Twenty five years of Have I Got News For You: A timeline

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A quarter of a century ago this month, Maggie still ruled Britain, the Soviet Union still existed and a new topical panel show came to BBC2. The host and team captains of Have I Got News For You were all in their earlier thirties back then and while not unknown were not exactly household names either.

Angus Deayton had been on Radio 4’s Radio Active, toured Australia with comedy band the HeeBeeGeeBees. He had worked with Alexei Sayle and Rowan Atkinson and was a familiar face from shows like BBC2’s satellite TV spoof KYTV and for a supporting role in new sitcom, One Foot In The Grave, though this had not yet taken off. Paul Merton was best known for his appearances on Channel 4 improvisation show Who’s Line Is It Anyway…? while Ian Hislop was best known as the “young fogey” editor of satirical magazine, Private Eye.

Twenty-five years and 49 series on, Angus is long gone from the show and Merton and Hislop (the latter still at Private Eye) are both now well into their fifties. But they are still there, indeed Hislop is the only person to have appeared in every one of the show’s 429 episodes to date, even discharging himself from hospital to appear once in 1994.

But what have been the high and low points of the last 25 years? Let’s take a look…

1990

The first ever series runs from September to November. Due to sheer bad luck, the show misses the one of the biggest British political stories of the century, the dramatic fall of Margaret Thatcher, by just one week. Early guests include Sandi Toksvig (who is in the first ever episode), future London Mayor Ken Livingstone (then a Labour backbencher), Tony Slattery and Clive Anderson.

1991

Appearances by Harry Enfield, Trevor McDonald and Scots comic and future US chat show star, Craig Ferguson.

1992

The first ever (and indeed only) General Election special features Rory Bremner and Alan Coren. Defeated Labour leader Neil Kinnock appears on the show later in the year, after retiring as leader following his second election defeat.

The show has two series a year from now on.

Rising Lib Dem star Charles Kennedy makes the first of a number of appearances. Author Douglas Adams appears (and flops), Frank Skinner and Stephen Fry appear for the first time.

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1993

Paul Merton’s wife comedy actress Caroline Quentin competes on Ian’s team, a running joke being that Angus is having an affair with her. Although this isn’t true, the couple do divorce in 1997.

Labour politician Roy Hattersley is famously replaced by a Tub of Lard after he cancels appearing on the show at short notice for the umpteenth time. Despite the considerable disadvantage of having an inanimate object as a team member, Paul’s team wins (as is usual).

1994

Appearances by self proclaimed Messiah David Icke, author Salman Rushdie (then still in hiding due to the Iranian fatwa) and veteran comic, Bob Monkhouse.

1995

An on-air row ensues between guest Paula Yates and Ian Hislop. Many see the episode as a class conflict with ex-public schoolboys Deayton and Hislop ganging up on Yates who is defended by the working-class Paul “I did woodwork” Merton.

Tory MP Teresa Gorman appears to be drunk on air and does a bizarre impression of her “alien” colleague, the recent Tory leadership candidate John Redwood. Her later autobiography puts a positive and inaccurate sheen on her appearance.

1996

Shock news as Paul Merton announces he is leaving the show. He appears only as a guest on Ian’s team in the first episode of Series 11 before missing the rest of it. He is replaced by Eddie Izzard, Alan Davis and other temporary guest captains for the rest of the series. Thereafter, he returns and has been in every series since.

In an early TV appearance, Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan embarrasses himself after losing his temper with fellow panellist Clive Anderson who mocks him for his success in making the paper “almost as good as The Sun”. He also crosses swords with rival Ian Hislop. He never appears again.

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1997

Disgraced Tories Neil and Christine Hamilton appear only a week after Neil is ejected from his previous ultra-safe Tory seat of Tatton in the General Election.

Ian Hislop coins the phrase “were you still up for Portillo?” with regard to election night, later used as the title of a book by Brian Cathcart.

1998

Boris Johnson guests for the first time in a series of appearances which greatly boosts his profile while re-enforcing the impression that he is a buffoon. He is yet to become an MP or the editor of the Spectator at this point, though is a columnist for the Daily Telegraph. He appears seven times in the next decade, four times as host, though not once since being elected Mayor of London in 2008.

John Sergeant, political correspondent (and onetime comedy performer) makes the first of several acclaimed appearances. He is later widely expected to replace Angus Deayton as permanent host, following Deayton’s departure in 2002. Although he guest hosts twice in 2002 and 2003, this doesn’t happen. He in fact proves less effective as a host than as a panellist. He has since been critical of the show’s decision not to have a permanent host.

1999

Charles Kennedy is elected Liberal Democrat leader and acknowledges his “chat show Charlie” beginning an early speech as leader with the words “Have I got news for you?” He continues to appear on the show during his time as leader and even after his resignation amidst revelations of alcoholism, clocking up nine appearances, once as host. The show paid tribute to him following his premature death in 2015.

Sir Jimmy Savile guests. Following his death and the subsequent allegations of his involvement in numerous sexual offences over a decade later, an internet rumour suggests Merton and Hislop confronted Savile about his crimes on the show at the time. In fact, this is untrue: like most people they knew nothing about them and the issue didn’t come up. Savile did make some comments on air which appear unsavoury in retrospect, however.

2000

The show moves from BBC 2 to BBC 1.

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2000-2001

Numerous guests including Peter Stringfellow, Nigella Lawson, M15 rebel David Shayler, who appears by video link in 2000 (Stephen Fry, at one point, switches him off) and Andrew Marr (later a regular target of the show).

2002

Angus Deayton quits as host mid-series following a second round of sex scandal allegations splashing across the tabloids. His last show proves extremely memorable with Paul and Ian both visibly annoyed with Angus, Paul at one point revealing that he is wearing a t-shirt with a tabloid version of the story emblazoned across it (a move which visibly rattles Angus). Deayton continues to work and has had acting roles in dark sitcom Nighty Night and drama Waterloo Road, but has never had the same profile he had as host of Have I Got News For You.

Paul hosts the next episode himself and a number of one week guest hosts take over initially Anne Robinson, John Sergeant, Boris Johnson (by now an MP), Liza Tarbuck, Charles Kennedy (by now party leader) and Jeremy Clarkson. It is assumed a new permanent host, perhaps Sergeant or Alexander Armstrong, will eventually take over permanently.

Stephen Fry criticises the decision to drop Angus and in protest never appears on the show again.

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2003

Alexander Armstrong appears as guest host for the first time (he has never been a panellist). He has since become easily the most prolific guest on the show ever, notching up 26 appearances to date. He claims he was offered a permanent guest hosting role at this time but the BBC changed their mind.

Other memorable guest hosts include Sir Bruce Forsyth and Charlotte Church (then 17) probably the youngest and oldest hosts (Forsyth was 82 by the time of his second time as host in 2010. Bill Deedes also has appeared as a panellist aged 88). Former Tory leader William Hague also hosts during this time.

2004-2006

David Mitchell, then best known for the sitcom, Peep Show, begins to appear frequently. Dara O’Briain guest hosts frequently until 2005 when he becomes host on similar-ish topical comedy news quiz Mock The Week.

2007

Ann Widdecombe refuses to host again after she is offended by guest Jimmy Carr.

Author Will Self who had appeared nine times, says he will not return soon after as he has gone off the show.

2009

In what now appears to be an unfortunate decision, Rolf Harris appears as guest host.

2011

Death of Big George, composer of the show’s memorable theme tune.

2013

Guest host Brian Blessed divides opinion with numerous jokes about Margaret Thatcher on the week of her death.

2015

Victoria Coren Mitchell hosts the show, appearing for the tenth time. Her husband David Mitchell has been on eleven times while her late father Alan appeared four times.

The show is scheduled to return for its 50th series next month.

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President Evil? Fictional US presidents on screen

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Frank Underwood  (Kevin Spacey) is back, this time as US president in the third season of hit US TV drama House Of Cards. Scheming and manipulative, Underwood is definitely a bad sort. But which other fictional presidents, candidates and politicians both good and evil have graced our screens in the last fifty years or so? Here are some of the most memorable ones…

Senator John Iselin (James Gregory) in The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

A buffoonish take on the malevolent Senator Joe McCarthy, Iselin is a drunken idiot leading an anti-communist witch hunt effectively inspired by his scheming wife (Angela Lansbury).

 William Russell (Henry Fonda) in The Best Man (1964)

Gore Vidal’s screenplay essentially replays the 1960 Kennedy vs.  Nixon contest. There are a few odd twists, however.  Unlike the Democrat JFK and the Republican Nixon, both candidates are competing within the same party for the nomination. And here it is Cliff Robertson’s Nixon type who has the glamorous wife not Henry Fonda’s JFK.

President Jordan Lyman (Frederic March) in Seven Days In May (1964)

Lyman’s liberal president is ahead of his time by about a decade in seeking détente but unfortunately provokes an attempted right wing military coup by Burt Lancaster’s General Scott in the process. Can Kirk Douglas save the day?

President Merkin Muffley in Dr Strangelove (1964)

“You can’t fight in here: this is the War Room!” One of three characters played by Peter Sellers in the film, resembles twice defeated 1950s Democrat presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson.

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Unnamed President (Henry Fonda) in Fail Safe (1964)

Oops. After the US blows up a Soviet city by mistake, the US agrees to sacrifice New York to appease the Russians. Henry Fonda plays the president (Richard Dreyfuss reprised the role in the 2000 live TV version) and soon finds his decision will take on a tragic personal dimension.

Bill McKay (Robert Redford) in The Candidate (1972)

Robert Redford’s candidate sacrifices so much in his campaign for the Senate that he doesn’t know what to do once he’s won.  Quite a tame film by modern standards.

Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris) in Taxi Driver (1976)

Bland presidential candidate who narrowly escapes assassination by Travis Bickle. This unfortunately probably partly inspired the real life assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan in 1981.

President Richard Monckton (Jason Robards) in Washington: Behind Closed Doors (TV: 1977)

Basically it’s Richard Nixon, although Robards stops short of actually impersonating him.

President Barbara Adams (Loretta Swit) Whoops Apocalypse (1988)

The first woman president tries and fails to prevent Peter Cook’s mad British Prime Minister from starting World War III in this largely unfunny British satire.

Bob Roberts (Tim Robbins) (1992)

Director/star Tim Robbins plays the country western singer turned right wing 1990 Senate candidate in this winning mockumentary. His defeated liberal opponent is played by Gore Vidal.

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Dave Kovic/Bill Mitchell (Kevin Kline) in Dave (1995)

A professional presidential lookalike Dave stands in for the nasty US president temporarily. When the president has a stroke during a sex act, however, the job becomes more permanent.

President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) in The American President (1995)

One of many Nineties “like Clinton but a bit better” liberal dream presidents, Shepherd is a widower leaving him free to woo lobbyist (played by Annette Bening) much to nasty Republican opponent Richard Dreyfuss’s glee.

President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman in Independence Day (1996)

Hurrah! Bill Pullman’s heroic US president saves the world from alien invasion.

President James Dale (Jack Nicholson) in Mars Attacks! (1996)

Hurrah! Jack Nicholson’s over the top US president fails to save the world from alien invasion.

President James Marshall (Harrison Ford) Air Force One (1997)

There have been two presidents Harrison and one Ford, so why not President Harrison Ford? In a slightly bizarre premise, the president ends up machine gunning lots of terrorists who have invaded his plane while female Veep Glenn Close rules the roost on the ground. A spoof called Vatican One in which an ex-martial arts champion becomes Pope was sadly never made.

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President Beck (Morgan Freeman) in Deep Impact (1998)

It may be the end of the world as we know it but President Beck feels fine.

Governor Jack Stanton (John Travolta) in Primary Colors (1998)

You remember Bill Clinton? Basically, it’s supposed to be him.

Senator Jay Billington Bulworth (Warren Beatty) in Bulworth (1998)

Beatty’s Senator basically has a crisis and arranges his own assassination. After snogging Halle Berry, however, he soon regrets this decision.

President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) in The West Wing (TV: 1999-2006)

Perhaps the most fully realised fictional US president, Bartlet is a hugely intellectual New England academic who serves two terms as president in the long running series, surviving MS, scandal, government shutdowns, assassination attempts, the kidnapping of his daughter and numerous political reversals along the way. Sheen had played JFK in a memorable mini -series nearly twenty years before and is no less brilliant in this.

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President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) in The Contender (2000)

Perhaps the most laidback president ever, there’s more than a hint of Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski about Bridges’ Democratic incumbent in this West Wingy style drama. He even likes bowling.

President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) 24 (TV: 2001-2007)

Before there was “No Drama” Obama there was “Even Calmer” David Palmer. A black US president, Palmer’s presence on the series ended before Obama’s first presidential campaign got going.

President Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis) in Commander In Chief (TV 2005)

Taller than Bartlet, Geena Davis is easily the best thing in this short lived drama about the first woman president. Like most fictional women presidents, Allen comes to power as a result of her predecessor’s death, rather than being elected herself.

Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) in The Ides of March (2011)

Anti-big business, anti-car, handsome and charismatic Morris seems to be the perfect presidential candidate for the Democrats in this drama. But lo and behold: campaign aide Ryan Gosling soon uncovers skeletons in his closet.

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The Tories: A poem

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We’re the Tories; hear us sing!

Blame Labour for everything.

The last thing we’d do is confess,

That we’re to blame for this whole mess!

Ten years past, our chief complaint,

Was that the markets faced constraint,

We’d have made the markets stronger,

The recession harsher, deeper, longer.

Never mind the crash elsewhere,

It’s easier to blame Brown and Blair.

Our public services are now a mess,

We’re iffy about the NHS,

Shall we “reorganise” it again? Well, we may,

But we won’t say a thing about that before May,

The press is safe from real reform,

While Rupert’s Sun keeps us all warm,

“Vote Tory” stories every day and

Silly pictures of Ed Miliband.

Frankly, we’ll do what it takes to win,

Even invite old UKIP in,

We’ll attack the scroungers, play the race card,

Kick the weakest good and hard,

Our leader Cameron’s liberal underneath,

A bit like Major or Ted Heath,

But like them he’s weak, you’ll see what we mean,

He’ll even sacrifice the European dream.

So if you don’t care about the national health,

Care only really about yourself.

We really are the party for you!

(Though we’ve not won since 1992).

Don’t get us wrong: we love the UK,

We just wish all the people would go away.

Twenty years of What A Carve Up!

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April 1994 saw the publication of perhaps the most fiercely anti-Thatcherite novel ever written: What A Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe.

It is a furiously angry as well as a funny book, but do not assume it is exclusively political. The novel’s action darts back to far beyond the Thatcherite Eighties veering between the decades from the Second World War to shortly after the Lady’s fall from power in late 1990. In fact, only one major character, the turncoat Henry Winshaw, is a politician. Throw in a recurring fixation with the fairly obscure Carry On style film starring Sid James and Kenneth Connor, a ninety-year old gay private detective, a bitter attack on the post-Thatcherite public transport system and that’s still only scratching the surface of this marvellously incisive novel.

The story is the primarily the tale of the Winshaws, the horrendous family who the book’s narrator is charged with writing the biography of. Echoing the mock gothic theme of the film the book is linked to (although not based on), the Winshaws’ lives in a blustery isolated manor house in northern England. In the film, Kenneth Connor’s character is brought to the house by the prospect of an inheritance. Instead, he encounters murder and romance in the form of an infatuation with a beautiful girl played by Shirley Eaton, later better known for her role in the classic James Bond film, ‘Goldfinger’.

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The link between the film and the book is an odd one. For example, one scene in the novel sees a character eavesdropping on the filming of the production in 1961 before being shooed off by the actor Sid James. Meanwhile, another character Tabitha Winshaw has been driven mad by the suspicion that her family had a role in the death of her brother in the Second World War. This echoes the fate of a character in the film (played by another ‘Carry On’ regular, Esma Cannon) who thinks she is still a suffragette and living fifty years in the past. But Tabitha’s fears do seem to have some foundation. At any rate, knowledge of the film is not essential to enjoying the book (I myself, have enjoyed the book for years, but only saw the film properly a couple of years ago).

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There is much to enjoy. My personal favourite sequences are the extracts from the diaries of Henry Winshaw, an unscrupulous man who travels from being a selfish Labour MP during the Wilson era to an unprincipled right-wing media whore in old age. The few brief diary entries perfectly reflect his self-importance (he is convinced Harold Wilson “hates and despises” him but the book’s footnote reveals Wilson never even knew who he was) and his betrayal as he suddenly urges his supporters to vote Tory on the eve of the February 1974 General Election (a bit like Enoch Powell, in reverse).

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There is more. Much more. Happily, the book has not overshadowed Coe’s subsequent career. He is as known for the excellent ‘Rotter’s Club’ (which has been televised) as for this and his superb ‘The Rain Before It Falls’ marked a total departure.

Every one of Coe’s nine novels to date is worth reading. But twenty years on, ‘What A Carve Up!’ remains his masterpiece.

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Thirty years of Spitting Image

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John Major was entirely painted in grey. Home Secretary Kenneth Baker was a slug. Future Prime Minister Tony Blair was portrayed as a wayward child while Edwina Currie was characterised as a malevolent Cruella Deville figure. The puppet-based comedy Spitting Image first appeared on our screens thirty years ago in 1984 and ran until 1996. There had never been anything like it before and there has been nothing like it on British TV since. It made its mark on the times in a way that no other comedian, TV show or satirical cartoon of the time could ever have managed.

Perhaps it could only have started in 1984, a time when the forces of conservatism seemed perilously close to absolute victory. Margaret Thatcher, simultaneously the most loved and loathed Prime Minister of all time, had won a second landslide election victory the year before and was now taking on the miners, a battle she would ultimately win. The unions were in revolt, unemployment was sky high. People were angry and yet the Opposition, which was split between Neil Kinnock’s Labour and the Liberal-SDP Alliance, had never looked weaker.

There was something of a political comedy void too. Mike Yarwood, a huge star in the Seventies, was far too gentle (and troubled) an impressionist to continue throughout the Eighties. By 1984, his career was in freefall, partially because he was unable to convincingly “do” Margaret Thatcher. Yes Minister, meanwhile, was a brilliant political comedy, but it was set in a fictional and non-partisan political landscape (its main character, Jim Hacker MP was never identified as belonging to any existing party). Meanwhile, Not The Nine O Clock News which had lampooned many public figures during the early Eighties (while rarely actually impersonating them) had ended in 1982. Smith and Jones had begun their own largely non-political sketch show while Rowan Atkinson was now in Blackadder. NTNOCN producer John Lloyd would be instrumental in launching Spitting Image for the ITV franchise, Central in 1984.

The project was hugely ambitious: it was the most expensive light entertainment show of the time. In retrospect, we should be less surprised that the results were patchy (and they were) than by the fact the show worked at all. Peter Fluck and Roger Law’s puppets were nearly always easily recognisable. To ensure topicality, Spitting Image was produced close to transmission time (some scenes were even broadcast live). The show was often on the mark and frequently very funny.

Some public figures will be forever linked with their puppet counterparts. To some, Norman Tebbit will always be a leather jacketed yob, Michael Heseltine a swivel-eyed loon vocally denying any intention of standing against Thatcher for the Tory leadership while simultaneously wearing a sign saying “Vote for Heseltine” on his back while, for many, Kenneth Baker, as mentioned, will always be a slug on a leaf.

Some caricatures required less imagination,  however, with US president Ronald Reagan (voiced by Chris Barrie, later of Red Dwarf and The Brittas Empire fame) always portrayed as a moron, as in this fireside chat with Soviet premier Gorbachev (whose distinctive birthmark always took the form of a Soviet hammer and sickle):

Gorbachev: Ron, do you know what I see when I see when I look into those flames? I see our two nations living in peace and harmony… what do you see?

Reagan: I see a little doggy, a bunny wunny and a big hippo on a broomstick. Hell, this is fun!

Margaret Thatcher herself, meanwhile, was usually portrayed (in a rather sexist fashion) in a man’s suit, something which may actually have helped her image.. John Major, her successor, initially appeared as a robot who was being secretly controlled by Thatcher, before becoming the totally grey figure he is now remembered as, complementing wife Norma on her peas (“Very tasty”) while secretly nursing a childish crush on colleague Virginia Bottomley (prompting Major’s cabinet colleagues to taunt him by chanting “John loves Ginny!”).  Major’s earlier affair with Edwina Currie was, of course, at this stage not known to the general public or to Spitting Image’s writers.

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Currie, in fact, undeniably benefited from the publicity her puppet generated. She was, after all, a junior minister and never served in the cabinet. How many junior ministers can you name today? This was not solely Spitting Image’s doing, but it surely helped. The same is true with Labour frontbencher Gerald Kaufman. He was never exactly a household name but got attention simply because Spitting Image claimed he went around saying creepy things such as (inexplicably) “sweaty palms”.

Others liked the attention less, though many like to pretend otherwise. Liberal leader David Steel  openly claimed that his image was harmed by the impression he was in SDP leader David Owen’s pocket. It is doubtful Roy Hattersley (who has a genuine speech impediment) enjoyed his depiction spluttering spit everywhere, notably spitting out the words “Spitting Image” during the title sequence, either.

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It wasn’t just the politicians, of course. The portrayal of the Royals was always controversial. An early episode saw the Queen “christening” Prince Harry (who had an unflattering puppet from birth) by smashing a bottle against the side of his pram. Elsewhere,  Jeremy Paxman (one of the few figures still in the public eye both now and then) memorably began every broadcast with a sneering “yeeeeeeeeeeeeesss” while the late newsreader Alistair Burnett was seen as being in love with the Queen Mother. Rupert Murdoch, meanwhile, was seen as a crude figure constantly breaking wind while all journalists were routinely portrayed as pigs.

It had to end one day, of course, and in 1996, it did. Tony Blair was initially portrayed as a schoolboy because of his relative youth. He was soon being depicted as a super hyperactive figure on becoming Labour leader in 1994. But while both he and successor Gordon Brown had puppets, the show didn’t get to see New Labour in power.

The programme never received much critical acclaim but effectively launched a thousand careers with Ian Hislop, Clive Anderson, John O’Farrell, Ben Elton and Red Dwarf’s Rob Grant and Doug Naylor (authors of The Chicken Song) amongst the numerous writers and Chris Barrie, Steve Coogan, Harry Enfield, John Sessions, Rory Bremner, John Culshaw, Alistair MacGowan, John Thompson, Steve Nallon and Hugh Dennis all amongst the vocal talent.

Could it happen today? Animated copycats like 2DTV and Headcases both proved failures although Round The Bend, almost a kids’ version of the show with puppets by Fluck and Law enjoyed some success in the Nineties.

But in the age of Boris Johnson and Nigel Forage, perhaps we need a Spitting Image now more than ever?

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Top ten 1914 campaign slogans which were never used

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1. Don’t worry! It’ll all be over by Christmas!  (1918)

2. Do your bit for Britain! Hang a dachshund today!

3. Girls love a man in uniform! It won’t just be the horses they’ll be throwing themselves under!

4. Slow down Fritz! Leave some nuns for the rest of us!

5. Britain first! Defend the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha!

6. Join up! (You’re statistically more likely to die of Spanish Flu afterwards than be killed anyway).

7. Your Country Needs You! Best poetry entrants win.

8. It’s something to do with an Archduke getting shot. That’s all I know.

9. Fight for Britain and accelerate the rate of imperial decline.

10. Come on! Those deserters aren’t going to shoot themselves you know!

WARNING: Butterflies are a protected species. Any soldier on either side who is seen attempting to catch one before the cessation of hostilities, risks an immediate death penalty.

A song for UKIP

(Actually, more of a poem than a song…)

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Right wing chumps of the world unite!

It’s time to take a stand and fight,

It’s time to desert the sinking ship,

Leave the Tories: join UKIP!

Follow your heart and not your head,

Maggie would back us (were she not dead,)

Listen to the Mail, Telegraph and Express,

Say no to EU bureaucracy and excess!

Are you racist to a small degree?

We’re less scary than the BNP!

If the PC liberals had their way,

Everyone in the world would be gay.

The EU is far too large.

Vote for an Englishman named Farage.

Join the UKIP throng as we march today,

Towards a glorious yesterday!

The rest of us on Planet Earth,

Should cheer on UKIP for all our worth,

For like in 1983,

They’re splitters like the SDP.

For Farage and his doltish band,

Are giving Labour a helping hand,

The bigger the split grows on the Right,

The better things look on election night.

So if you are a lefty liberal type like me,

And value the NHS and BBC,

And don’t blame the poor for being poor,

Or lay all our ills at the immigrant’s door.

If you don’t want to make life a misery,

For the poorest and weakest in society,

Then pray that UKIP win some seats,

And help Labour into Downing Street.

Chris Hallam.

This is the future: 2013-2030.

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I am certainly no Nostradamus (although let’s face it: neither was Nostradamus). Had I written this a few years ago, I would probably have predicted David Miliband would now be Prime Minister and Hillary Clinton in power in the White House. But just for fun, let’s see what the next few years up to 2020 might have in store…

Scotland will vote to remain within the UK (2014).

The next General Election will have almost as the same outcome as the last one (2015).
I am fully aware this prediction will please no one. But while Labour are currently projected to win a substantial majority, I would expect this to change simply because Ed Miliband remains relatively unpopular and is hated by the press. At the same time, Tory hopes of winning an outright majority seem like overly optimistic wishful thinking. And if no one wins a majority, the Lib Dems in their current form seem unlikely to go with anyone other than the Cons simply because the Lib Dem leadership is basically Tory. So, sorry folks. We may be in for more of the same until 2020. Although there will be a new and slightly amended Coalition agreement, for all the difference that makes. Maybe Nick Clegg will remember to ask for a proper government department this time.

Yvette Cooper will be elected leader of the Labour Party following Ed Miliband’s resignation (2015)

Hillary Clinton will win the US presidential elections (2016).
She will beat Republican Paul Ryan in a close contest. She will be the first woman US president.

The UK will stay in the European Union throughout this decade (2010-2020).
UKIP will do well in the 2014 European elections but will fail to win a single seat in the 2015 General Election. Cameron will somehow dodge having the promised in-out referendum. The issue will contribute to his downfall in 2018.

Boris Johnson will become Prime Minister (2018).
Yes! Horror of horrors! This could actually happen. Start packing your suitcase now!

King Charles III will attempt to disestablish the Church of England (before 2030).
I don’t want to make morbid predictions about the likely mortality of the Queen. But I would guess Charles would be on the throne before the end of the next decade and some move towards reform from him in this quarter.

Tom Sharpe: a tribute

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There are few authors who I can claim to have read every single book they have had published. Tom Sharpe, who has just died, aged eighty five, was one such author. Every one of his sixteen books is both funny and incredibly readable.

That is not to say they are low brow either. Although sex, contraceptives, misunderstandings and even famously, a sex doll, famously play a part, Sharpe’s novels are extremely well written and a world away from the low comedy of the Carry On films which were still being published when his novels first began appearing.

His heyday in fact occurred at that time of great low national self esteem, the mid-Seventies. Porterhouse Blue (1975) in which a reforming Tony Benn-style minister is transferred to the position of Master of an ancient and very traditionalist Cambridge college, is for me, his masterpiece. The efforts of the new Master (driven by his domineering wife) to change the rules to enable women to be admitted as undergraduates lead to a fierce Trollopian conservative campaign of resistance from the college notably Skullion, a porter.  The academic shenanigans predate Terry Pratchett’s imaginings about Unseen University and are worthy of comparison with the campus novels of Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge from the same period. Blott on the Landscape (1975) was similarly excellent while Wilt (1976) drew on Sharpe’s experiences as a college lecturer in an East Anglian polytechnic. Bored of his life teaching English Literature to apprentices and butchers, Sharpe’s hero Henry Wilt soon finds himself wrongly accused of murder after his wife goes missing when Wilt is tricked into being tied to a sex doll at a party. These last misfortunes thankfully never happened to Sharpe.

All three of these books were adapted for the screen in the late Eighties. Porterhouse Blue (starring Ian Richardson as Sir Godber Evans, David Jason as Skullion and John Sessions as the hapless student Zipser) and Blott on the Landscape starring David Suchet and George Cole both worked well on TV, adapted by Malcolm Bradbury. Wilt (1989) a film starring Griff Rhys Jones and Mel  Smith was entertaining in its own way but as a version of the novel, it was poor. Wilt would appear in four more Sharpe novels.

After a hugely successful thirteen years, Shape published nothing after the third Wilt novel Wilt On High (1984) until he produced a sequel to porterhouse Blue Grantchester Grind (1995). Although not a particularly memorable sequel, Sharpe’s later books are still enjoyable, although by this time increasingly less in keeping with the times – characters still, for example, use telephone boxes a surprising amount despite the advent of mobile phones.

But to say Shape’s books are of their time is a weak criticism. The same is true of the works of Dickens, Wodehouse and Waugh, indeed of every book ever written.

The Throwback, The Great Pursuit , Wilt. One hopes such books will endure and continue to be read. It is a shame Sharpe never wrote an autobiography. The details of his past would surely have made for a great book in itself. Sharpe’s mockery of the South African Apartheid regime, a theme of his first two British novels Riotous Assembly (1971) and Indecent Exposure (1973) saw him expelled in 1961, something he remained angry about for the rest of his life. As a child, his family also risked internment. His father who died in 1944 was a fascist sympathiser and a friend of William Joyce (Lord Haw Haw).

As it is, sixteen very funny books is a fine legacy from one of the greatest British comic writers of the 20th century.Image

Why there are no conservative comedians…anywhere.

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Ooh! Naughty BBC Radio 4! Apparently they’ve been producing approximately five times as many jokes about the Tories as they have about Labour! It seems the Daily Mail were right about the Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation all along! Go back to Moscow, commies! If you love China so much (or indeed anywhere that’s actually communist these days. Laos?) why don’t you go and live there? Why don’t you marry Raul Castro? Come on BBC! We know you want to.

Well, no. Actually the BBC have an excuse and to be honest it’s a pretty good one. It seems that there are not enough comedians of a conservative ilk around. Caroline Raphael, Radio 4’s comedy commissioner admits they have trouble recruiting comics from the Right. And before anyone splutters at this, think about it. It may well be true.

I’ve bored Chortle readers on the subject of the dearth of conservative comedy talent before (http://www.chortle.co.uk/correspondents/2011/12/02/14451/clarkson_has_taught_us_one_thing%3A_right-wingers_arent_funny) and do not intend to repeat myself. But last time I did not really seriously consider why there are so few famous funny Tories about.

The obvious explanation is that the Tories are the leading party in government. Were Labour in power there would clearly be more jokes about them as indeed I am sure there were, were a similar study to be have been commissioned before 2010. This also explains why the Sunday Telegraph (who conducted this recent count) also found a larger than expected number of jokes about the Lib Dems.

This doesn’t fully explain why there are five times as many jokes about the Tories than Labour though. That is a wide margin, after all.

Could it be that Labour are less inspiring comedy targets than the Tories are? This too seems plausible. But it also seems odd. If the Opposition is struggling, they would surely provide ripe targets for satirical bullseyes. Spitting image, after all, didn’t let Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party off the hook in the Eighties. Is the public really so enamoured with Ed Miliband as in the days of early Blair or Obama, no satirical barbs can touch him? I very much doubt it.

Is the Beeb itself the problem? It would actually seem not. The issue extends way beyond the BBC. As I’ve discussed before, the entire comedy circuit inclines to the Left, not just the studios of Radio 4.

The Telegraph suggests that the left wing environment of many comedy clubs might be preventing right wing comedy talent getting through. But why should the comedy world be any more left wing than anywhere else?

Telegraph writer Dominic Cavendish suggests this might be because the circuit tends to favour younger comics. But even assuming older people are more likely to be conservative (something I don’t necessarily accept anyway), this doesn’t explain why older comics tend to be more left leaning assuming that they have any viewpoint at all.

It’s not hard to imagine a conservative comedian. The tabloid-sequel views of Jeremy Clarkson would fit the bill even though he’s not technically a comedian. Are we ever likely to see a popular comic who defends the bankers and the Tories and who rails against the unemployed, benefit “scroungers”, the EU and asylum seekers? I don’t know. I’m also disinclined to think many comedians deliberately stifle their conservative views for public consumption. I don’t think they ever had those views in the first place.

Perhaps it’s simply the case that the bohemian creative world of the arts will always spawn more socialist firebrands than conservative cheerleaders.

Or to risk an old joke myself, if you really want to see a bunch of conservative comedians, take a look at the government.

 

 

Margaret Thatcher: a love poem

She floated in before my time

In the year of 1979,

Unions’ “Winter of Discontent”,

Ensured her rise to government.

 

Tory majority 43.

Began by quoting Assisi.

A change from previous older men,

Like Wilson, Heath and Callaghan.

 

First woman leader soon in trouble,

With unemployment surging at the double.

Two million, three million wow!

Also rioting (a bit like now).

 

Recession deep, few were earning,

The Lady pledged:  She’s not for turning.

Then suddenly: in the South Atlantic,

Falklands War came: saved her neck!

 

In fairness, also should be said,

Labour Party largely dead,

Heading in “loony left” direction,

Forgot: supposed to win elections.

 

Welfare State soon derailed,

Miners fought her but quickly failed,

A bad time for schools and national health,

A good time for anyone out for self.

 

Third victory, economy booming,

But problems with Europe and Poll Tax looming,

Iron Lady growing rusty,

Began to use the Royal “We”.

 

When she shouted “No, no, no”,

Geoffrey Howe thought: time to go.

Thanks to Tarzan, she went also,

She wept as she got in the car to go.

 

(She didn’t handle retirement well,

Made John Major’s life living hell).

 

So depending on your view,

She arguably came to our rescue,

Saved us from reds, Argies and decline,

Thank God for 1979!

 

On the other hand, you might disagree,

That there’s no such thing as society.

Promoted markets and Mad Murdoch.

Spoilt son Mark also a bit of a cock.

 

On the other hand, crime, greed and wealth creation,

May have ruined our once great nation,

Homelessness, unemployment and selfishness,

May have left us with not more but less.

 

What’s not in doubt is her legacy,

She handbagged her way into history.

Whether she leaves you angry or full of yearning,

Who cares?:  the Lady’s not returning.Image

October Surprise!

A look at nine last minute stories which (if they happened) could swing the US presidential election…

  1. Governor Mitt Romney is revealed to have taken part in a recent ceremony in which thousands of dead non-Mormons were baptised posthumously as Mormons. Embarrassingly, many of those listed as baptised included many people who were not actually dead who Romney assumed were dead (such as actress Angela Lansbury and Senator John McCain), several people who were clearly already Mormons and several fictional characters who Romney apparently thought were real people (Sherlock Holmes, Roger Ramjet, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and Skeletor).
  2. Romney also admits switching the past votes of many dead Democrats to Republican ones, this changing the outcome of every presidential election since 1920 into a Republican victory. Former president Bob Dole defends Romney’s actions.
  3. The Romney campaign receives another blow when an hour long programme is broadcast featuring actor Clint Eastwood interrogating an empty chair which he believes to be occupied by President Barack Obama. Surprisingly, the actor appears to be won over by the chair’s arguments during the course of the programme and ends the show by endorsing President Obama’s re-election campaign.
  4. Obama is revealed to be “following” Hugo Chavez on Twitter.
  5. Romney reveals he briefly hypnotised the President during the first presidential debate thus explaining Obama’s semi-comatose state throughout. Similar hypnosis largely explains the soporific effect Romney’s speeches have on many audiences.
  6. Secret plans reveal Romney intends to sell the state of Ohio to the People’s Republic of China if elected. “It makes sound business sense,” he argues. “There’s no money in Ohio. I’ve seen the projections.”
  7. In a speech, President Obama unwittingly reveals a major plot twist in the new Bond film Skyfall.
  8. Newly released wannabe Reagan assassin John Hinckley attempts to “impress” actress Ellen DeGeneres by assassinating Obama. Once again, he fails on both counts. Obama survives and like Jodie Foster before her, Ellen isn’t even slightly “impressed”. She is more “alarmed”. Women eh?
  9. In a surprise move, Great Britain is suddenly granted admission as the 51st state of the Union. With a firmly pro-Obama population and far more Electoral College votes than California, the change secures the re-election for the president.

The Mormon conquest?

“The history book on the shelf. It’s always repeating itself.”

So sang Abba in their 1974 hit Waterloo. And they were right. 1907, for example, was virtually the same as 1894.

So what’s it to be then?

Which election of the past is this year’s presidential election most likely to echo?

Here are the main scenarios:

1948: The Truman Show: Shock result! Electoral upset!

The precedent: Every underdog in every election prays for a repeat of the 1948 result. President Truman was universally expected to lose to his Republican opponent, the ultra-bland moustached weirdo Governor Thomas Dewey throughout the campaign. One newspaper even reported “Dewey defeats Truman” on its front page. Yet the polls were staggeringly wrong. Truman was, in fact, returned comfortably. He even gleefully held up a copy of the inaccurate newspaper for the cameras.

Is it likely?: Actually with the election so close, neither a Romney or an Obama win would exactly constitute an electoral upset. So assuming neither candidate wins by a huge margin or something insane happens, this wouldn’t be possible. Especially as neither Truman nor Dewey are alive.

1956, 1964, 1972 and 1984: President re-elected in a landslide.

All of these elections saw the incumbents (Eisenhower, LBJ, Nixon and Reagan) winning by huge margins. Nixon and Reagan both won 49 out of 50 states. Could Obama do the same?

Likely? This may have been possible when Romney was in a flap over his moronic 47% comments. But unless something dramatic happens between now and polling day (perhaps Romney will be revealed to have sold one of his elderly relatives to a powerful conglomerate) this now seems very unlikely.

1996: President re-elected comfortably but not by a landslide.

1996 saw President Clinton comfortably quashing Senator Bob Dole’s leadership bid by a 7% poll margin.

Likely?: Not too farfetched actually and probably the best result Obama can realistically hope for. Had the result gone the other way…Monica Lewinsky? And the 73 year old President Dole? Let’s not think about it.

2004: A narrow-ish win for the president.

Nobody likes being compared to George W Bush. But in 2004, he did beat Senator John Kerry by a three percent margin. And get this: he didn’t have to cheat this time!

Likely?: A narrow Obama win is currently the most likely result.

1976: A narrow win for the challenger.

After Watergate, the fuel crisis and the Nixon pardon, ex-peanut farmer Jimmy Carter achieved a very narrow win over the maladroit President Gerald Ford.

Likely: Horribly plausible. Romney could scrape home narrowly. And remember: Ford was also undone by a poor TV debate performance!

1980: A big win for the challenger.

The 1980 victory of Reagan over incumbent President Carter was decisive and seems inevitable in retrospect. In fact, it seemed much closer at the time. Carter’s diaries reveal he felt he had a good chance at winning almost to the end.

The result famously forced loon John Hinckley Junior to reconsider his plan to shoot President Carter and shoot the new president Reagan instead. All to impress the actress Jodie Foster. Who apparently wasn’t even very impressed anyway! Tsk! Women eh? Next time just try sending a bunch of flowers. Or stalking someone who isn’t a

Likely?:A Mitt Romney landslide? If you believe in a God, pray to him or her that this doesn’t happen.

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.”

Three cheers for political correctness!

Few terms have become so debased within the lexicon of political discourse than political correctness. Like the term “liberal” in the United States, the term has become almost an insult. Peter Hitchens describes it as “stern, fierce movement which is completely sane and sets out deliberately to stop us from saying – and thinking – various things. It is not a joke.” Newspapers like Hitchens’ own Mail and the Daily Telegraph routinely blame political correctness for everything under the sun. Some even liken it to the tyrannies of Nazi Germany and Stalin’s USSR.

What are these bold claims based upon? Basically, it comes down to this: Fifty years ago it was acceptable to make sexist, racist and homophobic remarks and jokes in public. Now it isn’t. Most people recognise this as a good thing. The Right have never come to terms with it. So the next time you read any garbage about “political correctness gone mad” remember: that’s all the writer is complaining about. They want to be racist or offensive in some way but society has changed so much it no longer permits them to be so.

That’s all there is to it. And no one is more humourless about it than the modern Right.

The Tory Olympics

The London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony was a huge success. With normal people, that is. Tories, by and large, don’t seem to have liked it.

For despite the fact, Danny Boyle’s ceremony had presumably been formally approved both by Tory Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson, many on the Right still found much to complain about. Tycoon Rupert Murdoch tweeted that the ceremony was “politically correct” while the Tory MP Aiden Burley whinged that it was “leftie multiculturalist crap”.

So what would they have done instead? Well, here if you can think of a single right wing British film director at all (does Michael Winner still count?) here are some ideas on how it could have been done Right…

1) Forget all that Mary Poppins stuff! Instead have an army of Lady Thatcher lookalikes march into the arena, each armed only with a handbag and a magic wand.

2) In a symbolic recreation of 1979, one Margaret could walk past a version of the famous Saatchi and Saatchi Labour Isn’t Working poster depicting a huge queue of unemployed. One wave of her wand from Maggie and the unemployed people could magically come to life and climb out of the poster! They would then clamber onto a bike each and cycle off looking for work as Norman Tebbit’s famous words echo around the stadium: “when my dad was unemployed he didn’t riot. He got on his bike and he looked for work!” Quite right Norman!

3) The Maggies proceed into a hospital packed with children. The children remain but after the Maggies wave their wands, the hospital beds magically disappear.

4) A huge replica of Enoch Powell’s head could roll onto the stage. In a horrific scene, a river of blood could symbolically pour out of it onto the stage in a scene reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Just as Powell predicted would happen in the aftermath of mass Commonwealth immigration. And nothing like what actually happened in real life.

5) The Maggies could be joined on stage by an army of David Cameron, Boris Johnson and Rupert Murdoch lookalikes who parachute in. The quartets could then all dance a merry jig on stage while images from The Sun’s glorious past (“Gotcha!” “Stick it up your Junta!” “Freddie Starr ate my hamster” “It was The Sun Wot Won It!”) flash up behind them.

6) Note: On no account should any non-white or gay people appear on stage at all. We wouldn’t want anyone thinking we are a tolerant multicultural nation after all would we?

Why Obama must end the USA’s gun law madness

Even before Friday’s appalling massacre in Aurora, Denver, one thing was already apparent: the United States had a very serious problem with guns. Although terrible, the shooting was only the worst such incident to occur since the slaughter at Virginia Tech College in 2007. The cinema shooting also occurred within seventeen miles away from the Columbine High School, scene of the 1999 mass shooting. In the US, such incidents have become depressingly commonplace.

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