Hugo Rifkind’s Search for Power is devastatingly mild radio comedy

Generally, there’s an underlying mirthlessness to the scripted comedy lecture.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The Times columnist Hugo Rifkind’s new three-part satirical series, about who in modern Britain has power (3 May, 11:30am – episode one is about MPs), makes use of a very specific Radio 4 form: the pre-scripted monologue recorded in front of a studio audience, delivered in a manner that looks for laughs but isn’t trying overly hard for them. It sprinkles in a few recorded interviews – like slides, or props. “You may have noticed that, lately, MPs haven’t been doing what they’re told,” says Rifkind, lightly.

The whole thing is done at a supremely mild level. He’s not expecting us to bust a gut. So you don’t get any of that exhausting, up-and-down magic-show tension that you get listening to a Jerry Sadowitz. There was one roar, at a joke about Facebook. “It’s like a cocktail party that exists inside your computer and someone’s invited loads and loads of racists”. And a little gasp at former Conservative chief whip Andrew Mitchell’s deathlessly pithy phrase: “The whips are not moral or immoral; they are amoral.”

Generally, there’s an underlying mirthlessness to the scripted comedy lecture. It’s a form that has served lots of not-quite comedians very well over the last 15 years (see Mark Steel). As a rule, they disguise their lack of comedy chops by massively intensifying their political commitments and feeding off the bonhomie of their audience (see Mark Thomas). The whole thing can be worthwhile, if you have a mind as alert as the late Jeremy Hardy or Jon Ronson. But more often it can sound like the American late night talk show monologue of a John Oliver – obvious, hectoring, smug. Rifkind’s approach is much lower-temperature, less obviously like a revival meeting, and he’s smart, compassionate company. His conclusion was infinitely melancholy. “It’s hard work, to work out how powerful MPs are, when that’s literally what everybody has been fighting about for the past two years.” The episode was doubtless conceived and commissioned before the last six months caused the reputation of MPs to take a further, disastrous nosedive. And as such, it all seemed a little inappropriately… whimsical: it didn’t sound quite May 2019 to me. But next week’s episode, on journalists, ought to have more fizz. 

Hugo Rifkind’s Search for Power
BBC Radio 4

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 03 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, A very British scandal