Frost on Sunday (Photo: Rex/Shutterstock)

    The best of British satire: 7 vintage shows that still raise a smile

    27 August 2020

    Spitting Image is returning. Some are expecting the new series to represent the welcome, and long overdue, rehabilitation of British satire. Others fear a toothless, joyless effort. Either way, it will face some tough comparisons – most notably with itself. The satire boom of the 60s precipitated a long line of insightful, scabrous, satirical shows. So here, in no particular order, are seven of the best.

    That Was the Week That Was

    A weekly television event, TW3, as it became affectionately known, burst onto the nation’s screens on 24th November 1962. Produced and directed by Ned Sherrin, and presented by David Frost, the show broke new ground with its ferocious mockery of ‘the Establishment’. With a writing team which included Peter Cook, Roald Dahl, John Betjeman, Denis Potter and Gerald Kaufman (who would go onto a long career as an independently minded Labour MP), no subject was off limits – and the show ruffled elite feathers with its attacks on then Prime Minister Harold MacMillan and its innuendos regarding the sexuality of Scouts founder Robert Baden-Powell. Its hard-hitting skewering of racism in America raised eyebrows even further. Despite enjoying audience ratings in excess of 12 million, the show ended in December 1963.

    The Thick of It

    The most effective political sitcom since Yes, Minister (which I wrote about gushingly for Spectator Life here), The Thick of It harnessed the stylistic power of docudrama to deliver sharp insights into contemporary politics. Aired across 4 series between 2005 and 2012, the show focuses on Peter Capaldi’s foul-mouthed political enforcer Malcolm Tucker. Its next-level swearing is only part of the attraction though. The fourth series, which split the action between Tucker in opposition and a coalition government, was particularly trenchant: Roger Allam’s put-upon, world-weary Peter Mannion felt like every traditional Conservative forced to grin and bear it as a minister under Cameron and Clegg.

    Have I Got News For You

    Photo: BBC/ Hat Trick – Photographer: Ray Burmiston

    Based on Radio 4’s The News Quiz, at the height of its powers Have I Got News For You showcased some of the best wits in British comedy, and some brave politicians too. Its heyday was the 90s, when presenter Angus Deayton, and team captains Ian Hislop and Paul Merton would routinely fillet the week’s headlines and scandals, to the delight of the studio audience.

    Perhaps the show’s most famous incident occurred in 1993, when Labour MP Roy Hattersley cancelled his appearance at the last minute, for the third time running, and was replaced by a tub of lard. Recently the show has become stuck in the rut, and the latest series, put together during lockdown in a computer generated set, without a studio audience, lacked much of the bite and range of earlier outings. Having reinvented itself before, this once great panel game feels in need of another refresh.

    The New Statesman

    Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran’s The New Statesman does not pull its punches. Showcasing a bravura performance from the inimitable, hugely missed Rik Mayall, the show follows Conservative MP Alan B’Stard as he drinks, shags, and connives his way around Whitehall. B’Stard is the archetypal anti-hero, a twitching, sweaty tornado of arrogance, lust, avarice and cowardice. As a man, B’Stard is completely irredeemable, which is why we love him.

    Legend has it that, by the third series, studio audience recordings were so electric, only 15 minute scrips were required – the rest of the time being taken up with laughter. The series was so popular that columns, in the name of B’Stard, appeared in The Sunday Telegraph and, naturally, The New Statesman.

    The News Huddlines

    Avuncular, rosy-cheeked Roy Hudd and Bitcom fixture June Whitfield may not strike you as the world’s most savage political satirists, and it’s fair to say BBC Radio’s long-running Huddlines was not a savage show. However, it was always great fun – satirical revue meets end-of-the-pier summer spectacular, with the occasional caustic barb thrown in – and offered an open door training ground for virtually every writer who went through the BBC’s comedy machine. The Huddlines proved that you could have fun with the headlines, and keep it (reasonably) family friendly, too.

    Bremner, Bird and Fortune

    Arguably the most incisive political satire of the noughties, Bremner, Bird and Fortune originally aired between 1999 and 2010. Each week, impressionist Rory Bremner, and veteran satirists John Bird and John Fortune, would tear into the political firmament.

    Through to-camera studio pieces, ‘interview sketches’ (often featuring John Fortune’s go-to establishment idiot George Parr), and filmed inserts, the team dissected the excesses of New Labour – and the recalcitrant turmoil of the ‘wilderness years’ Conservative Party.

    In 2007, the programme faced a flood of complaints for a sketch set in a pub in which The Two Johns discussed New Labour’s potential election strategy. “I don’t trust Gordon Brown…” said one of the characters, “I wouldn’t be surprised if the night before the election he went on television and said ‘look what I found’ and held up little Maddie McCann.” The show was appointment-to-view TV for me growing up, and is still missed, as is John Fortune, who sadly died in 2013.

    The Frost Report

    After That Was the Week That Was came The Frost Report, in 1966. Presented by Frost, the series built on the earlier programme, and added caustic American singer-satirist (and mathematics professor) Tom Lehrer into the mix.

    The writing team is a “who’s who” of British comedy: the Pythons, the Goodies, Antony Jay (who would go onto work for Margaret Thatcher, and co-write Yes, Minster), and Frank Muir and Denis Norden all contributed.  But the show’s place in history was secured by its famous ‘Class Sketch’, written by Marty Feldman and John Law. Just the image of John Cleese, Ronnie Barker, and Ronnie Corbett stood in a line is enough to raise a smile. “I look down on him because I am upper class,” begins Cleese. Of course, when it comes to comedy, we all look up to them.