When in Cambridge in 1961 I saw a current British Prime Minister portrayed on stage for the first time in “Beyond the Fringe” I’m not sure that I was aware of the significance of the moment. Later I bought the early copies of “Private Eye” in the streets of the City. And before I left school Ned Sherrin and David Frost had launched the groundbreaking “That Was The Week That Was”. What was happening was Satire.
The world is absurd, and people lie and cheat. Politicians parody themselves daily and people have prejudices out of ignorance or venality. What satire did was to hold a mirror up to all this – sometimes the mirror enlarged and sometimes it distorted but it always reflected and allowed the viewer or the reader to judge.
Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennett, David Frost, Barry Humphries, Richard Ingrams and many more launched a wave of mockery believing, as Readers Digest used to say, that “Laughter was the Best Medicine”. Britain wasn’t alone in using satire – in the US “Roman and Martin’s Laugh In” and humorists like Bob Newhart also broke new ground. But in satire we Brits did lead the way and fiercely intelligent performers and writers like John Cleese and Cook and Moore were social commentators as much as they were comedians. Later “Spitting Image” portrayed Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet of “vegetables” with cutting wit.
“Fawlty Towers” was in this long satirical tradition. Basil was a monster and, yes, the brilliant writing of Cleese and Connie Booth also enlarged and distorted his character. He was genuinely comic and horrific simultaneously. The characters around him from Sybil to Manuel and the Major were caricatures in the same way that he was. Polly was us, the sane, capable normal person trying to do her job in the Fawlty madhouse – Basil’s surname was carefully chosen !
1970s Britain (I was there) defied satire at times. Edward Heath was easy to parody – a strange and decent man struggling to make sense of a world collapsing around him. The economy was stuffed, the nation was divided and over powerful institutions like the Mining Union challenged “The Grocer” as Private Eye called him. Around Heath’s England were relics who grumped and mumbled about the modern world and in parts of the country it was these old fools who still held sway. The Major is a satirical creation but a perceptive one. When he utters the offensive remarks that he does in “The Germans” he was actually not intending to be insulting – and that is the point!
The Major’s racism (as we would now see it) was far from exceptional amongst people of a certain age and class in the times in which Fawlty Towers was set. Cleese and Booth knew this – the words they placed in the Major’s mouth were deliberately chosen to ridicule the underlying attitudes and ignorance of people like him. In the golf club in a leafy south London suburb of which my father was a member there were many Majors. It was nasty, but was it dangerous? I would say that the xenophobia and borderline racism of modern times – from UKIP to the bigots elsewhere on the Right – have been far more dangerous than the Majors of the 1970s ever were.
Once we stop laughing at ourselves we begin to lose our souls. Harold Macmillan came to see himself portrayed in “Beyond the Fringe” and Peter Cook departed from the script to give him a Glasgow Kiss welcome. He was not amused but alongside him the aristocratic Lady Dorothy laughed her head off. From the 1960s onwards we as a nation have been able to laugh at ourselves. This means that we can separate satirical comment (as in Fawlty Towers) from genuine offensiveness. When we listen to The Major we don’t think we are listening to a real person who wants us to believe his bigotry – he’s not Nigel Farage. The Major is a warning from the past that prejudice pollutes and that we should see it for what it is and call it out when we do.