Rumours of the death of satire have been greatly exaggerated. New shows from MARK THOMAS and MICHAEL MOORE suggest that
the revolution may yet be televised. Words: Peter Ross
'PETER MANDELSON HAS JUST RESIGNED?’ gasps Mark Thomas, gleefully. ‘Oh my God." It’s not every day that you get to tell the country’s premier political prankster that one of his great hate ﬁgures has hit the canvas, which is a pity as it’s a good feeling and a nice way to kick off a conversation about the state of political satire.
The current line among pundits is that television satire has lost its bite. Cultural commentators argue that in our climate of consensual ‘third way’ politics, there is little for satirists to attack. Rory Bremner or the Have I Got News For You team, they say, still work themselves into hilarious paroxysms of righteous indignation, but they are merely tilting against the windmills of image management rather than inﬂicting body blows on real issues. Writing in the Sunday Times, Bryan Appleyard warns that ‘Politics has shrunk from matters of life and death to matters of presentation. Satire is in danger of shrinking with it.‘
Two new series for Channel 4 are much more concerned with expanding the scope and potential of satire than shrinking in the political spin cycle. America’s champion of the little guy, Michael Moore, moves from the BBC, while The Mark Thomas Comedy Product returns for a third series.
‘To say that everything’s too bland for satire is a lie,” Thomas growls. ‘I mean, what’s happened to Robin Cook’s ethical policy? The Labour government have sanctioned the bombing of Iraq at the behest of the Americans. This is the Battle of Monica’s Stain. And all these Smart bombs are so fucking smart that they land on Iran. You know, there is plenty to be working on.’
Thomas and Moore are covering similar ground. Their satire does more than mock and sneer from the cultural sidelines, it uses pranks and stunts to strive for tangible results.
With his 1989 ﬁlm Roger & Me and two acclaimed series of TV Nation, Michael Moore gave a voice to an America ill-served by its elected representatives and went after any politicians, corporations or organisations who were acting against the interests of the people. His new programme, The Michael Moore Show will be ‘interventionist entertainment’, mixing stand-up with direct action as he takes on a range of topics from American apartheid to congressmen who sleep with lobbyists. ‘Who said citizen participation and political action has to be limited to the politicians and
28 THEUST 7-21 Jan 1999
'Paxman was interviewing Ewan McGregor about his cock. Big deal!’
the fat cats who subsidise them‘." he asks.
Mark Thomas — whose show has even caused a change in the law by lobbying for the closure of a loophole which gave tax breaks to the landed gentry — is exasperated by the way much satire becomes absorbed by the establishment it seeks to attack. He cites the example of William Hague who recently sent Rory Bremner a tape with a note explaining that the impressionist was getting his vowel sounds slightly wrong, but saves his real wrath for straight news that shies away from the hard questions.
‘I was watching Newsnight last night and I’ve never seen such a piss poor excuse for a programme in my lil‘e.‘ he spits. ‘They had Jeremy Paxman interviewing liwan McGregor about his cock. Big deal! Then they did a big report about what it’s like to live on one of Britain’s worst housing estates where they went to Salford and filmed people. They said “We’ll be back over the next two years to see
how Tony Blair's Action Zone is working." Then they started having these captions like “Will so and so get their children out of the area?" It was almost like a soap opera. just an absolute insult to people's intelligence. That kind of reporting is just so patronising. it misses the main argument and is. in fact, part of the problem.‘
Thomas and Moore are living proof that television satire can and must be more than five men in suits tittering about Peter Mandelson’s sexuality. The gap between the two main parties may be narrowing and well— oiled PR machinery may make corporate giants appear less malevolent. but there are still questions to be asked. issues to be burned and targets to be struck by comedic barbs. Anything less isjust taking the piss.
The Mark Thomas Comedy Product begins on Channel 4, Wed 13 Jan, 11pm. The Michael Moore Show begins on Channel 4, Feb.