During research for my (forthcoming, honest, Bloomsbury Press) book on how UK politics has been depicted on the stage, page and screen I have come across plenty of Top Ten lists compiled by bloggers like Iain Dale that rank the best television political comedies.
The popularity of these lists shows the scale of interest in the subject. But for understandable generational reasons many compilers are unaware of comedies broadcast before Yes Minister in 1980.
So here’s a Top Ten (in chronological order) of comedies that reached the small screen before Jim Hacker first nervously appeared on BBC2. It’s a mixed bag of the sublime and the awful but over time comedies became ever-more critical of politics and the most popular – the sitcoms – emphasised how little the parties had in common with their protagonists. As I claim in this article, a populist anti-politics is an ever-present feature in depictions of politics in the UK.
Party Manners (BBC, 1950) provoked a big fuss when Lord Simon, Chair of the BBC Governors, banned its second transmission because he believed it demeaned politics. Yet Val (brother of John) Geilgud’s farce about a former Labour Cabinet minister and the political exploitation of nuclear secrets had already enjoyed an uncontroversial West End run. Some believed the Labour party had lent on Simon but as founder of the Association for Education in Citizenship he was genuinely uneasy when politicians of any party were criticised.
Simon was attacked in the press for his censorship but screen criticism of politicians remained almost unknown until the 1960s. Swizzlewick (BBC, 1964), a twice weekly series, was part of a new wave that satirized the country’s rulers. It cocked an ironic eye at the workings of a fictional midlands council, the members of which, led by Mayor Augustus Bent (geddit?) were either corrupt or obsessed with sex – or both. The series set out to offend all tastes and generated numerous complaints, notably from Mary Whitehouse who found herself depicted as Mrs Smallgood. It was too much, even for the permissive Director General of the BBC Hugh Carleton Greene, and the series was pulled after a few months.
The very dark comedy Vote Vote Vote for Nigel Barton (BBC, 1965) should have been broadcast in 1964 but BBC executives had problems with a Dennis Potter script they felt was too damning of politics. Eventually getting the green light Potter showed how the electoral process demoralized a radical Labour candidate. His idealism was sacrificed on the altar of winning votes from an ignorant, apathetic and bigoted electorate. As a former Labour candidate himself, it might be thought Potter knew what he was talking about.
While audiences for one off plays like Potter’s were variable, situation comedies could guarantee a loyal following. Steptoe and Son (BBC, 1962-74) was one of the most successful sitcoms of all time, claiming audiences of 28 million. Rag-and-bone man Harold was a Labour man, secretary of his ward party, idealistic and full of hope for the future while his father Albert was a cynical, deferential Conservative. In My Old Man’s A Tory (1965) Harold’s ambition to be a Labour candidate is thwarted because – the party agent tells him – he is too working class. The party he loves does not love him.
The Whitehall Worrier (BBC, 1967) lasted just one season. It was an old fashioned farce about a silly-ass Labour minister and his confused domestic arrangements. While gratuitous references were made to ‘Harold’ and other leading figures of the day the plots mainly revolved around the minister’s ‘dizzy’ wife.
The series was very similar to Best of Enemies (ITV, 1968-9), an ‘odd couple’ comedy, in which a newly-elected Labour MP is forced to share his office with an old lag Tory. In both series politics provided a backdrop but the jokes were barely political. In one episode the Labour MP accidentally takes Harold Wilson’s trademark Gannex raincoat and donates it by mistake to a jumble sale. Satire it was not.
An Ideal Husband (BBC, 1969) was one of many revivals of Oscar Wilde’s 1895 comedy in which an up-and-coming politician is blackmailed by someone who knows he financed his early political career through selling stolen cabinet secrets to a financier. Wilde suggests that we all have flaws and these should be forgiven, even in a politician, a sentiment this BBC production did not question.
The second Steptoe episode devoted to politics was Tea for Two (1970), with a very similar storyline to that of My Old Man’s A Tory. This time Albert is working for the Conservatives during a by-election and party officials decide it would be a good photo opportunity for Edward Heath to have tea at the rag-and-bone man’s home. Albert is in raptures and decks his humble abode with union flags and puts carpet down in the outside loo. But like his son in 1965 Albert is let down by his chosen party when Heath cancels the visit.
Brassneck (BBC, 1975) was based on a play written by left-wing authors Howard Brenton and David Hare. As the former said at the time: ‘The idea was to write a funny play and our inspiration came from the history of the Borgias. What, we asked ourselves, would the Borgias – or the Bagleys as they became – be like, seen against a respectable setting like town councils, large family weddings, and celebrations like the Queen’s Coronation?’ The answer is a play about systemic political corruption in a midlands town – not a usual subject of comedy – which echoed the contemporary (and very real) Poulson scandal.
Rising Damp (ITV, 1974-8) was one of ITV’s most popular sitcoms. Echoing divisions evident in Steptoe and Son, it pitched Rigsby the mean-spirited landlord against his idealistic student tenants. In Stand Up and be Counted (1975) Rigsby’s inveterate social climbing means he works for the Conservatives during a by-election while his tenants are staunch Labourites. According to the pre-PC Rigsby the Labour candidate is a ‘middle class puff’. The Liberal is also a wet mummy’s boy. By the end of the episode however Rigsby has become so alienated from the patronising huntin’ and shootin’ Conservative – a ‘public school twit’ Rigbsy declares – he joins his tenants in supporting Labour.
This is not a complete list so if I have missed out anything then please leave a comment.