Comedy no better than a Victorian freak show

Now for your delectation and amusement, a 3ft 6in dwarf will engage in comic capers, falling out of cars, climbing bookshelves, getting stuck in a lavatory, and much more. Then, for those of a political bent, a thigh-slapping routine will be enacted, involving a kidnapped princess and a Prime Minister who has to have sex with a pig, watched by everyone in the country, in order to get her released.

The trailers for two TV series, currently being shown on prime-time terrestrial television were not, admittedly, quite that blunt. The executives behind the BBC’s Life’s Too Short and Channel Four’s Black Mirror would hate it to be thought that they are peddling exploitative entertainment descended from medieval fairs via a decadent nightclub in 1930s Berlin.

These programmes are at the serious end of comedy drama. Dealing with important issues, they attract heavyweight acting talent. Liam Neeson, Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp guest in the dwarf comedy. The pig story had a stellar cast, headed by Rory Kinnear and Lindsay Duncan. Most important of all, the writing and direction were from the new aristocrats of sophisticated television comedy, Stephen Merchant, Ricky Gervais and Charlie Brooker.

Anyone doubting how confused we have become about what is acceptably comic needs only to look at these hip, fashionable new comedy dramas, and the relatively easy ride they have been given. There may be universal outrage when a fathead controversialist says something idiotic on a chat show, but if a sainted band of liberal-minded ironists put out entire programmes which pander to the very prejudices and prurience they claim to be satirising, they are praised for their daring.

Yet can there really be any doubt that, in every episode of Life’s Too Short, the laughs are about a “little person”, as the careful new phrase has it, in a big world? The spin has been worthy of Downing Street – “People need to see the difference between programmes that satirise/ highlight/ reflect exploitation and programmes that actually exploit,” Gervais has tweeted – but the truth is obvious. We are laughing at dwarves, not with them. To judge by its first episode, the same hypocrisy lies at the heart of Brooker’s Black Mirror. The story of a Prime Minister committing bestiality to save a princess and his career sounds promising enough when the object of the alleged satire is said to be a prurient general public, hooked on sensation and social media. References to Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It were dutifully trotted out in previews.

The problem is that, like Gervais and Merchant, Brooker wants it both ways. They all exploit while deploring exploitation. In the end, this satire about public prurience depended entirely for its effect on the shock value of the PM having sex with a pig.

Nothing is more ripe for hard-hitting comedy than the confusion that surrounds prejudice, or than the dangerous power of the internet, and there is a desperate shortage of edgy TV drama or comedy which is genuinely discomfiting, like Chris Morris’s brilliant and prophetic Brass Eye.

The new generation of successful mid-career comedy writers – the irony boys – have huge power but, while appearing to be breaking taboos, they invariably take the easy option.

Series like Life’s Too Short or Black Mirror may tick the right boxes for commissioning editors – those marked “contemporary satire” and “social commentary” – but, in reality, they challenge nothing. Beneath a veneer of irony, the laughs and thrills they serve up are as base as anything offered in a Victorian freak show.

Perhaps those who become so exercised by the latest stupid thing said by Jeremy Clarkson might direct their complaints to where they are truly deserved. These comedies are imitating satire, but their humour is too easy, comfortable and conservative.

Give a child a book for Christmas: the gift is solace and companionship

Britain has become so inured to bad news about our children that a devastating survey by the National Literacy Trust has received scant media coverage. It should be on the office wall of every minister, MP and local councillor.

Of 18,000 children questioned, one third did not own a single book. Translated across the country, the poll equates to almost four million bookless children. To our shame, the figure has more than trebled in the past seven years. The effect on literacy, not to mention the quality of present and future life, is incalculable.

Owning a physical printed book can provide escape, solace and companionship to a child: the right book, given for Christmas, will be remembered down the years.

As for those children with no books on the shelves at home, the adult world can provide a simple, lasting gift for Christmas: an end to the destruction of our libraries.