Book Review: ‘The Long Johns’

That’s the stuff!

‘The Long Johns’ by John Bird and John Fortune, Hutchinson, London, 1996, £9.99.

John Bird and John Fortune have been performing hilarious sketches on the Rory Bremner show for over six years now, and this is a transcribed collection of the best of them. They honed their comic talents and eye for the ridiculous in the 1960s at Soho’s Establishment club, which they co-founded with Peter Cook. Bird, before he moved to London, had been a member of the Socialist Party. It is not clear from this book how much Bird’s political views have changed since those days, though the indications are that they haven’t shifted a great deal, while the influence of Cook’s own particular brand of irony and satire is evident throughout.

The main targets of Bird and Fortune are the market economy’s peculiar idiocies and contradictions, together with the hypocrisy of the ruling class. Trotskyist Paul Foot has claimed that “Bird and Fortune have done more to undermine this government than all the speeches of the opposition put together”, and for once he might not be too wide of the mark. It is only to be hoped that they will not spare the Labour Party if and when Blair and company achieve office.

Several of the sketches included in this book are superb, and the famous one about the NHS internal market is arguably the best of all. In this Bird plays a Chief Executive of an NHS Trust. He is interviewed about his Trust’s decision to operate a market system for all NHS equipment, and elaborately explains the new procedure whereby, when a surgeon finds that he needs a scalpel during an operation, a message is sent to the Trust’s Scalpel Resource Manager who then puts in bids to other hospitals across Britain for a scalpel until the cheapest is found. “If that happens to be in Barrow-in-Furness, that is where he will get it from,” Bird says, only to be asked by interviewer Fortune “He will personally go and get it will he?”. “He will get it,” replies Bird, ” . . . we are talking about emergencies here.”

Beautiful stuff, and certainly worth a tenner if you have it.

Dave Perrin

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