Monday, 22 October 2012

The Thick of It: In the great tradition of foul-mouthed and bitter British satire

The Thick of It makes for increasingly uncomfortable viewing
I have been thinking a lot about satire recently. This is partly because for only the second time in my life I am getting to teach a module on Augustan satire (one of my favourite topics). In addition though, it reminded me of a Twitter conversation I had with a couple of emminent literary gents about the satire of the latest series of The Thick of It. I was caught by the fact that one of these gents, writer Martin Wroe, was expressing exactly (but more eloquently) what I had been thinking myself - that the series appears to get darker each time, and in this series appears to portray all of humanity as posessing no redeeming qualities at all. When the infamously foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker accuses the leader of the opposition of having “all the charm of a rotting teddy bear by a graveside”, he could as easily be describing the show itself.

If you are not familiar with the series (which was turned into the feature film In the Loop), it caused a stir on its first series run in 2005 thanks in large part to its shocking language. It might be fair to say that the BBC had never known language as colourful, and insults as inventively unpleasant as this. At the same time though, the series demonstrated a biting satirical edge that was smart, ruthless and precient. Indeed, much has been made of the fact that many of the ridiculous scenarios portrayed in the series eventually came to be mirrored by real-life politics. Insider info hinted at the fact that the series was a lot closer to the reality of British politics than anyone would openly admit - rather like the Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister shows of the 1980s.

Yes Minister, surprisingly close to the truth of British politics

Of course having set the bar high in terms of initial shock value, the subsequent series do make you wonder how much the writers are striving to exceed the shock levels which caused such an impact first time around. In this latest offering, the characters use insults that are fruitier and more imaginative than ever. They are more back-stabbing, bitter, cynical, arrogant, impotent and dismissive of anyone who does not serve their own interest. In the first series, the character of Malcolm Tucker was really the only character that excelled in all of these qualities - and his invention was a stroke of genius. Now though, Tucker presides over a multi-party industry in which everyone has been made in his image, and the overall effect leaves you questioning at what point satire crosses a line and becomes just plain nasty.

Americas version of The Thick of It (written by the same Armando Ianucci team) focuses on the office of the Vice President and is called Veep. If nobody has had the chance to see this show, it contains much of the same smart, synical satirical humour, but it’s characters are not wholly without redeeming qualities. It has much more of the feel of Yes Minister, as it’s central characters are (like Jim Hacker) portrayed as idealists confronting the impossible obstacles of a self-serving political culture and beaurocracy. By comparison with The Thick of it, Veep seems rather refreshingly positive, while at the same time offering a genuine and sharp satirical critique of American politics which has been desperately needed after so many years of the brilliant, but frankly rather smug, The West Wing.

The problem here though, is that the levels of bitterness and misanthropy in The Thick of It should perhaps come as no surprise to anyone. Nor should it necessarily be seen as merely the consequence of needing to drive up its shock value. If we were to look back to the ‘golden age’ of British satire, and the writing of people like Dryden, Congreve, Butler, Pope and Swift - even the work of the great English artist William Hogarth - we can see that all of their work and careers demonstrates the same sense of a deepening pessimism and fury at a world where power and influence are exercised by the corrupt and inept.

In 1693 Dryden offered a neat description of satire as being purposely designed to take the vicious, the inept and the corrupt, and turning them into monstrosities which will repel and audience:

“‘Tis an Action of Virtue to make Examples of vicious Men. They may and ought to be upbraided with their Crimes and Follies: Both for their own amendment, if they are not yet incorrigible; and for the Terrour of others, to hinder them from falling into those Enormities, which they see are so severely punish’d, in the Persons of others”

For Dryden the purpose of satire is primarily not to entertain, but to disgust. John Vanburgh would echo the sentiment in 1697 in the prelude to his play The Provoked Wife:

'Tis the intent and business of the stage,
To copy out the follies of the age,
To hold every man a faithful glass,
And show him of what species he's an ass.

Thirty years later Jonathan Swift argued similarly “the chief end I propose to my self in all my labours is to vex the world rather than divert it”. Swift was a satirist who perhaps more than most struggled to find humanity anything more than an object of disgust. Indeed, at the close of Gulliver’s Travels it is hard not to see something of Swift the author in the furious repugnance described by his celebrated hero:

Gulliver meets a 'Yahoo'
“when I behold a lump of deformity and diseases, both in body and mind, smitten with pride, it immediately breaks all the measures of my patience; neither shall I be ever able to comprehend how such an animal, and such a vice, could tally together”

In Swift we see a typical tension in British satire. On the one hand there is an idealism, and an intention to (to use Swift’s own words from a letter to Charles Ford) “wonderfully mend the World”. On the other hand though, there is an understanding of the ultimate futility of satire to do anything of the sort. Alexander Pope expressed this futility in his Epistle to Arbuthnot, where he defends himself against the accusation of being cruel to the objects of his satire:

   “You think this cruel? take it for a rule,
No creature smarts so little as a fool.”

No - the very ones which satire would ridicule, the very ones that satire would wish to “wonderfully mend”, are the very last ones to ever believe the satire is directed at them. All that is left, then, is the fury. The frustrated, abject, impotent rage at the crassness, the corruption and the vanity of the world.

Of course satire does not have to be this way. Many of the great satirists of British literary history looked with a kind of longing at the calm, rational and ultimately good-humoured satires of the Roman poet Horace. “His Urbanity, that is, his Good Manners, are to be commended” wrote Dryden, because he “laughs to shame, all Follies, and insinuates Virtue, rather by familiar Examples, than by the severity of Precepts”. Pope wrote a series of epistles which he descrbed as ‘Imitations of Horace’, and Swift declared himself as jealous of Horace as he was of his friend Pope.

Horace seemed to combined an ability to pinpoint the follies of those around him, with a self-effacing and rational style which made him both inoffensive and endearing. Horace’s satires made you want his approval.

No wonder such a style appealed to Dryden, Pope and Swift.

The trouble is, as much as they yearned to replicate the rationality of Horace, the satire of these British giants resembled far more the satires by two of Horaces great contemporaries: Juvenal and Mennipus. Juvenal had none of Horace’s urbanity. His satires are loftier and grander. For Juvenal the crimes and follies of his subjects deserve a Universal condemnation. Mennipus, it was less to do with individual people at all, and more to do with generic faults which humanity itself posessed. Both Juvenal and Mennipus with a greater force and fury that the calm Horace. As Dryden argued, “Horace is always on the Amble, Juvenal on the Gallop”, with the latter encouraging “a more lively agitation to the Spirits”.

There is an odd parallel between the lives of Juvenal, Swift and Pope. The former was eventually exiled by Augustus because of the offences his satires had caused. Similarly, Swift desccribed himself as in exile in Dublin following the death of Queen Ann and the threats against her Tory supporters. Pope was exiled from the City of London because of the exclusion of catholics from the City, and from his rural home he experienced both ostracism and viscous personal attacks. All three writers became increasingly bitter in exile, and their satires became harsher. Swift’s satires descended further and further into foul-mouthed rants filled with a toiletry humour that stank of despair.

The point is this. The new series of The Thick of It demonstrates all the frustrated fury of the later satires of Swift and Pope. Its extreme nature of its visceral humour is born of an understanding of its own ultimate futility: Even a series as pointed as this will not convince our current crop of politicians that they are anything other than brilliant people who understand what the country needs better than anyone else. As the series develops, it seems to be moving from a pointed attack on individuals only thinly disguised to both literally and satirically placing the whole political process on trial - a trial from which the only satisfactory conclusion would be to trash the whole thing and start fresh with something new.

This is never going to happen. The wheels of grease, corruption and vanity in British politics will keep turning. So be prepared for The Thick of It to have an ending as bitter as Swift’s, Pope’s and (of course) Gulliver’s. In its excruciating extremes then, it is merely taking its place in an extended tradition of furious satire.

ADDITION:


Episode 6 of the latest series of The Thick of It focused on a Leveson-type enquiry, which culminates in the apparent demise of Malcolm Tucker.  As a parting shot, Tucker delivers a speech in is about as Swiftian a piece of satire as I can think of.  It is a speech in which he forcefully turns upon those who would judge him, and accuses them of hypocracy. He accuses them of creating a political culture of which he is a bullying and self-serving image. As the speech continues, those watching it may feel a slight edge of discomfort as they wonder just whether the speech is directed at the panel, or at themselves - an engineered uncertainty of which Swift was a master.

It is easy to despise Tucker, and the foul corruption he stands for, even as we laugh at him.  But in this speech Tucker categorically rejects our disapproval.  "You come after me" he says "because you can't arrest a land mass".  It is the nation that is at fault.  The nation which has elected the vain, the corrupt, the inept and the arrogant.  The nation which has allowed itself to be convinced by liars and by a "political class which has given up on morality and simply pursues popularity at all costs".

And the reason why the nation is represented by these immoral, populist liars?

Because they are a reflection of us.  "I am you, you are me" says Tucker.  It is not him that's the problem, it is all of us - the whole wretched lot of us.  "You don't like your species" says Tucker, "and you know what? Neither do I".

It is hard not to be reminded of Swift's bitter summation of humanity in his Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift (1731):

Vain humn Kind!  Fantastick Race!
Thy various Follies, who can trace?
Self-love, Ambition, Envy, Pride,
Their Empire in our Hearts divide:

Seems I may be right about the bitter ending of this series of The Thick of It.  And obviously, being vain, foolish, self-loving, ambitious and proud, I like nothing better than to be right.

Watch Tucker's magnifient moment here: