That Was Then, This Is Now – Satire from JFK to Savile

Last night I went to the British Film Institute’s celebration of 50 years of the breakthrough TV satire programme, That Was The Week That Was. (TW3). It featured many of the original cast, writers and modern satirists, and clips including this controversial one above.

It wasn’t seeing the song using the N word and dancing black and white minstrels about the KKK murders and lynchings in Mississippi that did it (though it’s very, very hard to stomach even if you appreciate the savage irony intended). It wasn’t even the idea of the TW3 cast fighting back the tears as they sang a sentimental song about JFK, 24 hours after his assassination. It was the closing script, addressed to camera, when the performers in that JFK special, talked about understanding people’s fear that the “liberalism” he represented might be threatened. The content crossed the line into politically biased comment. To a BBC journalist working today, such a transgression is truly shocking. And if there was a revelation for me, it was the realization of how self consciously alert BBC news staff are to the danger of being accused of liberal bias. And how much effort goes into avoiding accusations of partiality.

Before an audience that included one former DG forced to resign under political pressure (Greg Dyke) the mood quickly shifted from pleasant reminiscence to an honest, and often quite raw debate about what had happened to the atmosphere within which programme producers operate. Rory Bremner, who had to go to Channel 4 to find an outlet for the more overtly political satire he wished to pursue in the 90s, reflected on the fact that “What we call satire is now light entertainment” with panel shows filling the place of more daring work.

TW3 originally went out with an open ended transmission – it could run on for who knows how long? The concept is inconceivable now. David Frost remembered how there was a much shorter command chain. “[The senior  executive] Alasdair Milne protected  TW3 from the pressure of MPs and the establishment,” he recalled. Milne was to be a future DG whose resignation followed what’s widely regarded as  pressure from Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. As TW3 and Private Eye writers reflected on what they regarded as the cooked up outrage of anti-BBC Fleet St bias, TW3 presenter David Frost said he didn’t fully appreciate just how much they were shielded from that at the time. “He [Milne] wouldn’t let the Director General and others read the script. He read it himself and said he would take responsibility if anything went wrong.”

15 years later, producer John Lloyd (Not The Nine O’ Clock News, Spitting Image) said he benefited too from that culture of trust. “The producer was responsible. There was no referral upwards. It was your responsibility and if you made a mistake you were carpeted [by your boss] and then your boss defended you to the hilt.” Lloyd was reflecting on the Corporation’s current woeful morale, since the failings of the Jimmy Savile Newsnight investigation. An obsession with “compliance” by tier after tier of managers, he and Bremner remarked, had suffocated satire. “Now,” said Lloyd, “everyone’s jibbering in fright if you do anything at all.” He contrasted it to his experience on Not The Nine O’ Clock News when, he said, he was “being encouraged to provoke and challenge.” And remarked on the current BBC climate:   “Now no one will take responsibility either when something goes wrong.” Lloyd pointed out that trusted to make their own decisions, and backed by executives who believed in them, all with the security of real jobs and not shortterm contracts, producers like him didn’t feel they were in danger. “I don’t think I’ve ever taken any risks. I’ve never been sued,” he said. Though he did have to pay the former newsreader Reginald Bosanquet, “for saying he drank too much.”

It wasn’t just about religious sensitivity, either. The final clips of the evening were from that post-JFK assassination programme. Ian Hislop stirred up some real tension in the audience when he criticized script and tone. “There’s no way that level of uncritical sentimentality would happen now,” he pointed out. In the audience the lyric writer of the ballad sung by Millicent Martin that night, said that with hindsight the final verse was mawkish and should have never been aired. TW3 writer and Private Eye co-founder Christopher Booker, who had mostly been stirring up boyish mischief during the evening, as Gerald Kaufman claimed credit for an idea lifted from Booker’s Private Eye, made a confession about that JFK show too. He admitted, that looking back now, the JFK material was too “mawkish.” But some people in the audience felt comparisons with the death of Diana and even 9/11 were unfair. Hislop was pressed to give an example of a jokey cover about an Obama assassination. He did and reminded the audience of the 9/11 Private Eye cover that referred to George Bush’s famous inaction for minutes after being informed by an official of the attacks while reading to pre-schoolers in a classroom.  “It’s Armageddon, sir,” and responding, “Armageddon outta here.” While Hislop didn’t spell it out, the fact is that like the Diana cover about the crowds, the satire was directed NOT at the victims, but at aspects of questionable behaviour. Was there nothing, about gun control, for example,  said Hislop that might have been relevant to comment on? But an increasingly vocal number of people in the audience were getting angry and shouting out. It was strange to have some vocal older members of the public “who remember how it felt”, “we were there” jam the metaphorical switchboard in the BFI auditorium. Here was a clash over satire and “taste” taking place in our midst.

Overall though, Booker felt “We are still living in the [freer] mental universe created in the early 60s” by the satire boom. Hislop felt the 60s satirists had helped focus attention on the right targets — the powerful. But then and now a government presided over by an old Etonian prime minister, is sent up in the media. Then and now politicians turned up to watch themselves being parodied – then at Peter Cook’s The Establishment club, now they think they’re hilarious when they publically declare some incident in their life as being “just like something out of The Thick of It”.  Bremner though distinguished between cynicism and healthy skepticism in emphasizing the positive role satire can and should still play in our democracy. He’s right that modern politicians aren’t parodied by actors in the way that all PMs were till Tony Blair. But David Cameron goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid comparisons to his Private Eye Dave Snooty parody, including turning up at a friend’s wedding in a lounge suit rather than a morning suit. And how do you do a puppet version of a politician as popular and recognised as London mayor Boris “man on a wire” Johnson?

What shone through overall was the calibre not just of the writing, but especially of performers. The TW3 players were backed by 20+ writers. Lance Percival told me before the event that it was the writers who made it, but watching the clips I would disagree. The singing cardinals included the much missed Willie Rushton and Roy Kinnear, but also the joyously understated Kenneth Cope. Percival, who managed to steal the evening on stage, also revealed the level of preparation. Still a boyish presence, he revealed he read every newspaper, watched and listened to every news report over the week, ready for that moment at the end of each show where he would improvise a calypso (that 60s calypso boom that was not to last) to ideas from the audience. Stirring up audience complaints was proof you’d done your job. Percival recalled with pride a small boy pointing him out to his father in a shop: “Look, dad, it’s one of those bastards off the television”

Who in television would dare to commission, not a exploitative reality tv show, but such a genuinely daring programme now?

Further reading/listening

What The Hell’s The Presidency for? LBJ and JFK – My R3 interview with LBJ biographer Robert Caro about the assassination

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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