As I’m finishing off my book on Channel 4’s history, I’ve been reflecting on the elements and the stars missing from today’s TV, despite the huge choice available and nightly dilemmas about what to watch. The strand I miss most is satire, above all political satire originating from the state of being British, which seems to have died a quiet death, despite the extraordinary period we are living through.
The last Spitting Image, ITV’s scabrous puppet show, was broadcast in 1996. It ended after 18 series, due to declining ratings and the sheer cost of making the programme and the puppets. But how it savagely sent up Margaret Thatcher (portrayed as a tyrant with a strong dislike of the French), John Major (grey and dull, lover of peas), Ronald Reagan (a bumbling fool) and the Royal Family going through an especially difficult transition, with Diana as a publicity-seeking Sloane Ranger.
There was an attempt to revive the show in 2006, which came to nothing, but imagine what Spitting Image or something like it would make of today’s leaders and sinners: Jeremy Corbyn on his allotment, Philip Green on his yacht, Donald Trump on his wall. The targets are there, and they’re bigger than ever.
Political impersonation has largely disappeared
Even the gentler form of situation comedy, as in Antony Jay’s Yes Minister, Yes, Prime Minister and Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It are currently missing from our screens, though some teasing is tucked away late at night on This Week. Iannucci is greatly needed: the last creation of his I watched and enjoyed was the hilarious film Death of Stalin.
As the upholder of dark malevolent satire, Charlie Brooker is our privateer: his first series of Black Mirror in 2011 featured a David Cameron figure having sex with a pig to save a popular member of the Royal Family. To be fair, satire does continue on Channel 4 with The Windsors, a take-off of the Royal Family.
But political impersonation has largely disappeared. Rory Bremner and the two Johns in Bremner, Bird and Fortune focused on hard-edged political satire and rib-tickling impressions by Bremner. A fading memory. I think viewers really miss the comedy sketch show, in which writer/comedians depict a series of absurd characters and situations.
In current affairs, we are badly served. Have I Got News for You starring Ian Hislop and Paul Merton has been on air since 1990 and is the recipient of a lifetime comedy award: there’s no sign of any hunger to replace it, though The Last Leg has vigour.
There’s a view that TV and radio satire has been sacrificed to political correctness and the dampening effect of the Ofcom-policed impartiality code, ensuring balanced coverage of politics in the broadcasting sector. But it is also the case that topical UK-focused satire does not repeat well or have international appeal, and our top writers are lucratively engaged elsewhere. Whatever the reasons, I say to broadcasters: take your courage in both hands. Scout for some brave new talent.