by: Jim McGuigan / Loughborough University
It is commonplace to observe that television, like everything else, is increasingly global these days. What is happening on the other side of the world is shown and commented upon instantaneously in news programming. There is also a considerable international trade in programmes as well as channels with a world-wide reach and co-productions between countries. The USA, of course, stands at the apex of global television in addition to cinema and much else besides. We are all tutored to some degree in US issues and events seen from an American perspective in addition to its hegemonic entertainment culture. Yet, there is still a great deal of US material that just does not sell abroad. Political satire on television is such an example, although The Simpsons may be, to an extent, a great exception to the general rule. This preamble allows me to move from the American context of Flow to mention an important British television programme that only Britons see, Bremner, Bird and Fortune.
Bremner, Bird and Fortune is the latest manifestation of a great tradition in British television going back to the early sixties with the BBC’s That Was The Week That Was (TW3), political satire. TW3 castigated the Conservative government of the day in comic sketches, parodied news items and cabaret-style routines. It was taken off the air a few months before the 1964 general election so as not to influence the result. Labour won anyway. There were only two TV channels at the time so TW3 had access to a huge audience. This legendary programme may well have contributed to the climate of opinion that voted out the Tories after thirteen years in office. In the 1980s, the puppet caricatures show, ITV’s Spitting Image, poured scorn on Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. Labour did not come off lightly either and the Liberal leader, David Steel, amongst other leading politicians and celebrity personalities, was mocked mercilessly. At its height, Spitting Image commanded an audience of over ten million. Channel Four’s Bremner, Bird and Fortune attracts around two million viewers, which in the present multi-channel environment is actually quite good for such a programme.
It would be surprising if Prime Minister Tony Blair likes it, yet Bremner, Bird and Fortune has met with no political censorship, unlike TW3 forty years ago. The show has had trouble over copyright, however, particularly regarding new lyrics for old songs, though Tom Lehrer has been particularly generous in allowing Rory Bremner and his pals to rewrite his work (‘the Sunnis hate the Shias’, etc.). There is enough American material, especially with such obvious targets as George Bush, US economic and military imperialism, voracious corporations and oil-driven policy. When the company that makes Bremner, Bird and Fortune, Vera, put together a compilation of the American material a couple of years back, there were no takers in the USA.
John Bird and John Fortune performed in TW3 all those years ago. When they teamed up with young impressionist Bremner in the late eighties a direct connection was made between the old and the new in British television satire. Bird and Fortune write and perform an interview sketch, as two typically British ruling-class buffoons, for every episode (these are available on disc). The interview is with a character called George Parr, who is played by Bird, on occasion, as a British army general; and, when Fortune plays Parr and Bird takes his turn to do the interviewing, he is usually a governmental or corporate official. Parr gives convoluted and contradictory accounts of policy and practicalities. Just before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Bird as General Parr admitted that the British were not well equipped for encountering the enemy since its tanks, for instance, were designed for combat with the Russians in Northern Europe. They didn’t work so well in the sands of the Middle East. Also, British army boots tend to melt in hot climes. In the most recent series (October 2004), Fortune, playing Parr as a minister in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, explains how relaxing legal restrictions on gambling for American and South African operators of casinos will bring about cultural renewal and urban regeneration in British towns and cities. Bird and Fortune have also played civil servants in the War Office when Britain invaded and occupied Iraq during the 1920s. Under the direction of Winston Churchill as Colonial Secretary at the time, Britain used mustard gas against ‘insurgents’ and set up a constitutional monarchy, which was overthrown in the 1950s when the British were finally kicked out. Shortly afterwards, the CIA hired a youthful thug, one Saddam Hussein, to assassinate the new Iraqi Prime Minister. He failed but was looked after in order to return to the fray later on. Saddam’s subsequent association as friend and then foe with the USA (and, indeed, Britain) is also traced in Bremner, Bird and Fortune. Parallels between the British and the American imperial adventures in Iraq are also drawn with chilling humour and to dispel historical amnesia, a striking feature of both American and British politics. Furthermore, all the questions about weapons of mass destruction, regime change, lucrative contracts for rebuilding Iraq, the ignorance of another culture and effect of Americanism on an Islamic nation, torture and the rest of it are treated with comedy and — as is the case with the best satire — deep seriousness.
The producer and co-writer of Bremner, Bird and Fortune, Geoff Atkinson, pointed out to me recently that the comedic impulse comes first; moreover, he believes it must do so. If it’s not funny it simply doesn’t work. Comedy is not to be reduced to a sweetener for otherwise side-lined political information. Bremner’s early work was not especially political at all. He was a remarkably talented impressionist, normally making fun of TV personalities, such as the sports presenter, Des Lynham. Atkinson himself started out writing for The Two Ronnies, which was hardly a satire show. But, as politics became more and more bizarre, the temptation to laugh at it, perhaps in order to avoid crying about it, was to become unavoidably compelling for them.
As well as his portrayal of the creepy fantasist Tony Blair, Bremner does a brilliant impression of George Dubya Bush. Before the invasion of Iraq, there was a special edition of Bremner, Bird and Fortune, entitled Between Iraq and a Hard Place. Shortly after the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the official though not actual cessation of hostilities, another special was put out in May 2003, Beyond Iraq and a Hard Place. These editions of the programme represented a significant cultural intervention in the public sphere where issues concerning the reasons for invading Iraq and its consequences were hotly debated; and still are nearly two years later. There was always greater scepticism in Britain than in the USA about the linking of Al Qaeda to the Ba’athist regime, disquiet at belligerent strategy in the Middle East and horror at the British government’s craven support for US policy. Blair’s own reputation will never recover from this historical error in his own country. In Beyond Iraq and a Hard Place, Rory Bremner as himself remarks, ‘The war may be over but the battle for hearts and minds is harder. Let’s face it, it’s a bit difficult to win Iraqi hearts and minds when you leave their hearts in one place and their minds in another’. Then Bush (Bremner) speaks on a television programme beamed into a devastated Iraq, Towards Freedom. He begins, ‘My fellow Iraqis…’ Dubya’s talking head is accompanied on screen by: lists of sponsors (Haliburton, Bechtel, etc); news reports such as George Clooney being signed up to play Saddam Hussein in a forthcoming movie; and a count of ‘Oil Barrels This Hour’. He praises Iraq as, in Condoleezza Rice’s words, ‘the cradle of civilization’ and corrects his praise of the ‘many’ to ‘some historical artefacts’. Apparently, there is no intention to exploit Iraq’s oil reserves ‘any more than is strictly necessary under the normal rules of international trade and shareholder value’. As a Coca-Cola sign revolves beside his head, the President of the United States reassures the Iraqi people: ‘Be assured of one thing. We will not walk away from your country, as others have done before. We will not stay in your country, as others have done before. We will do both…’
The audience figures shot up for these specials on Iraq, reflecting a thirst for the expression of more critical perspectives on the state of the world than those routinely purveyed on mainstream television. Whether right or wrong, the well-founded views articulated by Bremner, Bird and Fortune are usually present only in marginal publications addressing relatively small and strongly left-wing constituencies; and are hardly ever present on television where a much wider audience can be addressed. Nowadays, the place where they are most likely to crop up on television is in satirical comedy shows. Perhaps that is because comedy is not supposed to be serious and, therefore, doesn’t have to be taken seriously. Historically, license has been given to the court jester to say the naughty things for casual and ineffectual entertainment. Bremner, Bird and Fortune is not, however, merely a safety valve. It is extremely funny and politically astute in its carefully researched material. Rory Bremner, the two Johns — Bird and Fortune — and the programme’s producer, Geoff Atkinson, have published a book of their stuff recently, You Are Here – A Dossier. It provides a good idea of how and why Bremner, Bird and Fortune is such a nodal point of the cultural public sphere in Britain.
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