How healthy is British satire?

A discussion with John Oliver of <em>The Daily Show</em> about UK and US humour.

I was on BBC Radio 4's Today programme this morning to talk about satire with John Oliver of The Daily Show (the link is here -- it's about 2 hours 38 minutes in).

We hopped around a few issues but one of the most interesting was whether big broadcasters such as the BBC and Channel 4 are too hemmed in by corporate and public pressure to do satire -- as opposed to topical comedy in the vein of Have I Got News For You or Mock The Week. (My feeling is that the difference between them is that satire is a call to action, highlighting a wrong to be righted. There's a difference between a joke that says, in effect, "Isn't Eric Pickles fat?" and one that says "This person is a hypocrite," or "Our political system is broken.")

Although their importance in the grand scheme of things can be overstated -- their audience is small, if influential -- the US has a couple of beacons of satirical telly that I really envy -- The Daily Show and The Colbert Report -- and, when it's on form, South Park.

In a bit of the discussion that didn't make it to air, Oliver talked about the fight that the Daily Show anchor Jon Stewart has faced for editorial independence, which dented my belief that he and Stephen Colbert were given fairly free rein by their channel, Comedy Central, and its parent company Viacom.

That makes the boldness of their shows all the more commendable. Colbert has recently called out Viacom for its efforts to stop him exposing the iniquities of American political campaign finance by forming his own "Super PAC", the opaque funding vehicle beloved of Sarah Palin et al. (More on that story here.)

There aren't any TV shows doing something similar in Britain at the moment, as far as I know -- although 10 O'Clock Live did gesture towards the idea. Of course, Private Eye does a fantastic job of exposing "unsexy" corporate malpractice. The interesting thing about the Eye, though, is that the campaigning bit -- the "In the Back" section -- is separate from the news and skits, rather than rolling them together in the way that, say, Colbert's "The Word" section on his show does.

John Oliver's New York Stand-Up Show is on tonight (21 July) at 11.05pm on Channel 4.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Pirates of the Caribbean's silly magic still works - but Johnny Depp doesn't

This fifth sequel makes no sense, but my former teenage heart still jumped. It's Johnny Depp who's sunk. [Aye, spoilers ahead]

“One day ashore for ten years at sea. It's a heavy price for what's been done.”

Ten years ago, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), having replaced sprawling villain Davy Jones as Captain of the Flying Dutchman, spent his only day on land before leaving his bride, incumbent King of the Pirates Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), for ten years, to fulfill his cursed fate and bring the dead at sea to their eternal rest. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) was sailing away to new adventures, again running after his beloved ship, the Black Pearl. It was 2007, I was 14, and the trilogy I had put all my teenage heart into was ending with the third installment, At World’s End, on a bittersweet and loyal salute to the series.

But whatever the posters said, that wasn't quite the end, and what came after was awful.

First, the third film’s traditional post-credits scene showed Elizabeth, waiting for her husband’s return, a ten-year-old boy by her side. She, the King of the Pirates, who in the same movie had just led a fleet to defeat the East India Company, had been sitting on the sand for ten years, raising a kid, instead of sailing, even while pregnant, to save Will like a fictional Ann Bonny? I was furious. Then, in 2011, Disney released On Stranger Tides, a sequel so hideous even this former fan could not bring herself to like. Bloom and Knightley had moved on and without the original lovers’ duo, Johnny Depp’s legendary Sparrow had no substantial character to balance his craziness. Somehow, it made money, leading Disney to plan more sequels. Hence the fifth story, Salazar’s Revenge (Dead Men Tell No Tales in the US) hitting theatres this weekend.

Admittedly, it didn’t take the fourth or fifth movie for Pirates of the Caribbean to stop making sense, or just to be a bit rubbish. After the surprise success of The Curse of the Black Pearl (young man associates with pirate to save young woman from more pirates and break a curse, adventures ensue) in 2003, Disney improvised two more stories. Filmed together, there was 2006’s Dead Man’s Chest (couple’s wedding is interrupted, curse threatens pirate, fiancé wants to save his father from said curse, adventures ensue) and 2007’s At World’s End (everyone goes to the end of the world to save dead pirate while piracy is at war with East India Company and man still wants to save his father, adventures ensue). Chaotic plots, childish humour, naively emphatic dialogs and improbable situations quickly lost much of the audience.

Yet I’ve loved the trilogy for it all: the swashbuckling, sword-fighting and majestic ships on the high seas, the nautical myths, weird magic and star-crossed love story. Everyone knows the main theme, but there are more hidden jewels to Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack. “One Day”, the melody to the couple’s last day together, is a beautiful backwash of nostalgia, as they embrace in the froth. Detailed costumes and stylish sets (At World’s End had stunning shots, such as a Chinese junk navigating the icy waters of the world's end) worked their magic every time.

As expected, there's little subtlety in Salazar’s Revenge. It’s over-the-top comedy and loud action, unnecessarily salacious jokes and copied scenes from the original. Its villain, Capitán Salazar (Javier Bardem), is a parody of a nightmare, but then not everyone can convey terror from under layers of CGI the way Bill Nighy could. It is a story of sons and daughters - Turner’s son Henry is following the family’s tradition, trying to save his father from a curse - usually the sign that a series is dangerously lurking into fan fiction (looking at you, Harry Potter’s Cursed Child). Praised for being a feminist character, new female lead Carina (Kaya Scodelario) spends half the movie being sexualised and the other half defending the concept of women being smart, where previous films let Elizabeth lead a fleet of men without ever doubting her sex.

But the promise has been kept. Exactly ten years after leaving in a flash of green, Will Turner returns and brings some of the original spirit with him: ship battles and clueless soldiers, maps that cannot be read and compasses that do not point north. Zimmer’s theme sounds grand and treasure islands make the screen shine. The Pearl itself floats again, after disappearing in Stranger Tides.

Yet the one bit of magic it can't revive is in the heart of its most enduring character. Johnny Depp has sunk and everyone is having fun but him. Engulfed in financial troubles and rumours of heavy drinking, the actor, who had to be fed his lines by ear piece, barely manages a bad impersonation of the character he created in 2003. Watching him is painful - though it goes deeper than this performance in this film alone. Allegations of domestic violence against ex-wife Amber Heard has tarnished his image, and his acting has been bad for a decade.

It should work better, given this incarnation of his Jack Sparrow is similarly damaged. The pirate legend on “Wanted” posters has lost the support of his crew and disappoints the new hero (“Are you really THE Jack Sparrow?”). The film bets on flashbacks of Jack’s youth, featuring Depp’s actual face and bad special effects, to remind us who Sparrow is. He is randomly called “the pirate” by soldiers who dreamt of his capture in previous movies and his character is essentially incidental to the plot, struggling to keep up with the younger heroes. He even loses his compass.

Pirates of the Caribbean 5 is the sequel no one needed, the happy end the star-crossed lovers should never have had. It is 2017 and no one will sail to the world’s end and beyond to save Depp from his purgatory. But all I wanted was for One Day to play, and for the beloved ghosts of my teenage years to reappear in a sequel I knew should never have been written.  The beauty was in that last flash of green.

And yet the pirate's song sounds true: "Never shall we die". Pirates of the Caribbean has, at the very least, kept delivering on that.

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