Punching up

Posted: 24 August 2014 in life, don't talk to me about life, media, politics, writing
Tags: , , ,

Since I’ve just got back to Edinburgh after a lovely few days in (or is it ‘on’?) Skye, I’ve been thinking of satire. It’s difficult not to think of it in general, to be honest, having several stand up comedians as friends; not all of them would describe themselves as satirists by any means, but enough do.

Long time readers of this blog, and its predecessor, will know that in the dim and distant past, I used to write for – at that time – BBC Radio 4’s main weekly satirical show, WEEKENDING. Did I consider myself a satirist at the time? I’m not entirely sure I did; I just thought of it as a writing job, where part of the commission was to make a satirical point, and another perhaps larger part of the job was to make people laugh. Because that’s the difference between satire and comedy.

My favourite observation on the subject of satire remains that of the late Peter Cook, who said that:

“the purpose of satire isn’t to make the audience laugh; it’s to make them uncomfortable.”

which is very similar to what’s been said by others, about both satire and journalism: that its purpose is to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted.

(On a tangent, it’s always struck me as similar to what Warren Ellis said about horror: not a direct quote, but something along the lines of great horror doesn’t scare you, but it makes you feel as uncomfortable as hell… Anyway, tangent over. Back to satire.)

During the London run of Beyond The Fringe, it was reported at the time that portions of the audiences walked out at two points; the first won’t surprise you, the second may well do.

One sketch dealt with the futility of war and the necessity, it was felt at one point, for a meaningless sacrifice. Given the relative nearness of the Second World War, it’s perhaps no surprise that some felt angry and upset. However, another sketch poked fun at then Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan. In a memorable line, Cook-as-Macmillan, said “I have been around the world on your behalf… and at your expense.” And some of the audience got up in disgust at the very idea that it was acceptable to have a pop at the Prime Minister.

However, despite the success of satire, Cook was sanguine about its long term consequences, and satire’s ability to influence politics. When he opened The Establishment in London, he was asked whether he thought it would have an effect on the politics of the day. His reply?

Oh, I think it will have as great an effect as the Kit Kat Club did in preventing the rise to power of The Nazi party.

I think that everyone agrees that good satire, like good comedy, punches up. Punching down, taking a pop at those who are already disadvantaged in and by society, and at those who are already the targets of the ignorant, the stupid and the malicious, is seen – quite correctly – as lazy.

When I write “lazy”, I’m not necessarily talking about “playing to the crowd” nor being a “crowd pleaser”. It always puzzles me when comedians are thought of as less valid because their style is popular and when “crowd pleaser” becomes a perjorative criticism. As I wrote above, I’m fortunate enough to know a number of professional stand up comedians. Pleasing a crowd is hard work and if anyone thinks otherwise, they’re welcome to prove to me how easy it is.

But if you agree that satire should always punch up, then how do you decide what constitutes “up”? And who should be entrusted with that decision? There’s the one-size-fits-all description I used a moment ago:

those who are already disadvantaged in and by society, and at those who are already the targets of the ignorant, the stupid and the malicious

However, what about someone in a position of privilege who is unable to punch back? One can argue, for example, that politicians are always fair game; indeed, if you take a look at James Gillray’s cartoons and caricatures from the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, they’re at least as vicious and just plain nasty as anything Spitting Image ever produced. And his weren’t the only ones…

Take a look at this cartoon. The subject? Our first Prime Minister, Robert Walpole.

And this, from the time of William Pitt the Younger, about the Bank of England policy to do with the bank only circulating paper notes from then on, instead of honouring amounts in gold coinage. Rumors circulated that the Bank’s coin was merely being held in reserve to send to the Continent in support of and to finance the war.

The bank, portrayed as an elderly virgin, says:

‘Murder! Murder! Rape! Murder! O you villain! What, have I kept my honour so long to have it broke up by you at last? O murder! Rape! Ravishment! Ruin! Ruin! Ruin!!!’

Where did you think the nickname of the Bank of England of The ‘Old Lady of Threadneedle Street’ came from?

So, politicians are fair game, and banks and bankers always have been. Each of those, and individual examples of those, can hit back, of course. It wasn’t unusual, in the times of Spitting Image, for the politicians to comment that the puppets of course, of course, were wonderful, but the scripts were peurile and just flatly inaccurate. Such responses were always common when Yes, Minister and its sequel were broadcast. Politicians always said that the series got the civil service spot on but were unfair to politicians. And those civil servants who would comment, usually off the record, of course said the reverse, that Yes, Minister got the politicians exactly right, but were woefully inaccurate about the civil service. The same comments once again came to the fore when The Thick Of It was on television.

So, what about the Royal Family? They are surely fair game; exemplars of privilege, the epitome of inherited privilege in fact. And from the eighteenth century onwards (maybe before) satirists have been taking a pop at them. But is it punching up to do so… when they can’t hit back? Constitutionally, I suppose, there’s nothing actually stopping them doing so, but they don’t. They can’t. They just… can’t. And on the rare occasions when it’s let slip that a cartoon or a piece has been received with great hurt, there’s something faintly icky about both the piece and the reaction.

Once again, who decides what punching up actually constitutes? Would satire written by someone with fewer advantages in life be inherently more satirical than something written by someone from a solidly-middle class background? Are there targets that would be considered ‘punching up’ by some but not ‘punching up’ if someone from another background wrote exactly the same piece?

Because that would imply, horribly, that there’s a class structure to satire beyond the targets themselves; that the quality of satire depends upon the origins and lack of privilege of the satirist. And that’s something I suspect Peter Cook would have had problems with… and not for the first time, I’d be in complete agreement with him.

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