Between the Lines: “Life under capitalism is a serious business . . .”

Life under capitalism is a serious business, but there are some laughs along the way, often at the expense of the rulers rather than the ruled. Modern political humour comes in a variety of forms, several of which have received a TV airing in recent weeks. Most aim their fire at the easiest targets of them all politicians — and with varying degrees of effectiveness.

Spitting Image (ITV, Sundays, 10pm). the long-running puppet show, attempts political comedy via the art of caricature and lampoonery. and not really as successfully as when it began in Thatcher’s heyday. Its 1987 General Election special with Thatcher’s cabinet rigged out in lederhosen singing “Tomorrow belongs to me” was a masterly piece of political lampoonery at a time when tomorrow really did seem to belong to them, with their market lunacies and anti-trade unionism all fuelled by the prejudices of the wide-boys in the City

Since then things have turned sour for the economy and the Conservatives alike, and Spitting Image has been struggling hard to keep up with the trend. When “personalities” abound in the realm of capitalist politics caricature is in vogue, but when confronted with the present political vacuum, it loses its bite and has to look elsewhere for entertainment.

A popular offshoot of caricature has been the art of mimickry and impression. Mike Yarwood made this popular in the 1970s with his homely impersonations of Wilson and Callaghan, but just like them, what he said was always secondary to the way he said it. Yarwood eventually took to the bottle when his principal targets left the political scene, leaving him devoid of replacements. His line in political impressionism was eventually taken up by Rory Bremner (C4. Saturdays. 10.05pm and Wednesdays. 11.05pm). Bremner. who is possibly no more talented a mimic than Yarwood, succeeds where Yarwood failed through greater flexibility and better scripts. Bremner aims at much more than simply poking fun from the sidelines and consequently his show is often one of the most overtly political on television. Its mimickry is frequently blended with satire to highlight the cant and hypocrisy of the ruling elite in society. The politician/interviewer sketches involving John Bird have been particularly effective and haven’t shirked from showing up not just the insanities of the political process itself but the market system which dictates the parameters within which politicians are bound. Bremner and his supporting cast appear to have a deep antipathy towards the market economy which can only be applauded by socialists, though unsurprisingly it has already provoked the wrath of Tory politicians and sections of the tabloid press.

A more subtle approach to political comment has recently been provided by Andrew Marshall and David Renwick’s new black comedy If You See God, Tell Him (BBC 1, Thursdays. 9.30pm). In this sitcom the lead character, played by Richard Briers, has suffered a freak accident which has left him with a thirty-second attention span ideal for memorizing TV adverts, but little else. Briers’s character becomes obsessed with TV advertising, organizing his life around what he has been influenced to buy, and spending his “happiest” hours attempting to get his dishes whiter than white with the latest revolutionary brand of washing-up liquid. Needless to say, the compensation money from his accident is spent within a matter of weeks and his life becomes a market-driven living nightmare in every sense.

Just like One Foot In The Grave, which emerged from the same writing stable, If You See God, Tell Him takes the particularly frustrating aspects of capitalist life and magnifies them until they emerge at the level of obsession. The humour has a somewhat sick edge to it in parts, and will not be to everybody’s taste, but it sure beats the trash usually served up as an excuse for situation comedy. And it is refreshing to see a sitcom — often the most tame form of comedy — which shows a willingness to illuminate some of the inanities and insanities of the market system.

Dave Perrin