Meet the Bigots: When Popular Culture and Unpopular Politicians Collide

April 29, 2010
By | 3 Comments

In the excitement about contemporary shows such as The Wire as documents that supplement sociological analysis and observation, it is often forgotten that television drama has long held insights into the nature of contemporary life, professions and institutions. Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn’s Yes, Minister (and its squeal Yes, Prime Minister) (BBC 1980-88) portrayed the hapless but well meaning Jim Hacker, MP at the mercy of civil servants and his permanent secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby in particular, in a study of organisational culture, bureaucracy and postwar Western European politics that has lost little of its insights over the past three decades.

A quarter of a century later, another political comedy show produced for the BBC – Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It (2005 – present) – portrayed a new political landscape in which the balance of power had shifted decidedly from the quiet, nomenklatura of civil servants, to the loud, bruising communication directors and party spin doctors  now firmly, and swearingly, operating the leavers of powers in which ministers, just as hapless as Hacker but rather less sympathetic, serve as marionettes whose fear of the party’s spin doctors is only superseded by their fear of encounters with common voters (though these voters are often portrayed in a no more sympathetic light than politicians themselves).

Much speculation has surrounded the accuracy of these comedic portrayals of reality of political everyday performances. Jay and Lynn, contemporaries of the last surviving former Conservative minister on the current Tory front bench, Kenneth Clarke, during their studies at Cambridge, have made little secret of the fact that Clarke and his fellow student politicians inspired their portrayal of politicians in Yes, Minister.

Yet, rarely has television fiction been replicated and superseded by actual events as drastically as in Wednesday’s meeting of Prime Minister Gordon Brown with Rochdale-based pensioner Gillian Duffy. Having, seemingly politely, listened to Mrs Duffy’s concerns including what she perceived to be too high numbers of foreigners settling in her neighbourhood, Brown climbed back into the prime ministerial limousine frustratingly quizzing his aides why they had let him meet this, in his words, “bigoted woman” ‑ forgetting that his eager team had previously urged broadcasters to equip him with a radio microphone to record his encounter with ordinary voters – a microphone he was still wearing and that broadcast his words to BBC, ITV and Sky simultaneously. This scene echoing the frequent portrayals of encounters between voters and politicians in The Thick of It almost to the letter. I say almost, as the Facebook site of the show noted that the affair seemed to be a bit of a storm in a teacup, given that the Prime Minister had not even used to the c-word to describe Ms. Duffy.

However, the interplay between political comedy and satire such as The Thick of It and these events are aesthetically and ideologically ambivalent. However painful the exposure to the collapse of front and back regions, that will provide a vivid case study for those of us teaching Erving Goffman’s dramaturgy for many years to come, may have been, however much 24-hour news media leapt upon the incident as breaking news, first opinion polls and some anecdotal evidence indicate that the incident may have had little impact on Brown’s popularity, or to be precise, unpopularity – for satire and comedy have long revealed realities of contemporary politics and thus shaped what Hans-Robert Jauss once called our “horizon of expectation” in a fashion, that yesterday’s events left many viewers and listeners distinctly unsurprised.

In fact, what seemed more surprising than the disingenuous manner in which Mrs. Duffy was first courted for her vote, only to be latter branded a bigot, was the fact that the Prime Minister’s private words revealed a rudiment of political conviction and liberal sentiment assumed to be missing entirely among Britain’s present day political class. At the same time, the subversive play with signifiers at the heart of the consumption of popular culture is equally resorted to by audiences in their reading of (television) news stories that appear to be no less polysemic: as a worker at a waste collection site I visited shortly after yesterday’s news broke proclaimed in equally cheerful as disturbingly sexist manner: “I am a Labour man. What, he was rude to a lady? Well, he has got my vote then!”

Yet, political satire has also, to use Jauss’s Constance School colleague’s Wolfgang Iser’s term, “normalised” our reading of yesterday’s event. The fact that in the interest of spin, many politicians are no longer willing to participate in an actual public discourse with the electorate – in which Brown would have disagreed with the xenophobe tendencies of Mrs Duffy’s line of questioning, rather than commenting dismissively upon on them only retrospectively and in what her wrongly assumed to be in private, barely raises an eyebrow – it is a state of affairs we have long assumed already. Yet, few of us are laughing, as the banality of unsubtle political realities blunts the satirical edge of even the most daring political comedy.


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3 Responses to “ Meet the Bigots: When Popular Culture and Unpopular Politicians Collide ”

  1. Jonathan Gray on May 1, 2010 at 9:43 AM

    It’s the pronoun in your last par. that has me thinking, Cornel — when you say it’s normalised “our” reading, where does that “we” begin and end, do you think? To me, yes, it’s banal, and something I feel I’ve seen multiple times before. But is there a large chunk of the British population, do you think, to whom this would still have been shocking and new? I know the media’s certainly been reporting on it as if everyone should be and is appalled and shocked by it, but maybe the largest chunk of un-properly-political-satire-savvy viewers left is the press corps itself, meaning they’re more shocked than others? Dunno — just thinking out loud here

    • Jeffrey Jones on May 4, 2010 at 1:11 PM

      My question is not whether the press is “shocked” as much as whether this is the kind of journalism that becomes interesting to do. In other words, is the British press simply tired of the old ways and actually find such fruckuses stimulating “reporting”? Karin might be able to answer this better than most of us.

  2. Karin Wahl-Jorgensen on May 4, 2010 at 6:33 AM

    Cornell, thanks for this interesting reading of an incident which seems to already have become central to the narrative of this campaign. I think it’s taken on such importance among journalists (as opposed to voters, for whom it appears to have made little difference)precisely because they were desperate for gaffes. At a time where British politicians increasingly borrow from the presentational styles of their American counterparts, and make concerted (if not always successful) efforts to aspire to their slickness, journalists appear to be missing the drama of politicians behaving like humans and speaking their minds.
    I don’t think this hunger for gaffes and signs of humanity is unique to this election but it’s hugely accelerated after the rise of the compellingly polished Conservative leader David Cameron and Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg whose perfection and, in my eyes, blandness, has taken away much of the humanity and drama of the campaign. They’re the harbingers of a new era in British politics which is leaving behind people who (a) forget to take off their microphones and (b) occasionally speak their minds.