Here we go again. Yet another ‘satire’ about Tony Blair. This time from the Comic Strip, those 1980s Alternative Comedians who did so much to stamp out Thatcherism and now spend their time playing benign ogres in Harry Potter films or cheery vicars in winsome sitcoms, endorsing beer or opposing (how ironic) the Alternative Vote.
In The Hunt for Tony Blair our former Prime Minister is portrayed as a smooth villain taken from a 1950s film noir, one eager to cite the ‘tough choices’ which lead him to murder his innocent victims.
As Stephen Mangan who plays Blair in the film says, it’s meant to be an ‘out-and-out comedy’ but he hopes it will be controversial because: ‘If you’re being brave and accurate and manage to pinpoint things in a sufficiently sharp way, then, you know, you should upset people’. From the looks of it, however, The Hunt for Tony Blair promises to be irredeemably conformist.
The New Labour government is the most dramatised in history and Tony Blair the most dramatised Prime Minister – certainly no other party or leader has been subject to such extensive fictionalisation on the screen while still in office. To give you an idea, here’s just a few images of the fictionalised Tony Blair. Churchill had to wait until the 1970s.
And how have Blair and colleagues been fictionalised? In one way only: as spin-obsessed power-abusers; liars who are both financially and morally corrupt. Of course there are some who think this just reflects the reality. When I interviewed those writers and directors who have produced some of the best known dramatisations of Blair for a Radio Four documentary last year, they all had serious reasons for showing him up in negative terms – what they saw as his betrayal of the working class and role in taking Britain into Iraq being the most significant.
But there also lazy reasons, including pandering to easy stereotypes and popular prejudices. Many members of the public, certainly those on the left, somehow ‘know’ that Blair was obsessed by spin, was in love with the powerful and lied to us about Iraq. But how do we acquire such ‘knowledge’? I’ve looked at all the instances in which New Labour and Blair have been depicted on the screen and what I can report is a diminishing of what I call our ‘imagined political capital’ – that is the repertoire of ideas we hold about politicians. In the era of mediated politics this increasingly influences how we see our politicians. For how many of us actually know an MP or meet a councillor and so have direct experience of them? Very few. For the most part we get our knowledge about politics through reading or watching the news (and fewer and fewer of us do that) or watching them depicted on the screen in comedies and dramas. This is ersatz knowledge.
That is not to say that the former Prime Minister was the saintly hero that some Blairite cultists seem to think. But we should be aware of the whys and wherefores of how our politicians are being depicted on the screen and how it is – compared to, say the 1970s – that you can’t find a good politician on the screen any more and why it should be that politics is constantly represented as a moral hazard.
In the 1930s Graham Greene defined ‘a humorist in the modern English sense’, as someone ‘who shares the popular taste and who satirizes only those with whom the majority are already displeased’. This led to what Greene disparaged as ‘safe and acceptable’ comedies, that only reinforced popular opinion.
If the Comic Strip had wanted to be ‘brave’ and ‘controversial’ then it would have produced a version of Tony Blair who was not a murderous, lying swine.