It is never easy to tell the difference between a double-glazing salesman and an artist with a new project to sell. Henry Naylor, chief writer of Headcases, is no exception. His successor to Spitting Image begins tonight and is, he unblushingly announces, a ‘very, very funny’ show with ‘real bite’. Politicians and celebs will be ‘sent up in the most unforgiving manner,’ his commissioners at ITV add. This is the one programme they ‘are desperate not to appear on’.
If the previews are a guide, I’m sure Gordon Brown won’t mind in the slightest. ITV’s satirists show him as a dour miser, who cautiously guards the taxpayers’ pennies from his gloomy Downing Street office. Naylor has decided that our PM is ‘a very austere, Scrooge-like Victorian gentleman. I mean he uses words like “prudence”, which people haven’t used for a hundred years!’
He shouldn’t be so cocksure, because if not for 100 years then for a good two decades, British satire has had a dire record. Spitting Image’s writers presented Margaret Thatcher’s ministers as cowering eunuchs, and looked lost when the supposed sycophants overthrew her. They followed up by showing John Major as a grey but decent ditherer, when in truth he was an obstinate man tormented by resentments. Rory Bremner demonstrated his sophistication by mocking Tony Blair as a crowd-pleaser who would never risk upsetting a focus group, and had to perform a smart U-turn when Britain joined the second Iraq war.
The best you can say is that most past caricatures contained an element of authenticity – Thatcher was domineering, Blair did blow with the wind in his first years in office. However, when ITV’s new generation of satirists show Brown as a frugal son of the manse, they aren’t exaggerating or distorting but getting him wildly and demonstrably wrong.
David Craig, whose previous investigative work showed how Brown’s Treasury had let management consultants plunder the public sector, has a new book out this month: Squandered: How |New Labour are Wasting Over One Trillion Pounds of Our Money. To spell it out, New Labour has spent an extra £1,229,100,000,000 since 1997 and will have spent £1,700,000,000,000 by the 2010 election. Its most tangible monument is ‘a political and managerial culture where mistakes are never admitted, failings are always covered up and mind-boggling bungling is rewarded by promotion, honours and generous inflation-proof pensions’.
In other words Brown couldn’t be further from a Dickensian miser if he tried. For 10 years, he has thrown other people’s money around with the abandon of a Roman emperor or Renaissance pope.
I don’t believe the inability of ITV to see him as he is can be explained away by intellectual laziness or the lure of clichés about stingy Scotsmen. Rather its blindness flows from a crisis of confidence in British culture.
Satirists, like journalists, depend on a flattering illusion of superiority. ‘You and I can look down on the stupidity of politicians with justifiable contempt,’ we imply to readers or viewers. ‘For we are serious men and women who would never exhibit such folly or greed.’
But in the media and wider arts, writers are wondering whether there are enough serious men and women around to pay their wages and are dumbing down accordingly. Nervousness about public ignorance and the prime-time audience’s limited frame of reference undermines Headcases as it has undermined so much else. The show has more spoofs of celebrities than of politicians. The producers say they will not parody Ed Balls, David Davis, Vincent Cable and Jack Straw because they believe viewers don’t know who they are. They may be right, but the assumption that the public is so dumb it can’t recognise public figures produces feeble television that will never draw blood, let alone inflict a wound.
Try a thought experiment and suppose they had more confidence in themselves and their viewers and decided to deride Brown’s Britain intelligently. They might then have looked at the NHS, which Labour promised to save in 1997. In fairness, it has all but doubled the health budget in real terms to £97bn, brought down waiting lists and built new hospitals. But the waste has been out of all proportion to the gains. As Craig points out in his most depressing chapter, the number of managers has doubled to 40,000. They are paid lavish salaries, even though they are so incapable of doing their jobs they need to spend £600m a year on management consultants to hold their hands and tell them what to do. Further down the hierarchy, New Labour struck an incredible bargain with GPs: the taxpayer gave the doctors a 60 per cent pay rise in return for the doctors working fewer hours. What funds were left, the Department of Health then decided to pump into a grandiose computerisation programme that every independent expert on information technology says will never work.
As the money flowed to the professional classes, hospitals became death traps. Rates of MRSA and C diff rose far in excess of any other European country. The highest estimate of avoidable deaths in its hospitals NHS admitted to in 2006 was 34,000. To put that in perspective, the United Nations estimated that in 2006, 35,000 died in the civil war in Iraq.
None of the quangos New Labour has set up to regulate in the public interest, such as the Health Protection Agency (annual cost £252m) or the National Patient Safety Agency (average salary £55,200), pointed out that while spending an extra £269bn on the NHS since 1997, Labour has presided over a sharp cutback in the number of hospital beds. Inevitably the shortage led to the filthy process of ‘hotbedding’ – throwing one patient out and getting another one into the still-warm bed – and a neglect of basic aseptic techniques to prevent infection during surgery.
Truly ‘unforgiving’ writers wouldn’t show Brown as a reassuringly old-fashioned pillar of the kirk, but as a demented spendthrift who stuffed the pockets of bureaucrats, IT salesmen, management consultants and hospital consultants while the patients whose money he had taken lay in NHS beds slowly dying in pools of their own excrement.
But that would be satire with ‘real bite,’ and you are not going to see it on mainstream television.