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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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.