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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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.