Comedy cowards

Why don’t satirists go for religion today?

While watching Not Again: Not the Nine O'Clock News, a documentary about the BBC comedy show which ran from 1979 to 1982, on television last night, I was struck by two thoughts. One was that religion of every kind was considered fair game then -- the Beeb showed the sketch in which a cringe-makingly "trendy" vicar declared that it could only be a matter of time before diabolists were allowed into the church, and the four series contained plenty of others, such as Rowan Atkinson's brilliant monologue "Are you a gay Christian?".

My second thought was that although several of the songs were featured, the programme didn't include one of the most fondly remembered, "There's a man in Iran", in which Pamela Stephenson declares her love for Ayatollah Khomeini.

OK, there were many musical numbers, but I couldn't help wondering whether that particular one had been omitted because it was thought to be too controversial in these times. For where are the comedic jabs at religion today? I also watched a Dave Allen DVD over Christmas, which served to remind of how his shows frequently lampooned Catholicism and Christian beliefs (see this clip). Yes, he may have been brought up as an Irish Catholic, and thus had some licence to mock his own culture, just as Mel Brooks was above criticism for his jokes about Jews. (Could anyone else have got away with "The Spanish Inquisition" in his History of the World Part I, I wonder?) But Allen's ribbing of religion, gentle as it may seem now, was risqué and offensive to some at the time. It wasn't entirely safe.

You can find passionate attacks on religion on DVD and the internet by comedians such as Billy Connolly, Bill Maher and Eddie Izzard. But while I applaud Connolly for defending the right of cartoonists to make jokes about Islam, much of this type of material is too angry to be funny. It becomes pure polemic. And although it's possible I've missed it, I don't think you'll find it in the schedules of the terrestrial broadcasters.

Neither is the humour of Connolly et al directed at particular figures. It's creationist v evolutionist stuff, which is fine (if often a little obvious), but also rather abstract. Where are the sketches about the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Chief Rabbi? What they do and say has a practical effect on the world as it is now, after all. If only the late Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Baz, the blind Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia whose duties nevertheless included television censorship, were still alive. Comedy writers could have had a field day with him.

The question is, has religion retreated so far from the public sphere that it's not worth making jokes about any more? That seems unlikely, especially given the constant complaints from secularists and atheists about its encroachment on what they think should be non-religious turf. Or is it that comedians don't dare touch the subject? And if not, why not?

Going back to Not the Nine O'Clock News, if the reason the BBC didn't screen the Ayatollah song last night was fear of a furious reaction, then we should all be very worried indeed. There is no "right" not to be offended, and we should not let such a "right" gain force through cowardice or default. For it is in such seemingly little ways that our freedoms are lost.

 

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Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories