Beyond the fringe – and wholly safe
17 February 2009
Proving that life can sometimes come up with punchlines with which no satirists could compete, Dudley Moore and Peter Cook have both been in the news this week. Moore, who died in 2002, is being remembered by his rather odd-sounding last wife, Nicole Rothschild, who is reported to be writing a memoir in which Cuddly Dudley is presented as drug-addled sex addict.
Cook, who as it happens would have been proud of that characterisation, is being remembered with a heritage plaque in Soho. Thirty-nine years ago, Cook, with Nick Luard, set up the Establishment, a club which was said to have played a significant part in the launch of England’s satire boom. At the unveiling of the plaque on its wall this week, the Radio One DJ Mike Read did the honours and Barry Cryer was on tribute duty.
The English are still rather proud of the 1960s satire boom – it is to light-entertainment buffs what the 1966 World Cub is to football fans. According to most social historians, it was the Establishment Club and Beyond the Fringe, the revue which opened at the Fortune Theatre in 1961, which spelt the end of the age of deference. It was acceptable at last to laugh at politicians.
Nothing, it is said, has been quite the same since. But the idea that Peter Cook and the satirists of the early 1960s were involved in something brave and revolutionary has been considerably exaggerated. The name of the Establishment Club, set up by two well-heeled public schoolboys, was less ironic than they may have intended. In its heyday, the club was as near to the epicentre of fashionable London as it was possible to be. The epitome of what a few years later Tom Wolfe would describe as “radical chic”, it was replacing one kind of establishment with another.
Reviewing Beyond the Fringe, Alan Brien wrote that “we audiences have tasted our own blood and we like it”. The same could be said for members of the political elite. Far from being the sort of show of which the respectable would be wary, it was a mainstream West End hit. The then-prime minister, Harold Macmillan, attended one night, as did the Queen. Its Broadway production played to the Kennedys.
So when old-timers recall the daring of those involved in the so-called “satire boom”, and bemoan the fact that there is no one writing now with the savage brilliance of Peter Cook, it is worth remembering that, for all its cleverness, the satire of those days rarely penetrated too far below the flesh; the blade tickled and scratched, but rarely if ever stabbed in the way that the best of today’s political comedy manages to do. Imagine Gordon Brown, the Queen and the Obamas attending, say, a stage version of The Thick of It or the premiere of a film by Chris Morris.
By its nature, political satire is always in danger of becoming absorbed into the very establishment which it sets out to mock. The most interesting and dangerous comic writers and performers are aware of the dangers of becoming a much-loved court jester to the nation.
It was those pressures and temptations which made Peter Cook so restless, so uncomfortable in his own skin, once those exciting days of youthful satire were over.
The pen is mightier than the analyst’s couch
Here is some good news for the creative writing industry. A Californian neuroscientist has announced that writing is good therapy, confirming the great double fantasy of those who dream of becoming authors: not only can their words make them money, but expressing themselves will also make them happier and saner.
Dr Matthew Lieberman told the American Association for the Advancement of Science that putting feelings into words provides “unintentional emotion-regulation”. Writing, in other words, does not stimulate a great cathartic release. It is a suppressant not a stimulant, and actually reduces activity in the part of the brain, the amygdala, that is associated with emotion and fear.
There is a flaw to this theory of writing as a pathway to sanity and tranquillity: authors.
The briefest glance at the private lives of writers, past and present, great and obscure, hardly indicates healthily regulated amygdalas. In fact, it would be difficult to imagine a more psychologically dysfunctional profession, with the possible exception of MPs.
Dr Lieberman is ready for that argument. Authors, he says, are mostly troubled souls who write in reaction to profound emotional problems: “You have to ask yourself what they would be like without writing.” That is, they may be nutty, but without that therapeutic scribbling they would be even nuttier.
That’s more than I need to know, John
A sure sign that a craze is past its peak is when politicians eagerly but belatedly fall under its spell.
John Prescott has just discovered “25 Random Things About Me”, a game of light exhibitionism played on Facebook, and has been eager to join in. His first revelation is that he has seen the film Billy Elliot six times and it is the only film to make him cry. Unexpectedly, this information entirely confirms the claims made for 25 Random Things. In its own quietly humiliating way, it is far more revealing than a full-length newspaper profile.