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They Wouldn't Change a Single Thing: British Satire Movies

  The British disease is what is often called its class system, but the antidote in the mind of many a commentator is the power of laughter, and the nation's comedy has long had a tradition of taking the great and the good down a peg or two, though even in the days of Hogarth and Gillray it was debatable precisely how beneficial to increasing any kind of equality or social justice their prints of various scenes had on the general population. As with much of satire, the audience laughs because it recognises the situation being sent up, or appreciates the point made, but whether it ever changes their behaviour in their daily lives was a rather more questionable proposition when they tended to appreciate whatever reinforced the opinions they already had. When the British film industry happened along, it took its own sweet time in bringing the satire to the screen.

Although the likes of Will Hay and George Formby were happy to lampoon authority figures, we never had the impression they were setting about the establishment with teeth bared and claws out, there was something reassuring about knowing the powers that be were just as incompetent as you would like to think, even if it wasn’t entirely the case. It took until the nineteen-fifties for the satire boom to truly take off, with such works as the comedies from the Boulting Brothers, twins who started their campaign of lampoonery with films like Private's Progress (taking on the Army life that the audience of austerity Britain would be all too familiar with) and especially 1958’s I'm All Right Jack, a withering observation of how the country was populated with an everyone out for themselves mentality, Peter Sellers leading the charge as trade union leader Fred Kite, whose bullheadedness oddly makes him almost sympathetic.

There were no soft targets in Jack, everything was taken down in surgeon-like precision, so much so that the only conclusion the protagonist Ian Carmichael can draw is that the whole lot of them were not worth getting involved with, and therefore the only solution was to leave them all to it and retreat to join a nudist camp. This was rather defeatist, to say the least, but after witnessing the self-serving, unyielding even to common sense bunch that the film portrayed, you could sympathise; when the Boultings' rivals Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat came up with their own political comedy Left Right and Centre soon after, sharp eyes would notice Alastair Sim's Lord of the manor has provision for a nudist camp in the grounds of his stately home, perhaps a nod to Jack. Otherwise, it was more concerned with the fun it could have if a Conservative and Labour candidate fell in love, but its point that there wasn't much to discern between them was fairly potent.

When the sixties arrived, the drive to take down the establishment became an agenda with a vengeance thanks to, oddly enough, members of that strata of society, the university-educated graduates, biting the hands that fed them. A lot of them became very successful, but it was Peter Cook who became the most celebrated of that group, leading the Beyond the Fringe stage show to become the must-see of the decade and very inspirational to his contemporaries. If anything, their take no prisoners style would be emblematic of British satire for decades to come, yet most of that would stay in the print and television media, especially television where the likes of David Frost headed a series of programmes that took the parody and criticism of politics seriously. Yet should you pop along to your local fleapit, although many of the same comic talent appeared, they were less likely to employ the same ridicule.

A lot of that was down to topicality, as magazines and television shows can seem relevant for the week they are released, but events were moving so fast that filmmakers were reluctant to take a gamble on something so specific for fear of seeming past it by the point their movie came out. That was not to say it was all Carry On this and that, as a few examples did make it to the big screen, but all of them if anything became cult movies, the first really being 1964's Nothing But the Best, where Alan Bates was a lowly chancer who rose the society ranks to prove in biting fashion that if you wanted to get ahead in this nation you had to treat everyone else with contempt, it was the ultimate in selfishness that ensured your success. Bates even resorts to murder, and if not many went that far the message was far too bleak to court a major hit with the public, leaving Nothing to impress the select few who "got the joke", such as it was.

One way to get around the topicality issue was to leave off specific targets and take a more wide-ranging approach, and 1969's The Magic Christian being a case in point. It was based on Terry Southern's similarly cultish novel of the same name, one of the funniest books ever written that detailed one multi-millionaire's endeavours to prove everyone had their price. Again, the characters falling victim to the protagonist Sir Guy Grand's machinations were not exactly treated with affection, as if the film was revolted by how base anyone would become when faced with a small fortune, and that sense of money making the world go around, that you just had to wave a financial incentive in front of the noses of the public and they would agree to be exploited as the waver saw fit, is not one that has become any less relevant with the passage of time. That it was Peter Sellers (accompanied by then-Beatle Ringo Starr), one of the United Kingdom's most beloved comic actors, telling us this was all the more perverse.

Sellers had a credit in The Magic Christian for contributing material, as did future Monty Python team members John Cleese and Graham Chapman (who also appeared), and there was a distinctly Pythonesque flavour to the often surreal antics such as the championship boxers bribed to snog during their big match (a gag lifted by Sacha Baron Cohen for his Bruno movie), the grouse shoot using actual artillery, or the finale set aboard the titular cruise liner where the rich are subjected to indignity after indignity in increasingly bizarre ways (Christopher Lee's Dracula stalking the corridors, Raquel Welch as a whip-wielding galley slave mistress, a gorilla throwing Captain Wilfrid Hyde White out of the window). Yet there was a real edge of venom to the film that made even the genuine hilarity sit uneasily: as with the Monkees' Head, that footage of the Vietnamese street execution was included, and the film ended with the public swimming in literal piss and shit for cash.

However, the following year Peter Cook had his own ideas about what film satire should be, and along with Cleese and Chapman and director Kevin Billington he conjured up the takedown of how public relations would dominate the political sphere with The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer. It charted the success from nobody to somebody - a very major somebody - of the title character, aptly played by Cook who would never really be leading man material since there was something about the way he came across in film that allowed the ice in his heart to peek through. Cook by this time was beginning to see his career slip from its first flush of incredible triumph, practically single-handedly crafting the rules of modern British satire with such efforts as Private Eye magazine and his fashionable Establishment Club, so opportunist Rimmer amounted to a push at giving the public what he was best at.

Alas, aside from creating a minor controversy for its release in an election year, Rimmer was quickly forgotten and - see if you can discern a pattern here - relegated to cult status among those who happened to catch it on television down the years. As an entertainment, it was rather too clever for its own good in that you could well see that the spin doctors were orchestrating the campaigns so far that eventually the public would give up trying to take an interest and damn the lot of the politicians, meaning that those who still had faith in their party of choice to do any good were fools to themselves. This is the sort of cynicism we see today, another indication that not only had little changed in how people regard their leaders and ruling class in general (The Ruling Class being another scathing attack in movie form shortly after), but that it would probably never change. Rimmer, who inveigles his way into a slacking polling company then never puts a foot wrong in his rise to power could act as a template for modern Machiavellis with his pitting opponents and even allies against one another, then pulling the wool over the voters' eyes.

That last shot of Rimmer staring knowingly into the camera and out at us in the audience with coldly calculating smugness speaks to the conspiracy aspect of politics which would also become prevalent, though the fact the whole movie was more of a spoof of the rise and rise of the film's producer David Frost (who Cook hated) does tend to undercut the view that the makers had their fingers on the pulse of the status quo. You could make a better argument that Cleese and Chapman, along with their fellow Pythons, had more chance to actually change society's perceptions with the comedy they crafted at the end of the decade, 1979's Life of Brian, making fun of the structures of organised religion and stirring up far more controversy than most British satire did as it traced the path to unintended false Messiah-hood for Brian. They were quick to point out Jesus Christ was not the target, it was the people who refused to think about their religion and what it meant - but they made a very plausible case for how even He could have been in over His head.

Satire continued on British television into the nineteen-eighties with popular shows like Spitting Image and Jasper Carrott's sketch programmes, but as far as the movies went, the lack of hits from homegrown movies were leading to a dwindling of risk taking. One comedy that made the leap from small to large screen was Whoops Apocalypse, which managed to lose most of its keen humour in the transition, all the more shame that Cook took a role as the Prime Minister, maybe the ultimate end of Michael Rimmer's career in politics, utterly insane yet perfectly apt for a world toiling under the shadow of the Cold War which heats up as the plot draws on. It ends as you would expect, as if the parodists had reached the point where they just didn't care anymore, the world had gotten beyond a joke. Aside from occasional backward looking comedies as The Comic Strip's Churchill: The Hollywood Years (trying to recapture the acclaim of their Strike! spoof of the movies' tone deaf approach to real events) or the animated Jackboots on Whitehall, even satire of the twenty-first century had a resigned air to it, acknowledging that it was fine as entertainment, but the positive influence was next to nothing, and even the negative one was distinctly lacking. Celebrities were easier targets when there wasn't much enthusiasm in laughing at the failings of the leaders now we were stuck with them.
Author: Graeme Clark.


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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018