Johnson’s buffoonery amuses but he rarely says or writes anything which is deliberately funny. Jeremy Clarkson, meanwhile, is quickly out of his depth in the world of politics (as opposed to motoring) and rarely gets beyond saying anything shocking or childish when he venture into the political arena.

The myth that the politically correct Left lack a sense of humour is ill founded. It’s actually hard to think of anyone funny who isn’t on the Left. Ask anyone for a list of funny right wingers, meanwhile, and most likely their list will solely consist of the obscure, the racist or the dead.

After the 2010 General Election something clearly went wrong, however. We now have a Tory Prime Minister again. So why are we not enjoying a new satire boom?

Part of the problem might be that because New Labour were arguably almost as conservative as the Tories, satire never really went away under Blair and Brown. The Thick of It owes its origin to these times and in fairness, is still great. But Have I Got News For You and Mock The Week are clearly past their best and 10 O’Clock Live has never really got off the ground.

I blame the politicians. Whereas in the Eighties, politics was filled with colourful characters ranging from the Bennite ultra-Left to the uncaring Thatcherite Right, the Blairisation of British politics has been fatal to satire. Blair was the most successful politician of recent times: little wonder everyone wants to be like him, elect a party leader like him and fight for the centre ground like him. Cameron, Miliband and Clegg are all essentially Blair wannabes: posh, PR friendly men in suits. Miliband would never wear a donkey jacket, Cameron would never drive in a tank. From a comedic point of view, this is bad news.

The Coalition confuses things further. Try as we might to pretend Cameron’s lot are the new Thatcherites, this is only partly true. They are occasionally uncaring, more often incompetent, sometimes liberal and, yes, sometimes actually Liberal as in Democrat.

The global scene doesn’t help. The idiotic George W Bush was satirical gold, just as President Reagan had been two decades before. But Barack Obama, an intelligent, moderate, slightly disappointing but well meaning black president is hardly the stuff great satires are made of as the failure of the novel O demonstrates. In this respect alone, perhaps Governor Mitt Romney would be better.

British politics seems to lack the colour of the past too. But perhaps I am wrong to blame the political set up. Take the former Tory Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd. He is a decent man, yes. An exciting man? No. Trust me: I have seen him speak. And yet in the hands of Spitting Image, voiced by Harry Enfield, with his hairstyle strangely coiled, his puppet was frequently hilarious.

There is surely enough material in the current political class – Michael Gove, Boris Johnson’s eternal rivalry with David Cameron, Ed Balls, the never ending evil that is Rupert Murdoch – to inspire great satire? Perhaps it’s simply a case of “could do better, must try harder.”