We came, we watched, we satirised – from April 13 to April 17 hundreds of us descended on the University of Portsmouth and No. 6 Cinema for a weeklong celebration of the films and television programmes that have driven a comic stake deep into the heart of the political process. This Is The Week That Is, an event supported by Film Hub South East, and featuring some of political satire’s biggest names, commenced in an auspicious vein, with an appearance from the Iron Lady himself. Steve Nallon – the man responsible for voicing Spitting Image’s Maggie Thatcher (among other characters) – announced his arrival with a specially made Headcast.
A full house at the University’s Eldon Building heard Steve talk on the history of satire, its various definitions, his work on Spitting Image, and on what he termed the ‘democratisation of satire’, whereby new technology allows large numbers of people to create their own satirical soundbites and share them online. ‘We need satire’, he argued, ‘it’s part of how society works’, highlighting its centrality to social groups from ancient Greece to the present. In order for satire to work, he argued, everyone has to be in on the joke. Thus, satire is at its most biting and successful when it reaches a large audience.
Steve recalled the social and cultural impact of Spitting Image – the multimillion audiences that the show enjoyed every Sunday evening – and the controversy it often stirred amongst political elites (Kenneth Baker’s representation as a slug; David Steele, leader of the Liberal Party, portrayed as a diminutive side kick to SDP leader David Owen, are said to have negatively impacted the political careers of both). An exclusive for TITWTI, Steve also presented images of a never-used David Cameron puppet.
We then watched the hilarious 1987 Spitting Image Election Special, which offered up a catalogue of classic sketches and conclude with the rendition of Cabaret’s “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” in which conservative politicians adopt the song as their own anthem. In today’s fragmented media landscape, will it ever again be possible for a show such as Spitting Image to gain so large an audience, or to enjoy the ‘event’ status it did during the 1980s and early 1990s? Steve suggested that, while it may be difficult for any television show to again reach so enormous a single audience (there being too many forms of media competing for people’s attention), there is much potential in online satire. Using tools such as Headcaster, anyone can create something interactive and satirical.
Steve then demonstrated the capabilities of this new software, creating a Thatcher animation on the spot. A Q&A with Steve covered various topics ranging from the success of Spitting Image, and the impact the show had at the time, to the current state of political satire. Are politicians such as David Cameron and Ed Milliband as ripe for satire as Thatcher and Co were in the 1980s. Steve suggested that it was ‘easy to mock’ people like Cameron and Miliband, but not so easy to satirise them. They lack the clear vision of a Thatcher; they all stand on a hazy middle ground, and are rarely willing to stick their neck out for their beliefs. Cameron is even known to ask ‘What do I believe?’ when he meets with his advisors – grimly symbolic of the parlous state of 21st century British politics. Discussion considered the extent to which satire should offer a ‘corrective’ as well as just critique. Some questioned whether satire could actually change things, but never-the-less, it was important for it to serve as a ‘counter’ to dominant politics of any period. Spitting Image may in one sense have been a ‘raspberry’ blown in the direction of British politics, but it also provided a necessary counterbalance to a government, and political process, that fostered an unequal society and marginalised many. The enemy of satire is cynicism said Steve. Satire should also come with a belief that the world can be better; that lives and societies can be improved. Steve’s excellent article on satire [read it here] argues that ‘the satirist isn’t a cynic, but a disillusioned romantic who deep down wants the world to be better than it is and is pretty pissed off that it isn’t.’ Other questions considered: Does satire still have a role today? Does satire tend to be the province of upper class, white males? To what extent can it become a democratic medium through which anger and discontent can be channeled? Perhaps the future lays in new media and its potential to be used by, and to reach, large numbers of people. The talk and subsequent discussion was engaging, and certainly raised a series of important questions that we would continue to discuss throughout the week. It was a great talk, screening and discussion, and got events started with a bang. Many thanks to all those who attended.
After a short break, more satire followed; we jumped back in time to 1933 and a screening of Marx Brothers classic Duck Soup. Olly Gruner, a Lecturer in the School of Art and Design at the University of Portsmouth, provided some historical context for the film. Olly discussed the critical backlash that greeted Duck Soup‘s initial release. A box-office dud, many exhibitors complained of the film’s seeming lack of coherency, and, for the early 1930s, controversial subject matter. At the height of the Great Depression, and with the Nazi’s on the rise in Europe, a film that portrays a national economy in disarray and a pokes fun at authoritarian regimes and warmongering governments was perhaps always going to be a little close to the bone. Olly suggested that, while Duck Soup has long been celebrated for its anarchic humour and iconic comedy set-pieces, it also offers a biting satire of contemporaneous US and international politics. ‘I’ve already paid a month’s rent on the battlefield’, says Groucho after receiving pleas to cease his bellicose behaviour. A silly comment, perhaps – but beneath its flippancy is one of several instances where Groucho’s wisecracks (or, for that matter, Chico’s malapropisms or Harpo’s silent sketches) offer a barbed critique of authority, institutions, government and the political and economic circumstances that gave birth to an unequal capitalist America and a World on the brink of war. According to audience feedback, the film remains a timeless classic. Comments praised the opportunity to watch the film as a group – stating that ‘audience participation’ (and what a fantastic multi-generational laugh-along Duck Soup turned out to be) was one of the best aspects of the event. As another feedback comment stated: ‘Comedy is best watched with an audience.’ Such comments reminder us who were at the earlier event of Steve Nallon’s point that satire works best ‘when everyone is in on the joke.’ Whether watching Duck Soup in a cinema, or watching Spitting Image every Sunday evening as part of a national community of television watchers, there is something particularly pleasurable about sharing satire with others, in feeling part of a group and in having the opportunity to collectively laugh at elites. Perhaps this was one of the most interesting aspects of Day 1, and something that boded well for the remainder of the week – satire, when watched together, can make us feel part of something bigger. Outrage is surely far more powerful when watched, enjoyed and even produced en mass. Roll on Day 2