Day 2 of This Is The Week That Is: A Celebration of Political Satire

After the films and talks of the first day of This Is The Week That Is, Day 2 was always going to be a tough act to follow. So lucky we had Louis Netter and Lincoln Geraghty on the case. Louis’ caricature workshop kicked off at 4pm on Tuesday. Seventeen participants joined us for an afternoon’s lampooning. Louis began the event with a history of illustrated satire.

Louis Netter discusses the work of British satirist James Gilray.
Louis Netter discusses the work of British satirist James Gilray.

Covering the history of satire as it has appeared in an illustrated form, Louis explored the political and artistic imperatives that drove renowned satirists such as William Hogarth, James Gilray and Thomas Rowlandson. But even before these famed exponents of political satire, there had been numerous pioneers in the genre: from the ancient Greeks and Romans, to the late 16th and early 17th work of Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Indeed Louis suggested that images such as Bernini’s caricatures (one of which is printed below) influenced the later, more renowned, satirists work on a formal, stylistic and thematic level.

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Louis discusses Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s caricature.

Louis then went on to examine William Hogarth, whose famous print ‘Gin Lane’ he described as being ‘marked by Hogarth’s own sense of moral justice’. The moral outrage of Hogarth’s work very would be very much in keeping with one of the key definitions of satire offered by Steve Nallon on Monday, whereby satire serves as a kind of moral reaction to what is perceived to be the ‘immoral’ state of affairs (whether that be an immoral government, aristocracy, institutional elite, or society itself). In this way we might draw a direct lineage from Hogarth to some of the films and television programmes screened throughout the week. Perhaps Hogarth’s work could be seen as the illustrated equivalent of Charlie Chaplin’s moving and highly politicised speech at the end of The Great Dictator (see Day 4’s blog). Equally interesting (and very pertinent) was Louis’ discussion of illustrated satire’s popularity, and the wide viewership that it enjoyed in the 18th and 19th century. He suggested that James Gilray’s work was the ‘sitcom of its day’, as large quantities of prints were distributed to diverse audiences. People would clamour for the next instalment of Gilray much as they would for the next Spitting Image. To recall one of the key findings of Day 1 – ‘satire works best when everyone is in on the joke’ – we might suggest that print illustration offered the potential for satire to reach a mass audience in the way that cinema, television and the Internet would in later years, and thus fostered the communal sense of outrage necessary for satire to really have a ‘bite’. Once we were through with the history, it was time for everyone to try their hand at caricature (legal teams at the ready!). Especially given the short timeframe, the group produced some pretty excellent illustrations. Louis had set the task of producing anthropomorphic illustrations based on familiar political figures – ‘what animal best represents David Cameron?’ was one question asked during the session (a pig? A dog? A jellyfish? a weasel? – just some of the responses) – and on recent news stories. Thus Cameron’s fear of puppies received the caricaturist treatment (based on Cameron’s security refusing an 8 month old puppy access to the Prime Minister during a recent debate) and Farage and UKIP’s numerous anti-immigration speeches received a drubbing, also. Overall, the workshop offered a great opportunity for budding and seasoned caricaturists to hone their craft, and to learn from a professional. ‘Indulge your weirdness’ was Louis’ advice to those present. Look forward to seeing that weirdness develop in the future! Indeed, any of you caricaturists happen to read this report, we’d love to publish examples of your work on our website. Do get in touch!

After Louis’ school for scandal came to an end, it was down to No. 6 Cinema for a screening of Dr Strangelove. Lincoln Geraghty, a Reader in Popular Media Cultures at the University of Portsmouth, provided a stimulating introduction to the film. Lincoln situated Strangelove within its Cold War context, and discussed the film’s attempt to respond to what were very real tensions and anxieties of the early 1960s (the atomic bomb, the Cold War and the fear of global destruction). A particularly fascinating story of Strangelove‘s success was that it was one of Elvis Presley’s favourite films. Lincoln spoke of having visited Graceland and how the film was playing on a loop in the basement. It seems that the King had quite a taste for Strangelove‘s comic set-pieces and biting satire.

Lincoln noted the cold reception the film received from military leaders at the time, and the films popularity with contemporaneous audiences. More generally, he provided a useful introduction to science fiction as a conduit for political satire, noting previous 1950s and 1960s film endeavoured to critique issues of the day. Even films that appear distant from reality can be dealing with very real issues. Perhaps it is this seeming ‘distance’ that actually allows them to confront controversial and complex events, ideas and ideologies head on.

Lincoln in full flow. Image courtesy of Van Norris.
Lincoln in full flow. Image courtesy of Van Norris.
Lincoln Speaks. Image by Van Norris.
Lincoln Speaks. Image by Van Norris.

We then watched Dr Strangelove on No. 6’s wonderful big screen. With some of cinema’s most iconic characters and scenes – including the classic ‘no fighting in the war room’ – it was fantastic to revisit this movie milestone.

The post-film discussion followed up on some of the points raised in Lincoln’s introduction. The audience asked questions on the film’s reception, the changed ending and the historical context. Again, it was interesting to note the social impact the film had at the time. Loathed by the military and loved by many audiences, it was an example of the power of political satire to give voice to disillusionment and outrage, and to offer a barbed critique of contemporary politics.

Two days down and an assortment of ideas and issues had already been raised: the historical significance of political satire, its contemporaneous and retrospective reception (both Duck Soup and Strangelove enjoying cult statuses today), satire as critique, satire as corrective, satire and genre and many more. All of these questions and more would be discussed further as the week unfolded.

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