Day 3 of This Is The Week That Is: A Celebration of Political Satire

‘You know the really great thing about a fudged coalition is that neither of us have to carry out a single one of our campaign manifestos.’ So said Alan B’Stard, the smug, greedy, vile and hilarious anti-hero of The New Statesman. The ghost of B’stard walked amongst us on Wednesday, with a visit from co-creator of the show, Laurence Marks. Laurence and his collaborator Maurice Gran have written some of television’s most enduring comic characters (Sharon, Tracey and Dorian of Birds of a Feather; Gary Sparrow of Goodnight Sweetheart; and of course B’Stard, played by the late, great Rik Mayall).

Laurence began by summoning the spirit of Alan B’Stard, reading out the obituary he had been asked to write for World Politics when Mayall died last year. He had at first thought that the editor wanted him to write Rik’s obit, which he did not feel comfortable writing. But the editor replied: ‘No, we don’t want Rik’s obituary, we want Alan B’Stard’s, “as if they were two separate beings”‘.

Laurence Marks at TITWTI. Image by Krasimira Butseva.
Laurence Marks at TITWTI. Image by Krasimira Butseva.

The obituary was full of deftly crafted comic quips: ‘Lord B’Stard will be remembered by those rich and privileged enough to have known him s a kind and generous man, a convivial host, brilliant raconteur, great patriot and extraordinary lover who perfected the eight second orgasm.’ It went on to chronicle his time in the Thatcher government, his rejection of conservative leader John Major as too dull – ‘he must be the only boy to have left the circus to join a firm of accountants’ – and his shift of allegiance to New Labour after meeting an ‘up and coming Tory’ – Tony Blair.

This humorous weaving of fact and fiction served as an apt beginning to the talk. Indeed, so prophetic are some of Alan B’Stard’s pronouncements – whether holding forth on the NHS, party politics, or Europe – they might as well have come from the mouths of contemporary politicians.

‘We hear an awful lot of leftie whinging about NHS waiting lists. Well the answer’s simple. Shut down the health service. Result. These days people seem to think they’ve a god given right to be cured.’

‘Why should the country that produced Shakespeare, Christopher Wren … cower down to the countries that produced Hitler, Napoleon, the Mafia, and the the Smurfs.’

‘Who in this country was not moved when that great Englishman, Gazza, wept bitter tears at the World Cup last year? People thought that he was crying because he had been booked by the umpire and so would miss the final. But that was not the reason. He was crying at the thought that the Conservative government, the only government this young hero had ever known, was behind in the opinion polls.’

Laurence went on to discuss the writing of The New Statesman and the culture that gave birth to satire in the 1980s. ‘Satire works best when we are bored and angry with a government’, he stated. Certainly, Maggie Thatcher’s government was reviled in many quarters throughout the 1980s. In many ways, Laurence’s historical overview shared parallels with that offered by Steve Nallon on Day 1. Both suggested that the Thatcher government’s bellicose grandstanding, and the forcefulness with which it pushed through its policies provided a fertile ground for the satirist’s pen.

After a screening of the BAFTA and Emmy Award-winning episode Who Shot Alan B’Stard, discussion turned to the show’s creation and Rik Mayall. Laurence provided insight into his writing process – his collaborations with Maurice Gran, their background in writing and time in America. The New Statesman was written for Rik Mayall, and so the character of Alan B’Stard was very much written with Rik in mind. In fact, B’Stard’s ‘qualities’ were actually exaggerated responses to the kinds of traits that Rik jokingly associated with himself. When Rik spoke of his penchant for murder, sex, duplicity and craziness, Laurence and Maurice replied: ‘you sound like a conservative back bencher.’ Thus was B’Stard born.

One of the most striking aspects of Laurence’s talk and The New Statesman screening was the extent to which fiction and reality so often blur. Apparently, after the success of The New Statesman, many conservative politicians adopted – without irony – B’Stard as a kind of role model or mascot. As horrendous as his actions and statements are, one need not look too far to see echoes of B’Stard in contemporary politics – whether UKIP on Europe, the Tories on the NHS, on New Labour on privatisation.

This is a show that will stand the test of time; and a talk that will be remembered by all who attended.

After a short break, the satire continued with a talk on animation from Senior Lecturer in Film and Media Van Norris, and a screening of Ralph Bakshi’s cult classic Heavy Traffic. Van discussed Bakshi’s outsider status within Hollywood. In many ways Heavy Traffic could be seen to offer far more radical critique of American society than many of the more famous films to emerged from late 1960s/early 1970s Hollywood (Mean StreetsThe GodfatherThe Graduate etc.) He suggested that satire – and in this case Bakshi’s satire – could provoke a sense of rage in viewers. Van went on to explore the ways in which Heavy Traffic might be seen as a sharp satire of both liberal and conservative America. On the one hand it attacks a society riddled with class inequality and racism. On the other, it critiques a middle class counterculture who fetishise (and perhaps also exploit) black and working class culture in their own superficial searches for ‘authenticity’.

The film itself was a veritable catalogue of formal, stylistic and thematic innovation. Jumping from animated scenes to live action episodes, Heavy Traffic was groundbreaking in its visuals, and extremely hard-hitting in terms of its subject matter. One of the best aspects of this event was the audience’s receptiveness to a film that most had never seen. We were all grateful to Van for introducing us to something as innovative and different as Heavy Traffic. This is a film rarely shown in the UK, and those present witnessed an underrated classic. As the event’s organiser, it is particularly satisfying to be able to expose audiences to new film experiences – films that people may not otherwise see – and for that I’d like to again thank Van for his talk and film selection, and Film Hub South East for making this possible.

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