The Magazine

Fawlty Humour

The limits of British satire.

Sep 30, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 03 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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Meanwhile, in 1962, the BBC began "That Was the Week That Was," hosted by David Frost. As described by Carpenter, the program seems mild by today's standards--part Mark Russell, part "Capitol Steps." But in the early 1960s any sort of political humor on the BBC, one of the nation's most powerful cultural institutions, was sure to stir attention--particularly since "That Was the Week That Was" dealt, however obliquely, with religion and sex, broadcasting's oldest taboos. Carpenter cites one particularly contested sketch marking the close of the Second Vatican Council. It showed the cast costumed as cardinals and singing "Arrivederci Roma." This, forty years ago, was still considered shocking--an "insult to religion" and "near blasphemy" in the words of the British press.

But the members of "Beyond the Fringe" weren't much impressed, considering "That Was the Week That Was" a vulgar, showbiz version of their own more cerebral--and rather more innocent--show. Carpenter notes that Jonathan Miller, years later, would come to characterize "Beyond the Fringe" as the largely "affectionate" display of topical cabaret in which some playful undergraduates, uninterested in stardom, simply went public with their private jokes. Initially, "Beyond the Fringe" was one of several competing student productions staged on the outskirts--or "fringe"--of the long-running Edinburgh Arts Festival.

But Frost and others, Miller complained, "rather took up the idea of its being satire, and then explicitly promoted it." Writers, entertainers, publishers "took the bit between their teeth and then raced in the direction of what they thought was a satirical goal." Satire--rather like boots for women, as one contemporary critic put it--became yet one more hyped-up 1960s craze. Certainly television producers, ever mindful of trends, ordered up ever more topical, provocative comedy programs.

"That Was the Week That Was" ran out of steam fairly quickly, in late 1963. But then came "The Frost Report" and Alan Bennett's "On the Margin" in 1966. Satirical serials bloomed on television and radio, including "Till Death Do Us Part," the British basis for the American "All in the Family," which began its long run on CBS in 1971. In both programs, a working-class bigot battles verbally with his more politically sensitive son-in-law. But satire, in its purest sense, is always intellectual and aloof--permitting no warm regard for the ridiculed victim. The American "All in the Family," at least, was at bottom a warm-hearted comedy. Archie Bunker, the mouthy bigot, eventually emerges as a likable figure who, deep down, has a heart of gold.

THERE WAS CERTAINLY no tenderness in "Monty Python's Flying Circus," which made its first appearance on the BBC in 1969 and became, without question, the most influential comedy series of its time. Two of its members, Michael Palin and Terry Jones, had written for "The Frost Report"; another, John Cleese, had contributed to "That Was the Week That Was." "Monty Python,"however, was better tuned to the darker and weirder cultural mood that began to form at the close of a decade and that was simultaneously yielding the likes of Frank Zappa, Tiny Tim, and Pink Floyd. The Pythons famously promised "something completely different"--a weekly mix of black humor, surrealism, and the theater of the absurd. By comparison, the writers behind "That Was the Week That Was" and "Private Eye" no longer looked particularly daring, but politically and aesthetically conservative--which in fact they mainly were. (The novelist Emma Tennant, Carpenter notes, once aptly described the editors of "Private Eye" as "Telegraph readers in disguise.")

But was "Monty Python" satire? Were the Pythons or any of the figures now linked to the "satire boom" really satirists--in the more traditional, literary sense of the word? One thinks, for example, of Dante's "Inferno," the most scorching piece of satire ever written. Dante assumed that his audience, small initially, shared an understanding of the world based largely on Catholic moral teaching. And his relentless depiction, in the "Inferno,"of the inversion of holiness--of pride, gluttony, avarice, lust--is balanced by the "Paradiso," which glorifies holiness, and holds forth the miracle of redemption for wretched humankind.