Ian Hislop's diary: Berlusconi and Boris Johnson, why political satire will not die, and my awkward selfie

As I travel the country with an exhibition of 18th and 19th century prints, I can't escape the idea that we are now living through Britain's golden age of satire

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On the hottest day of the year and in the strangest week in politics I went to give a talk at Lord Byron’s home, Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire. The medieval cloisters were wonderfully cool and the lake looked refreshing but I wasn’t sure whether anyone would really want to come to hear me introducing “The Golden Age of Satire?”, the British Museum’s travelling exhibition of British prints and drawings from 1790 to 1820. The lively audience who did turn up were convinced that, good as this material may be, the golden age of satire is actually now.

I pointed them to a rude drawing of the Prince Regent by James Gillray called A Voluptuary, which does look very like our own new prime minister. The two men had similarly dishevelled appearances and colourful personal lives, but I attempted to keep things scholarly by suggesting that both these eminent figures had disappointed their critics when they reached power by dumping their early Whiggish instincts and selecting only die-hard Tories to serve in their governments.

There is a terrific drawing by George Cruikshank in the exhibition entitled The Prince of Whales in which the Prince Regent appears as a large blubbery whale accompanied by fat mermaid mistresses being hooked in by the successful Tory fishermen. I love the fact that this deliberate pun is the same as the one President Trump tweeted when he inadvertently referred to the current heir to the throne as the Prince of Whales earlier this year. Ivanka Trump went one better when she congratulated Boris Johnson last week on becoming the prime minister of the United Kingston. Sometimes unintentional satire is hard to beat.

Isn’t it Byronic?

Newstead is a perfect destination for the exhibition not only because Byron was a contemporary of the great cartoonists of the time but because he was a satirist himself. The collection of Byron-related material kept permanently at Newstead is a good reminder that as well as being the quintessential romantic poet, wandering about Europe being melancholy and posing for portraits in the national costumes of unlikely countries, he was a great comic writer. He was, for example, just as rude about King George III as the cartoonists, and wrote what many at the time thought was a very bad taste poem about his death, “The Vision of Judgment”. I was also intrigued to see that in Byron’s study the curators had left a copy of a book open with text in Greek on one side and Latin on the other. I had a quick look and saw that it was the play The Birds by Aristophanes, a complex political comedy probably best known for giving us the phrase “cloud cuckoo land” – a realm of fantasy, dreams and impractical ideas. It is still a metaphor that seems to work very well to describe current politics. 

Make satire great again

One member of the audience did ask if satire was finished now that Boris Johnson is prime minister and that Trump is president of the United States ? I think probably not. The first person I know of who said that satire was dead, because politics had become too ridiculous, was the poet Juvenal – writing in the first century AD. So I refuse to accept such defeatism. In fact, taking a leaf out of our new PM’s book I am declaring myself optimistic that Johnson will prove to be a huge boon to the satire industry. We should be resolutely positive and ignore the doomsters and gloomsters and naysayers, and look forward to, yes, the golden age that is coming up shortly, and remember our proud tradition of world-beating mockery, and boast that no one in history has ever won betting against the pluck and determination of British satire, and that… you get the idea.

Object of ridicule

Talking of optimism, I once suggested in a documentary that Boris Johnson might turn out to be our Silvio Berlusconi. This was a joke. An Italian journalist contacted me this week and reminded me that I had said this. I asked him whether he had a point to make about this comparison and he said no, it was just that we in Britain had been laughing at Italian governments for years and that now it was our turn to look ridiculous.

World’s a stage

Life often imitates art – or jokes anyway – and it happened to me again this week in Southwold. The Theatre on the Coast has revived a play I wrote with Nick Newman called A Bunch of Amateurs. It was originally written as a film about a washed-up Hollywood star imagining that he was coming to Britain to do King Lear at Stratford-upon-Avon and then finding that he was actually performing with an amateur dramatics company in the fictional Stratford St John in Suffolk. Burt Reynolds was in the film as Jefferson Steel but his real-life behaviour on the set was so funny that we wrote most of it back into a theatre version of the film.

This play is now being performed in Southwold, which is just down the road from the real Stratford St Mary in Suffolk. I went to see the show and give a talk about it, and was put up in a local hostelry courtesy of the local Suffolk brewery that was sponsoring the play – just as Jefferson Steel was put up in a hostelry courtesy of the local brewery that was sponsoring the amateur King Lear. Strange. One of the running jokes in the play is that a very keen middle-aged woman keeps telling Steel that she loved his performance in films he didn’t make, confusing him with Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. This was pretty funny in the theatre but then the next morning on the platform of a very small rural station a charming woman came up to me and asked if she could have a photograph taken with me. She was a huge fan, she said, and then added that she loved me in “that digging thing”. I was wondering which of my investigative triumphs she could be referring to and then I suddenly realised. She thought I was Toby Jones, the star of BBC’s comedy about metal detecting, Detectorists. That’s showbiz. 

This article appears in the 02 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special