All Satirical Passion Spent..?

There’s a fine article by Nick Cohen on, and presumably in the paper edition too, on satirical passion. The first line kicks it of wonderfully provocatively: “Satirists are natural conservatives.”

Cohen opens with a brief historical outline of role of satire, which he the follows up with a savage attack on satire post Thatcherism and Blairism, culminating in the ITV puppet show Headcases. No matter what your views are on that particular show, Cohen undeniably makes some very valid points.

ITV billed the first series as the successor to Spitting Image. If only this were true. The writers had no energy and no ardour. It did not take long for the viewer to guess that they were happy with the world as it is.


In The New Elites, his study of modern culture, George Walden dissected Oxbridge-educated media grandees who make a career out of assuming the masses are ignorant. The makers of Headcases proved his point. Before the series began, they unblushingly told the Times that they wouldn’t pick on Jack Straw, Ed Balls, David Davis and Vince Cable because they didn’t think the viewers knew who they were. Even if they were right, and I’m not sure they are, Straw is Labour’s most devious survivor, while any decent satirist would have thanked the gods for giving him the bombastic, bullying Balls to play with. If their audience didn’t know who they were, they would make them know by the force of their anger and comic invention.

Not so the writers of Headcases. They presumed that the poor stupid little dears would switch channels if presented with any thing outside the comfort zone. All the proles wanted to know about was celebrities, so Headcases gave them endless spoofs of Posh and Becks.

Anyone who dabbles in satire should read this article in full.
Not necessarily for the attack on Headcases in particular, but the wider problem that it undoubtedly represents.



3 Responses to “All Satirical Passion Spent..?”

  1. Adams Says:

    Yes, a good article, and I love the magazine so far.

    To bring up Headcases in this important subject is, I think, irrelevant. It’s a small, mistaken programme. It’s not the ‘New Spitting Image’ and only said it was to get some publicity.

    Let’s focus on proper satire. Columnists, stand-ups, sketch-writers and cartoonists. And I think they’re doing fine. Rory Bremner, Craig Brown, Matthew Parris, your good self Morten, and there are many others. The limits are always going to be the Brass Eye factor (Daily Mail outrage) and the timidity of Editors in general. And part of that is, yes, don’t scare the punters. Or confuse them.
    However, satirists should speak to everyone. Not just the Westminster Village or ‘chattering classes’, as they sometimes do now.
    To be honest, however bad Ed Balls may be, he is not yet on on the nation’s conscience. Yes, one could struggle to expose him every day in a cartoon or column, for example, but if he’s not well enough known, he’s not well enough known. Full stop. You can work your fingers raw drubbing him every day, but only a “publicly aware” story (dodgy political ‘initiative’, controversial policy, faux pas, scandal… ) will bring him fully to the spotlight.

    Finally, I believe Cohen is being depressive. Quote: “To call satire a conservative art is another way of saying that it is the art of the defeated.” Well he was the one who called satirists conservative. I disagree. Good ones do not harbour “nostalgia and alarm” but look forward to a less imperfect society. Above all, they sniff a fault a mile off, draw attention to it, but, above all, make sure the punter gets their drift!

  2. poldraw Says:

    Well put Adams.
    Singling out Headcases like this is largely irrelevant. That show’s main problem was, as you indicate, being compared to Spitting Image in the first place.

    And of course, there is a lot of good satire around. The ones you mention and many more, with Bremner, Bird and Fortune perhaps standing tallest of all, with their well researched material and intelligent presentation.

    I thought Cohen made an interesting argument, although as you I don’t necessarily agree with all of it.

    Where I tend to agree with him though, is on what and who satirists should tackle.

    “(…)while any decent satirist would have thanked the gods for giving him the bombastic, bullying Balls to play with. If their audience didn’t know who they were, they would make them know by the force of their anger and comic invention.”

    You say:
    “if he’s not well enough known, he’s not well enough known. Full stop.”

    I’m sure this can apply to junior ministers and opposition back benchers, but this is the PM’s right hand man we’re talking about. One of the most powerful Secretaries of State in the Government!

    So although I agree with your basic point, the problem is not that in itself, but the fact that satirists, and perhaps to a larger extent their editors, underestimates what is in the nation’s conscience.

    Because of the format it’s not easy to have a go at the lesser known figures and issues in a political cartoon. However, if it’s well executed a satirical radio or tv program can do it to great effect – as Bremner, Bird and Fortune repeatedly proves.

  3. Adams Says:

    Agree with everything there Morten. I guess the problem for cartoonists is, as you say, a very limited ‘one-off’ forum.
    Bremner has a much much wider stage, and as you say, fills it perfectly.

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