Category Archives: Current Affairs

Balancing Act: Keeping Politics Fair And Fun

Turn on a British TV this month, and the first programme you see will almost certainly have something to do with one of two topics. Neither of these two topics is particularly enthralling as a basis for a semi-humorous televisiophile blog post, but I feel that I would be ignoring the elephant in the room if I blogged about, say, Brooklyn Nine-Nine or Fuller House (but look out for next month’s post, sitcom lovers!).

One of the afore-mentioned topics that’s filling up the airwaves is football. I will not be writing about this.

This leaves me with the good old EU referendum (June 23rd, guys! Two days to go! Get your cross-writing muscles ready now!). Much like the Scottish independence referendum before it, the debate on the EU seems to have been raging for years without anyone saying anything remotely useful, leaving the general population (i.e. the people who actually have to make the decision) confused and irritated by the whole thing. Thank goodness, then, for topical comedy. The most recent series of Have I Got News for You did its best to perk things up, but was in the unfortunate (or perhaps fortunate, who can say?) position of finishing its current run a month before the referendum actually takes place. However, as always, when we say goodbye to HIGNFY we say hello to Mock the Week, which started up again two weeks ago.

The first thing to say about Mock the Week is that I can’t really decide whether I like it or not. Sometimes, if the right guests are on, it’s very funny, especially since it can be snarkier and more cut-throat than HIGNFY. But, as others have commented, it’s a little too scripted, a little too smug, and it does sometimes seem to have that boys’ club mentality, particularly since they seem to go out of their way to make the single female guest (mandated, of course, by the BBC) look like the Token Woman. (Maybe, just once, out of seven comedians, more than one of them could be female? No? OK.)

Anyway. What I noticed most about Mock the Week on this occasion was that the EU referendum got comparatively little airtime. Granted, the first question was technically all about the EU, but since it was ‘If this is the answer, what is the question?’ and the answer was ‘4%’, most of the jokes were related to non-EU topics such as Muhammad Ali, Johnny Depp, Sepp Blatter and other celebrities who have either done something very bad or fallen victim to the Curse of 2016. Once the answer was revealed (4% was the difference between Remain and Leave voters in the most recent poll, if you want to know), there was a little more Europe-related comedy: a few jokes about scaremongering on both sides of the campaign, some light criticism of various politicians, including Josh Widdicombe’s astute observation that “Michael Gove looks like a satirical cartoon of Michael Gove”, and then it was on to Euro 2016, the Megabus mascot and Noel Edmonds’ cancer box. Either the BBC is so afraid of appearing biased one way or the other that it’s managed to reign in even the Mock the Week team; or, as Hugh Dennis suggested, “We’ve got to make this last three weeks – we can’t use all the jokes now”.

Perhaps because they kept the EU ref refs on the down-low, it seemed to me that they did a very good job of keeping things even-handed and not showing bias one way or the other, despite the fact that all of them probably lean substantially to the left and are likely to be voting ‘In’. In fact, there was very little in the way of argumentation or debate at all – they just carried along with the same kind of ‘politicians look a bit weird’ humour that gets bums on seats but can hardly be called politically motivated.

Not so The Last Leg on Channel 4. The first episode got straight into the nitty-gritty of the issues by kicking off the series with everyone’s favourite bearded Labour Party stirrer Jeremy Corbyn. The JezCorbs segment was halfway through the episode, and he was immediately subjected to viewer questions that were surprisingly incisive for hash-tagged tweets, starting off with ‘Why have you always been Eurosceptic but are now pro-Remain?’ (Answer in brief: being part of a slightly flawed group is still better than not being in the group at all.) Jezza was a good speaker, if not a particularly jolly one (lampshaded by another Twitter question: “Why are you on a comedy show if you have no sense of humour?” Burn.) Overall, though, he acquitted himself well enough that large swathes of the programme were, by sheer dint of his presence, pro-Remain. (And anti-Trump, but then he is a functioning human being.)

Apart from this interlude, though, there was generally a pervasive sense of having no opinion one way or the other, largely due to having no idea what was happening. The three hosts (Adam Hills, Josh Widdicombe and Alex Brooker) all carefully avoided the question of what they personally thought, and there was a lot of chat about the enormous amount of nonsense spouted by both campaigns, complete with “Bullshit!” buzzer. They briefly ventured to state some facts, mainly regarding economic claims, before we moved to mocking the people in charge on each side (cue videos of Jean-Claude Juncker drunkenly kissing foreign dignitaries and Boris hanging off his wire) as well as the attempts of both parties to engage the youth: the Leave campaign producing branded condoms and beer mats, and the Remain campaign enlisting June Sarpong, T4 presenter of the late 2000s.

The overall feeling of the Last Leg opener, then, was one of “getting Brissed off with the whole thing”; in fact, the only people to demonstrate an actual opinion seemed to be the audience, who cheered and whooped for JezCorbs and booed the pro-Leave frontman of Right Said Fred when he won an arm wrestle against the Pro-Leave Johnny Vegas (it sort of made sense in context).

This week’s episode was a little different, since large parts of the show dealt with other topics arising from a horrific week of awful news stories, discussed, by and large, with dignity and compassion. Since, as a result of the terrible news, both EU campaigns were suspended for several days, the show also veered away from explicitly discussing the referendum (Mock the Week’s second episode, due on Thursday, was withdrawn for the same reason). Again, therefore, no political biases were evident, and most jokes were at the expense of everyone’s two favourite tyrants, “wigged prick” Donald Trump and “secretly gay ultra conservative” Vladimir Putin.

Speaking of whom…

You expect topical news shows to be up-to-date, but it seems unreasonable to expect it of a sitcom; or DOES IT??? Power Monkeys would beg to differ.

In its original incarnation last year, Power Monkeys was called Ballot Monkeys. It was aired in the run-up to the General Election, it took place on board the (fictional) campaign buses of the various parties, and, crucially it was written and filmed the day it was shown. This astonishing feat of televisual speed and stamina led to a very funny, very topical show; and, if the first two episodes of the new series was anything to go by, they’ve managed the same astonishing feat again.

Power Monkeys follows the chaos and hysteria leading up to the referendum, with scenes variously set on the Brexit campaign bus, the HQ of the Conservative Unity Unit, Trump’s battle plane and Putin’s government offices. Stars include Jack Dee, Claire Skinner (Outnumbered), Amelia Bullmore (Twenty Twelve), Archie Panjabi (with a much more convincing accent than in The Good Wife) and Stacey’s brother off of Gavin and Stacey.

The first episode was broadcast the day after the Farage interview and Hillary securing the Democrat nomination for president; it made reference to both of these things, as well as the extension of the voter registration deadline and, naturally, Noel Edmonds’ magic cancer box (how we all long for those heady days two weeks ago when that was the biggest news story). Episode two included references to Russian football hooligans (“The flare? No. That was festive. We use them like party poppers”), John Cleese coming out as pro-Brexit, the sheer absurdity of the Thames flotilla, and recent polls putting ‘Leave’ ahead (“Huh. We’d better make it seem like we have a plan”).

As with Mock the Week and The Last Leg, the general theme of the programme is that everyone involved in politics is bonkers. The pro-Leave campaign is full of crazy scaremongerers whose claims are ripped straight from the headlines of The Sun (“I’ve just tweeted that since we’ve joined the EU, the number of verrucas has risen sharply”), while the Conservative Unity Unit is a diverse bunch of weird people who are constantly at each other’s throats. Then, of course, there’s the antics of Trump and Putin, whose existence has the dubious advantage of making our home-grown British politicians look slightly less awful. It should be noted that neither the Big T nor the Big P actually appear themselves; what we see are their secretaries, assistants and aides being generally useless and commenting on their masters’, erm, foibles (“Don’t hover! Litvinenko used to hover!”).

But what’s curious about this set-up is the omission of a pro-Remain group. The original series featured Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem and UKIP in comparable measures and was equally scornful of all of them. This time, there’s no specific group of lefties; apparently the Conservative Unity Unit is pro-Europe, but this doesn’t clearly come across in the dialogue – most of the jokes in those scenes are at the expense of David Cameron personally, which means that the limited amount of explicit anti-pro-Remain mockery all falls on Jack Dee’s character, who hits right back with razor-sharp snipes at the leaders of his own party (“Don’t mention the British Virgin Islands, or the British Islands as they’ve been called since Boris paid them a visit”). This is odd because, as Mock the Week and The Last Leg have beautifully illustrated, the pro-Remainers have their fair share of nutcases, ripe for quips about playing it safe, prophesying the apocalypse and being under the heel of Angela Merkel.

The makers of Power Monkeys have stated that they’re trying their damnedest not to show their own hands, but the result of the set-up described above does, inevitably, come across as a slightly sneaky nudge towards ‘Remain’. This is probably a more natural reaction to the whole farrago than scrupulously toeing a central line so as not to offend or influence anyone; but, at the same time, it feels a little bit uncomfortable, maybe because everyone else is trying so hard to avoid taking a stand. Still, if campaigning with facts is dull, and campaigning with lies is unethical, maybe campaigning with comedy is the only option.

So let’s be sensible about this, OK, guys? For the next two days, let’s concentrate on the task at hand, try to sort the facts from the rubbish, keep a civil conversation going, vote accordingly, and then, whatever the result, go forward as a diverse but courteous United Kingdom. And then we can all focus on a cause close to the hearts of every man, woman and child in the country: ripping the shit out of Donald Trump.

Anyone for #Chicken?

2015: The Year In Review Shows

A new year, eh? Always makes you a bit philosophical. What have I achieved in the last twelve months? What will I remember as the good times? What have I learnt? How long will it be before I can bear to look at a mince pie again? And so forth. But the problem with looking back with nostalgia at the year that’s just gone is that, well, it’s just gone. It was there, like, a few days ago. So to try and sum up 2015, I have turned to television, and, in particular, end-of-year review shows that will do the job for me. These, my friends, are the historical documents that in a hundred years’ time will be included in the source analysis paper of GCSE History. You mark my words.

The first thing I discovered about 2015 from my highly scrutinising documentary investigation was that I apparently missed loads of stuff. During The Big Fat Quiz of the Year, I kept my score – because I am THAT person – and I did appallingly, the worst I have ever performed in this particular challenge (the teams’ scores were 43, 35 and 31 points respectively, and I got 16. Terrible, terrible, terrible). Incredibly poor competitive effort notwithstanding, I was intrigued to see just how this frolicsome and whimsical comedy quiz would manage to be comedic about a year that has, in many ways, been pretty horrific; and the answer was ‘Quite well actually’. After a recognition by Jimmy Carr that 2015’s main news stories had been “a bit terrorist-y”, the questions mainly tried to see the positive side of things – for example, the long-overdue dumping of Farage from his parliamentary seat. In fact, quite a lot of the time, the contestants ignored the “Quiz of the Year” part of the show’s title and went instead for “Big Fat Taking the Piss out of Themselves and Each Other for the Viewers’ Amusement”. This was effective because the line-up was pretty strong: Jo Brand, Rob Brydon (who staged a presenting coup), Richard Ayoade and David Mitchell, whose battle for King of Geeks continues to rage, Greg Davies, and bundle of pure joy Claudia Winkleman. They all looked like they were having a lovely time, the audience was roaring, the children of Mitchell Brook Primary School were as cute as ever, and there was a cameo from Josh Groban. Excellent.

Nonetheless, they did manage to squeeze in some of the vaguely important stuff that really epitomised the last year. Thus, we were quizzed about the general election, Jeremy Clarkson’s departure from the BBC (which, we were forcefully reminded, was a non-renewal of contract and NOT A SACKING), the FIFA corruption scandal, the ominous rise of Donald Trump, and that stupid dress whose colour no-one could agree on. Add in a questionable joke about Oscar Pistorius and a guest appearance from Nadiya from Bake Off and you’ve just about got 2015 sewn up.

Also chockful of 2015-ness was Charlie Brooker’s 2015 Wipe, which included many of the same topics of conversation, though discussed in a much more bitter and sarcastic tone. Politics was high on the agenda, with Brooker treating us to even more of his quite frankly fantastic descriptions of our much beloved head of state. Brooker’s Weekly Wipe series earlier in the year offered us such delights as “harrowing adult baby”, “shiny-skinned succubus of the damned” and the presciently pig-related “gammon despot”, and this most recent episode was liberally sprinkled with billions of other porky pops at the expense of “honey roast prime minister David Cameron”. (I shouldn’t laugh. But I do.) Also grist to the metaphor mill was nefarious wigmonger Donald Trump, whose hair variously described as “a squirrel’s tail brushed over his head”, “a kind of funny gas”, “a guinea pig looking at you through a washing machine door” and “just too Hitler-y for everyone”. If you didn’t laugh, you’d cry.

Aside from specific figures of fun, other topics were covered in a way that sounded like jokery but was actually really depressing. The dress was mentioned again in the words of utter scorn and disgust that it deserves, the “fracas” surrounding Jeremy Clarkson was seen as a welcome departure for a man who is basically a “human exhaust pipe”, 50 Shades of Grey’s questionable sexual politics were roundly insulted, and we paid our respects to Cecil the Lion; then we moved on to the migrant crisis, in which it was revealed that migrants were actually REAL PEOPLE (capital letters simply cannot do justice to the levels of sarcasm achieved by Brooker, Barry Shitpeas, and Queen of All Things Philomena Cunk during this story). Following a quick look at feminism, in which Philomena’s OTT ignorance and vapid commentary were hilarious until you remembered that some people still actually think like that, and a reminder about 2015’s hottest new group, the terrorists formerly known as ISIS, it was strangely fitting that Brooker ended the show by leaning back on his sofa and breaking into the cracked and maniacal laughter of a man driven insane by the stupidity of it all.

After that, I rather fancied a bit of lightness and fun, so I thought, “What better way to cheer myself up than with a healthy dose of Schadenfreude?” Time for Rude Tube: Welcome to 2016! Now obviously I don’t watch Rude Tube for its factual chops (that would be like getting my news from Buzzfeed, which is something I absolutely one hundred per cent do not do ever at all) – I watch it for the screaming goats and people making idiots of themselves. But actually, recent pop culture trends and current affairs played a surprisingly strong role in this year’s special, albeit with a goofy slapstick spin. The anniversary of Back to the Future was represented by a bloke falling off a hoverboard, Zayn’s tragic departure from One Direction appeared in the form of lots of teenage girls crying, and the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens was referenced in two clips: a Stormtrooper falling down a set of stairs and Darth Vader crashing into a wall. Good times.

But it ain’t all black eyes and bruised knees, oh no. In compiling a list of popular videos from around the web, Rude Tube takes the pulse of the country, and the country is thinking about lots of things. It’s thinking about the EU referendum, which is why we got to see a neo-Nazi in a stupid mask attempt to burn an EU flag and fail miserably (racists 0, EU health and safety regs 1). It’s thinking about new ways to make ends meet in the unstable financial climate – for example, charging people to hold their place in queues for tickets/designer products/the dole etc. while they go and have a wee. It’s thinking about how we can all be a little bit happier by trying a new and aggressive form of meditation-cum-road-rage.  And, somewhat reluctantly, it’s thinking about the highs and lows of DavCam’s year – from winning the election  to, you know, that other thing.

And if Rude Tube isn’t Zeitgeist-y enough for you, then how about Gogglebox, which actually broadcasts people watching the same stuff other people are watching and then saying stuff about it? Since we’re getting real people involved here, you might expect rather a different approach to summing up the year, and this proved to be the case – the programme started by showing a participant’s cat falling off the sofa before announcing that 2015 had been “a year when far too much happened to mention”. Right-o.

The selection of programmes was indeed a slightly bizarre one, and not necessarily what one might describe as representative of the year as a whole. Poldark reared its ugly head (and by head I mean chest and by ugly I mean topless and glistening), which is fair enough because it made quite a splash, but also included were First Dates (which does have its devoted fans, but which has been going on for several years without really doing anything particularly scandalous), Eurovision’s Greatest Hits (which I watched and enjoyed but is hardly a contender for Programme of the Year) and, of all things, Gladiator (the film one), which came out a mere fifteen years ago. Topical it was not, although, I have to say, the reactions to the woman with the weird tea recipe in First Dates were pretty funny. (For posterity, this recipe was two teabags, evaporated milk and two sugars. Cue gasps of horror.)

But, in amongst the spangly rip-away skirts, a few familiar themes were also subjected to the Goggleboxers’ raucous and pointed analysis. Like a particularly bad piece of undercooked black-and-blue-and-white-and-gold chicken, the stupid dress came up again, with one viewer stating “I lost friends over this dress”; the announcement of Clarkson’s definitely-not-sacking was met with stunned silence followed by a cheerful chorus of “Good riddance”; and, of course, the general election was included in the form of Jeremy Paxman’s interviews with David Cameron and Ed Miliband. The general consensus was that Cameron was a bit of a prat but did at least look as though he might be able to tie his own shoelaces, while Ed Miliband was simply not PM material but didn’t deserve the snarky personal questions fired at him by Paxo. Overall, no one really came off looking particularly good.

With such analysis, the Goggleboxers were probably mirroring the thoughts of quite a substantial part of the nation, which is of course the weird appeal of the programme. Reverend Kate gets  excitedabout chocolate biscuits? Me too! The Siddiquis aren’t 100% sure what Nick Clegg looks like? Neither am I! Scarlett thinks Jeremy Corbyn is a shoo-in for the next Doctor Who? Totes!

Which is why the finale was a bit of a kicker: it was the afore-mentioned analysis of Gladiator, and after a lot of chat about togas and whatnot, we got to see the Goggleboxers’ reactions to the end of the film in which (SPOILER ALERT, if one is still needed after fifteen years…) the hero dies and is reunited with his family in heaven.

And everything went quiet, and everyone looked thoughtfully at their televisions, some smiling, some with tears in their eyes. Looks like Gogglebox may have caught the mood of 2015 after all.

Thanks for reading, and I wish everyone a simply marvellous 2016.