That Was Satire That Was
Humphrey Carpenter Victor Gollancz, 320pp, £20
Other people's scrapbooks are seldom much fun, and this one proves no exception. Although presented as an elegant coffee-table book, the industrious Humphrey Carpenter's latest offering is really no more than a scissors-and-paste compendium of everything said or written about what used defiantly to be known as "the satire revolution". As such, it possesses a certain period charm: there is hardly a name here to which those of us who belong to the Beyond the Fringe or That Was The Week That Was generations will not be able to put a face (and, where that sort of mind's-eye memory fails, the text - much decorated with pictures - obligingly fills the gap).
So why did I find reading this book a dispiriting experience? One answer, I suppose, is that there is absolutely nothing new in it - no fresh perspective, no revisionist interpretation, not even any real attempt to explain why the mood of irreverence that burst upon the world at the beginning of the Sixties surfaced (principally from the public schools) when it did. Instead, all we get is the old, old story: the Suez fiasco of 1956; the arrival of the Aldermaston marchers in their duffle coats in 1958; above all, the provocative presence of Harold Macmillan, the last Edwardian to live in No 10, as the merchant of "You never had it so good" at the 1959 general election.
Someone, however, had to light the touch paper, and Carpenter is at his best when dealing with the quartet of talent - Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller, Dudley Moore - who came together to form the original cast of Beyond the Fringe. In essence, it is a simple, self-contained story of a fresh sort of iconoclastic revue that certainly woke up the West End theatre when it arrived there from Edinburgh in the spring of 1961. Until then, the theatre-going public's idea of irreverence had been Flanders and Swann's At the Drop of a Hat, a whimsical exercise in nursery nostalgia with a special appeal to those at the time who comprised "the Princess Margaret set".
Unfortunately, as the story becomes more complicated, Carpenter loses something of his surefootedness as a narrator. It is, for instance, astonishing that he should assert that "Edward Heath was not considered worthy of a Private Eye diary". What about "Heathco", the fortnightly bulletin board of the factory that "the Grocer" was supposed to be running? Like Autolycus in The Winter's Tale, Carpenter is a great "snapper-up of unconsidered trifles", but not all of them are meaningful. There is a further disadvantage: scripts, when reproduced on the printed page, have a pretty deadening effect; the same goes for old newspaper cuttings, from which the author quotes copiously without always paying proper regard to their provenance. "The Times, undated cutting, 1976" simply will not do as a source note.
Nor is Carpenter at all shy about reproducing material from other, previously published books, owing a particular debt here to Harry Thompson's twin biographies of Richard Ingrams and Peter Cook. As a general - and no doubt understandable - rule, the further the individuals were from the heart of the Sixties satire explosion, the readier they are to burble on about their exploits.
As in life, so in the theatre or the TV studio: it is consistently the back-room boys and bit-part players who have most to say - and, in some cases, such as Christopher Booker (who was displaced as editor of Private Eye by Ingrams), the sharpest axes to grind. Incidentally, that Booker and Ingrams should still be able to co-operate on St Albion's Parish News, in today's Private Eye, is proof that buried beneath the image of the ground-breaking satirist always lay the reality of the journeyman journalist.
In that sense, the book makes an appropriate tribute. The bright young men (there was only one woman among them - the admirable actress, Eleanor Bron) who burst upon the scene just as the swinging Sixties started may have been struck by the absurd conformity of postwar British life. But they had little or no idea of what to put in its place. That is amply demonstrated by the one genuine revelation (its source once again unattributed) to appear in this book: that Ingrams voted for Margaret Thatcher on all three occasions that she placed her name in front of the electorate as leader of the Conservative Party. Thus do "revolutionaries", if only in the world of laughter, end up as revanchistes.
Anthony Howard is a former editor of the NS