When comedian Mel Smith died earlier this summer, he left behind a Britain that laughs at its political establishment as readily as it discusses the weather. A Britain where no public figure is immune to ridicule and no policy too small to mock. In short, we live in an age of satire. Social criticism meets uproarious laughter – it all feels so natural these days.
Yet rewind to Mel’s youth and we encounter an entirely different political landscape. The UK was a dreary land of rationing, class distinction and deference to politicians. This was a nation that didn’t ask questions. When Churchill inexplicably disappeared for four months, only to return with news that he had suffered a massive stroke, the public merely mumbled a collective tut. So what happened between then and now to so radically change the way we perceive our leaders?
The bubble burst in the wake of the scandalous ‘63 Profumo Affair. On the ashes of establishment pride, comedians Peter Cook and Dudley Moore laid the foundations for a nation to turn it’s infamously sharp wit against those it elected to govern. Yet by the 70’s, satire was firmly removed from the comedic zeitgeist as the surreal, whimsical offerings of Monty Python reigned supreme. The art-form appeared to be relegated to the rank of cultural outcast, until ‘Not the Nine O’clock News’ forced its way onto British screens in 1979.
The show brought satire back in from the cold. Smith, Griff Rhys Jones and Rowan Atkinson set out to deliberately move away from the then BBC norm of stale mother-in-law jokes and clumsy avoidance of political issues.
The show launched what was to become a tidal wave of satirical devastation upon the newly elected Thatcher government. NTNOCN consistently proved itself to be cuttingly witty. One famous example of which is a sketch of Mel having his arms hacked off during a Conservative Party broadcast to illustrate slim lined economic efficiency. From astute witticisms, to the downright silly, NTNOCN endlessly strove to push boundaries and in doing so revitalised political comedy and unleashed a renaissance of satire that we still enjoy today. By 1983 it seemed Smith and the other writers had been far too cavalier with establishment sensibilities, leading the program to be deemed too provocative in the run up to the ‘83 election. It was duly cancelled.
So why is Mel my hero? The answer is simple. He helped make humour an essential ingredient in holding those in power to account, a process that changed the face of broadcasting and in doing so fundamentally altered British society. NTNOCN brought it new legitimacy, respectability and vastly enlarged boundaries. It is difficult to imagine ‘Spitting Image’ being commissioned – as it was the year after NTNOCN ended – without the trail blazing of comedians and writers such as Smith.
More measurable are the achievements of the media company he set up with writing partner Rhys Jones. Talkback Productions helped elevate satire to ever greater heights and complexity. The firm commissioned a multitude of ground breaking shows, among which was ‘Smack the Pony’, the long overdue comedy exclusively written and performed by women which not only won a large number of awards, but struck a blow for feminism in an overwhelmingly male field. Talkback would later produce ‘Da Ali G Show’, ‘I’m Alan Partridge’, ‘The Day Today’ as well as his own show ‘Alas Smith and Jones’.
Mel Smith was no Abraham Lincoln or Florence Nightingale. He didn’t free the slaves or nurse wounded men in the Crimea. But he galvanised and started (or perhaps restarted) a process which continues today. This process, enjoyed worldwide, is of course satire; serious political discourse transmitted through humour. From ‘The Onion’ to ‘Four Lions’, his legacy lives on.