Fourfold fun from devolution

Four parliaments means four times as many opportunities for poking fun at politicians.

Things were a lot more straightforward the last time we had a Conservative prime minister. Now, not only do we have a coalition government in which the Tories are (supposedly) sharing power with the Liberal Democrats, but devolution has happened.

Having four parliaments means there are four times as many opportunities for political satire. But devolution has created a sort of comedy segregation. Local material, whether it's written by Scottish, Irish, Welsh or English comedians, does not always translate to other parts of the country. But then, maybe that segregation existed anyway: viewing figures for shows such as Have I Got News for You are significantly lower outside England than within it. It seems that many viewers in the rest of the UK don't relate to programmes that focus most of their attention on Westminster.

Wales has its own political comedy radio programme: The LL Files, written by Myfanwy Alexander. At first glance, Alexander - a mother-of-six living in a rural area - may seem an unlikely satirist. But after devolution in 1999, which she welcomed, Alexander saw a gap in the market for a show that contained Welsh jokes, rather than just jokes about the Welsh. The LL Files is recorded in front of a live studio audience, which, Alexander says, keeps her material fresh and helps her to stay in touch with matters that concern people who vote in Wales.

Performed for a Welsh audience, The LL Files gives its team a freedom that Welsh comedians didn't have before. Before devolution, no one would have dared to criticise Welsh language policies. It was as if publicly mocking something like the decision to spend government money on translating biscuit wrappers into Welsh would let the side down. Now, Welsh comedians feel free to poke fun at these kinds of issues. But Alexander says there are also downsides to devolved comedy: apparently, Welsh politicians are so bland that it's difficult to impersonate them.

Politics plays a role in my own comedy. I am a Londoner from a Caribbean background; both of my parents were immigrants. Normally, when I am outraged by something in the news - whether here or abroad - it somehow works its way into my routine. I have always believed that humour is a good way to influence people's points of view.

But when I travelled to Ireland for my recent Radio 4 show My Politician Is Funnier Than Yours, I learned that during the Troubles comedians could pass comment on events only if they remained impartial. You couldn't be seen to be pushing your own political agenda; to side openly with either the loyalists or the republicans meant risking your life. The stand-up comedian Jake O'Kane told me that the Belfast Empire, the city's leading comedy club, was the one place you could joke about what was going on. There, it was possible to make the sort of comments that could never have been uttered outside.

Comic evolution

When Sean Crummey of BBC Radio Ulster's long-running political show The Folks on the Hill started performing comedy, he was forced to adopt a pseudonym that didn't sound quite so Catholic. He believes that Northern Irish comedians have the opposite problem to their Welsh counterparts when it comes to caricaturing politicians. Northern Irish politics, he says, is dominated by huge characters, some of whom hold extreme views. With the likes of Ian Paisley and Mervyn Storey - the Democratic Unionist Party's ardent creationist - it is hard to come up with material that exaggerates reality.

Nowadays, Crummey imitates political figures such as Gerry Kelly - a republican who has done time in jail - whom he depicts with a hint of menace. In the eyes of the satirists, not all former IRA members have escaped their past. As it's a province already separate from the British mainland, with unique political issues, devolution has not had much of a direct impact on Northern Ireland's comedy.

In Scotland, however, the creation of a separate parliament has played a big part in the comedy scene's evolution. Until the 1980s, there were no dedicated stand-up clubs north of the border; these days, Scottish comedy is thriving. Comedians are no longer expected to move to London to further their careers and BBC Scotland has a flourishing comedy department.

Tommy Sheppard, director of the Stand comedy clubs in Edinburgh and Glasgow, believes that devolution has changed the face of Scottish comedy, demolishing the idea that politicians are distant Oxbridge types to whom comedians and audiences cannot relate. Members of the Scottish Parliament are more like people the audience went to school with, so comedians can mock them in ways that are uniquely Scottish.

Has devolution been good for political satire? Not everybody thinks so. The veteran left-wing comedian Jeremy Hardy believes that the arts should be all-inclusive, and that comedians who play only to their own communities re­inforce divisions and do themselves a disservice. But, in my view, anything that means more voices are heard can only be positive. The move away from Westminster-centred politics has managed to achieve that, in comedy and beyond.

Ava Vidal is a stand-up comedian. Her show "Lessons I Should Have Learnt" opens at the Edinburgh Fringe on 5 August.
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This article first appeared in the 02 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Politics and comedy