Tuesday, 6 October 2015

The Comic Strip Presents & Others: The New Statesman

The subject of time has come up in the classic TV blogosphere this week, so of course I have to leap in and give my two penn'orth. My impression of time in the world of TV is that it depends on the programme and the viewer's first experience of it. The later Avengers were made before I was born, for example, but seem very recent to me because of my early experience of them on the young Channel Four. Many of the 1970s shows I have talked about here seem very old because they were broadcast when I was a very small child, while the shows from the 80s and 90s when I was at some very difficult ages, are etched on my memory as if yesterday. I would also suggest that older production values and social concerns can make shows seem older than newer ones.
Recently I have been rediscovering a whole movement of 1980s comedy. I have posted several times here on the subject of comedy recently, and what surprises me most is how little I have posted on it. Of course this is because much of the pre-mid-1980s TV comedy is (in my humble opinion) really not much cop. Then in the 1980s a whole 'alternative' comedy movement came along which was actually funny and remains so thirty years later. The first of those programmes was The Comic Strip Presents…, which I'm sure I will come to at some point. I have already touched on the wonderful Young Ones. But I have not yet posted on Bottom, Filthy Rich and Catflap, French and Saunders, Ab Fab or The New Statesman, which is the subject of this post.
I have a feeling that probably The New Statesman would have been a better vehicle for celebrating Rik Mayall's talent in the wake of his death than is The Young Ones. The other series for which he is known often rely on a comic counterpoint between Mayall and Adrian Edmondson, but The New Statesman gives him much more of a solo stage, to which the other characters are subsidiary. Nor can this programme be considered a mere rehash of Yes, (Prime) Minister, although it seems to cover much of the same territory. The Yes, Minister programmes give me the heeby jeebies, because it depicts what to me is a chilling world of personal careerism, backhanders, and the prevention of any real progress by the machinations of the civil service. Yes, Minister serves up an all too real world of politics and diplomacy which is easily transferrable to any forum in the world, where nothing really matters. Bizarrely The New Statesman manages to take the same material and make it hilarious for me.
I'm not sure why. Nor does it seem dated, and can make me laugh out loud at this length of time. It certainly should seem dated, since it very much reflects the 1980s, the age of the 'yuppie' in the UK. Its concerns are completely of that age: AIDS is mentioned, parliamentary corruption and perversion, police influence in public life, sexual morality, conflict with trades unionists, radioactive waste dumping, and Jeffrey Archer and the Vatican Bank even get a mention. This list includes virtually all of the major concerns of the time, and as far as this blog is concerned, represents what came next in the history of the usual 1960s preoccupations in my habitual viewing.
I think that probably I would recommend this as an antidote to dewy-eyed Anglophiles, in need of seeing the seedy underbelly of British public life as it is. I love the bit where B'Stard takes money from a blind beggar to put in the parking meter: these are often the people who represent us. I love the scenes in the House of Commons (Did you know that to this day the BBC maintains a complete replica of the House of Commons?) and non-native Brits viewing it should not be shocked at the abuse our parliamentarians give each other in the chamber. That is traditional and allowed! The show's Wikipedia page accurately summarises B'Stard's attitudes, which stand as a summary & criticism of parliamentarians' attitudes of the time:
'Over the course of the series, stage shows and newspaper columns, Alan opined on numerous topics, most of which demonstrated his contempt for the working class and indeed anyone not of the political and financial elite (the ordinaries). During an argument with a constituent, B'Stard declared that he believed he was helping British industry by driving a Bentley (a [Lagonda] In series 4) and having his suits handmade by British craftsmen. B'Stard's arrogance even extended to stating that there was nothing wrong with the education system that couldn't be put right with £2,500 a term, and that NHS waiting lists could be abolished by shutting down the health service, thereby eradicating poor people and eliminating poverty. B'Stard continued this train of thought through his defection to New Labour when he was instrumental in arranging a postcode lottery for cancer treatment so that "only the right people get better". Alan at one time proposed inverting the rallying cry of the American War of Independence by stating that "No representation without taxation" was a more fitting clarion call, believing people such as himself (the "enterprising, over-taxed minority") to be called on far too often to bail out other members of society. Alan used the same argument when proposing to cut off all social security payments to elderly people as he believes they should have considered how they would look after themselves instead of wasting their money on "ghastly holidays in Blackpool". When being interviewed by Brian Walden, Alan readily consented that should he rule the UK, the rich would only pay tax on their cocaine, children would be forced to work in mills and the elderly and infirm would be left to die by the thousands.' (Source)
One thing which I find particularly clever is the way B'Stard's reputation manager, Norman, gradually undertakes what we would now call a gender reassignment, becoming more feminine at each appearance, and even commenting on her increasing femininity. This is cleverly juxtaposed with the fear which the Prime Minister inspires every time she is mentioned. Mrs Thatcher's name is never actually mentioned by anyone in parliament, and they always refer to her as 'she' in a tone which manages to be fearful without being overdone at all. It is clear that the one actual female character in parliament is not feminine at all!
The scenes which take place in B'Stard's constituency are also charming, displaying a community of eccentrics including his father in law, and the retired hangman who runs a pub.
Normally I would criticise the fact that there are some familiar faces in the cast (Peter Sallis plays the former hangman, for example), but their presence is not intrusive. In fact I have been sitting here trying to think of some criticism to make of this show, and been completely unable to do so!

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