Comedy update

Private Eye at the V&A, the Onion's UK arrival and Atkinson hints at Blackadder 5.

Satire news

Private Eye at 50 exhibition at the V&A

In celebration of 50 years of Private Eye, this free exhibition will look at how the British magazine combines humour with investigative journalism. It will include original artwork of the publication's finest cartoons, from long-running strips to caricatures. Plus, the magazine's editor Ian Hislop has selected 50 of the best front covers, one for every year that the magazine has been published.

At its best Private Eye is bold and scathingly satirical. Take the 4 February 2011 cover on the phone hacking scandal, where "Murdoch answers critics" with his hands clasped: "I overhear what you're saying." Another outstanding cover was that of 22 July 2011. It used the tabloids' conventional style to triumphantly bellow "Gotcha!" over photographs of Rupert Murdoch, James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks.

The Onion News Network's UK debut

The Onion News Network will have its UK television premiere in November on Sky Arts 1 at 11pm. The mock-news channel was created in 2007 and shown on the Onion's website. Its presenters include Brooke Alvarez (Suzanne Sena) and Tucker Hope Todd (Alan Crain.) The news programme often features personal advice by Alvarez, such as "How to Look Good for the End of the World."

Founded in the late 1980s, the Onion's humour ranges from straight-up satire, such as "Future U.S. History Students: 'It's Pretty Embarrassing How Long You Guys Took To Legalize Gay Marriage'" to more wacky and surreal jokes: "Justin Bieber Found to be Cleverly Disguised 51-Year-Old Paedophile."

One of the Onion's often provocative headlines recently caused a stir on Twitter. It tweeted, "BREAKING: Witnesses reporting screams and gunfire heard inside Capitol building", which was later linked to this story: Congress Takes Group Of Schoolchildren Hostage. It led some followers to believe that it was a real news story, and controversy ensued about whether the Onion had gone too far. Andy Carvin, Senior Strategist of Social Media Desk, who tweeted extensively about the Arab Spring, sounded aggravated. He tweeted: "Wondering if NYers would find it as funny if @TheOnion had made a similar joke about an attack on Wall St and lower Manhattan." By contrast, English comedian and actor Peter Serafinowicz tweeted: "God I love @theonion!"

The Onion's hostage piece clearly had an absurdist tone:

Obama, holding his head in his hands [said] "I know Speaker Boehner personally, and I know that he and his colleagues will not hesitate for a second to kill these poor children if they don't get their way ... Trust me, this Congress will do it".

New television comedy

Rowan Atkinson hints at Blackadder 5

Rowan Atkinson, star of Mr Bean and Not the Nine O'Clock News, has said that there may be a fifth series of Blackadder. With each of its four series set in a different historical context, the sitcom ran between 1983 and 1989. This exciting prospect was raised during Atkinson's chat with ITV's Daybreak about his role in Johnny English Reborn, a spoof spy film.

If the fifth series does happen, it will be interesting to see whether Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Tony Robinson and Miranda Richardson will star again. Atkinson commented: "It would be nice to get them all back together."

Arrested Development back with 4th season

Fans of the Emmy-award winning American sitcom Arrested Development have reason to celebrate; five years since it was last on our screens, its creator Mitchell Hurwitz has announced plans for a new series to precede the film spin-off. The sitcom focuses on the life of the formerly rich Bluth family.The cast includes Jessica Walter, Jason Bateman, Portia de Rossi and Michael Cera. Although the sitcom never achieved especially high ratings, it has a devoted fanbase.

Life's Too Short: Gervais and Merchant's new comedy about a dwarf

Written and directed by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, Life's Too Short is a fake documentary about the daily life of actor Warwick Davis
(Return Of The Jedi, Harry Potter.) In the new six-part series scheduled to air this autumn, Davis plays a fictional version of himself, a self-absorbed and underhand character in charge of a talent agency called Dwarves For Hire. Davis is always trying to take advantage of others, including his own clients. The show's premise is that Davis takes part in the documentary to raise money to pay his taxes. Check out some clips of Life's Too Short here.

The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff: Robert Webb stars in Dickensian comedy

Gareth Edwards, producer of That Mitchell and Webb Look and Mark Evans, writer of the Radio 4 comedy Bleak Expectations, are creating a four-part comedy set in Victorian London. Robert Webb is leading the cast as Jedrington Secret-Past, a successful seller of eccentricities. His wife Conceptiva will be played by Katherine Parkinson (The IT Crowd.) The Dickensian comedy adventure will screen first in a Christmas special, followed by three episodes due to air in early 2012.

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Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser