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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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.

Day 1 of This Is The Week That Is: A Celebration of Political Satire

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 Nallon Speaking at This Is the Week That Is. Image by Krasimira Butseva.
Steve Nallon Speaking at This Is the Week That Is. Image by Krasimira Butseva.
Spitting Image at TITWTI. Image by Krasimira Butseva.
Spitting Image at TITWTI. Image by Krasimira Butseva.

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.

David Cameron Puppet. Image courtesy of Steve Nallon.
David Cameron Puppet. Image courtesy of Steve Nallon.
David Cameron Spitting Image Puppet. Image courtesy of Steve Nallon.
David Cameron Spitting Image Puppet. Image courtesy of Steve Nallon.

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.

TITWTI Brochures. Image by Krasimira Butseva.
TITWTI Brochures. Image by Krasimira Butseva.

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

The Marx Brothers in Duck Soup.
The Marx Brothers in Duck Soup.

This Is the Week That Is Preview

Just a quick note – we’re looking forward to kicking the event off tomorrow with a talk from Steve Nallon. Only a handful of tickets left for this one, so get reserving. Portsmouth News have previewed us today – link here. Hope to see you there.

B’Stards Past and Present: An Interview with Laurence Marks

Alan B'Stard (Rik Mayall) in Parliment, seen here with his creators Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran.
Alan B’Stard (Rik Mayall) in Parliment, seen here with his creators Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran.

Imagine Alan B’Stard, from the TV comedy satire The New Statesman, smirking and oozing sincerity on doorsteps and at hustings, appealing for votes in the run up to May’s General Election.

And perhaps Alan – aka the late, great comedian and actor Rik Mayall – will not be standing for Parliament as a Conservative or as the architect of New Labour, as he did in the hit 1980/90s television series or the 2006 stage play.

In today’s climate Alan, that selfish, greedy, dishonest, devious, lecherous, sadistic, and self-serving little shit, could be at home in almost any political party.  So says co-creator Laurence Marks (one half of writing team Marks & Gran) who will be speaking at This Is the Week That Is at the University of Portsmouth’s Eldon Building at 4pm on Wednesday April 15.

Laurence believes that it would be wrong and probably “disrespectful” to consider bringing back Alan B’Stard without Mayall. “It was always written with Rik in mind,” Laurence said. “He can never be replaced.”

However, he and Maurice are considering the possibility of soon introducing a new and equally bizarre character – but this time of the left.

“He might look back at the late 70s and the winter of discontent as the best time of his life. He might say things like: ‘I can remember bodies rotting in the street. Y’know, people looked up to trade unionists in those days.’ He would have enjoyed free holidays to Moscow with tickets supplied by a fraternal organisation. He might not have agreed with this orgnisation but at least they provided free tickets to visit Red Square.”

Laurence will also be showing the 1990 Bafta award-winning episode of The New Statesman, “Who Shot Alan B’Stard?” This is where Alan is recovering in hospital but is in time to cast the deciding Commons vote to bring back capital punishment, even gaining the contract to have the new gallows built.

The show spanned the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, sometimes uncannily pre-empting real-life events. In the episode ‘Sex Is Wrong’, Alan’s moral regeneration campaign foreshadowed Major’s 1993 ‘Back To Basics’ strategy.

Alan’s sexual antics anticipated scandals involving MPs while his dodgy financial dealings were echoed by similar real life events involving our elected representatives.

The Daily Mirror once used the headline, “What a B’Stard” to describe an MP who had left his loyal wife for a mistress. “It was at this moment that we realized we had got closer to the political underbelly than any of the politicians would have liked”, added Laurence.

Reserve tickets for Laurence’s talk and The New Statesman screening here

Dr Strangelove at No. 6

Malisa Sledmere – Secretary of Defence

“You can’t fight in here! This is the war room.”

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Malisa Sledmere is a founding member of No. 6 Cinema, Portsmouth’s only independent cinema. Located in the city’s historic dockyard, No. 6 has for some years now been showing a diverse range of art house, classic and cult films. The largest screen in the South East, and a fantastic venue, No. 6 will be holding a special screening of Dr Strangelove on Tuesday April 14.

This Is the Week That Is caught up with Malisa as preparations for the event were underway.

TITWTI: What’s your favourite satirical film/television programme?

MS: Some of my favourite satirical sketches came to me via my father’s record collection. He had been to see the live performance of ‘Beyond the Fringe’ and had bought the LP version and I loved it. I listened to it over and over and the more I listened the funnier it became, strange really because I was probably listening to it in the early ’70’s, quite a long time after it had been written.

‘Beyond the Fringe’ was the precursor to ‘That was the Week that Was’ which so brilliantly took up the baton of lampooning authority. My father in law worked at the BBC in those days. He was a floor manager at the BBC and worked on TW3. We often have a titter when we see the much-reeled-out clip of him rushing in to defend Bernard Levin from Desmond Leslie who famously punched Levin on live TV.

Amongst the films I love are ‘The Man in the White Suit’ with Alec Guinness and ‘I’m Alright Jack’ with the inimitable Peter Sellers.

TITWTI: Is there a current politician you feeling deserving of a good lampooning?

MS: Hard to think of anyone who deserves it as much as the Conservative party in the days of Maggie Thatcher. Nothing really beats ‘Spitting Image’ and their wicked portrayal of Thatcher and Tebbit, whose personas became progressively more extreme. Politicians now seem quite anodyne in comparison. To my mind all the royals deserve whatever comes their way.

TITWTI: What are your views on the current state of political satire? Is there much around today?

MS: I think there is but maybe it isn’t as shocking as it was in the early ’60’s when people were much more deferent than they are today. I was watching a clip of a guy called John Oliver who is British but has a show in the US called ‘Last Week Tonight’. He was laying into FIFA who deserve it in spades, he flagged up that the headquarters boardroom of FIFA is modeled on Dr Strangelove’s famous war room! Anyway, do stop worrying about the bomb and come and see Dr Strangelove at No. 6 on Tuesday April 14th.

To book tickets for Dr Strangelove visit the No. 6 website: https://www.no6cinema.co.uk/films/dr-strangelove-or-how-i-learnt-to-stop-worrying-and-love-the-bomb 

Jedi Got News for You

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Yoda

Yoda_Empire_Strikes_Back

 Cable

A leading local Labour politician this week compared Government Business Secretary Vince Cable to Yoda, the little green sage from the Hollywood blockbuster Star Wars. John Ferrett, who is standing in the General election in May, was speaking as plans were revealed for a week devoted to political satire, to be held at the university of Portsmouth from Monday April 13-17. Cllr Ferrett is leader of the Labour group on Portsmouth City council and represents Paulsgrove ward. Protesting against the Lib Dems in the Coalition Government, Cllr Ferrett said: “Cable looks a bit like Yoda and in terms of his utterances always sounds similarly opaque. And he’s always trying to paint himself as an honest broker. “I also wasn’t happy about the way uncle Vince sold off the Royal Mail. He didn’t have to do it.” Talking about his favourite satire, he mentioned Spitting Image, which will be one of the subjects being discussed during the event. Indeed, the Voice of Maggie Thatcher, Steve Nallon, will be speaking about his role on Monday 13 April at 4pm. Cllr Ferrett said the show gave him the opportunity in the 1980s to laugh at the then Tory Cabinet. “I liked seeing Kenneth Baker portrayed as a slug and former Prime Minister John Major as a grey character. And then there was Lib Dem David Steele who was this tiny creature sitting in the top pocket of Social Democrat David Owen.” However, when it comes to politicians being funny, many according to Cllr Ferrett, fear a backlash – which is what happened to former Labour Shadow Attorney General Emily Thornberry MP. She was famously forced to resign her job over a “funny” tweet in which she was accused of sneering at a house with England flags. He added: ”At the end of the day a politician has to be themself. I’ve had my fair share of criticism but that’s politics. You don’t go into it unless you’re prepared to stand up for what you believe in.” Who are the funny politicians today? Cllr Ferrett suggests they include Labour MPs Stephen Pound and Dennis Skinner and Tory Kenneth Clarke. He also criticised the Lib Dems over their about turn on tuition fees at the last General election five years ago. “What can be worse than promising not to touch tuition fees and then putting them up as soon as you go into a coalition government?” Cllr Ferrett added that the effect on the increase in fees has been widely felt by students at Portsmouth University.