However dull a general election campaign may be, we can at least rest assured that there’s a bright spark out there making life – or politics, at least – interesting. Following publication of his latest book You Are Here and ahead of the UK’s 2005 general election, we caught up with the nation’s foremost satirist, Rory Bremner, who explained why New Labour is exactly like cappuccino…
If you are in north London in a few years’ time and see comedian Rory Bremner hawking copies of a left wing text, do not be surprised. “It is a weird thing, because most people tend to get more conservative as they get older, but I find myself going the opposite way. I am sure that by the end I will be selling Marxist pamphlets on the Holloway Road,” he says.
But he will not be peddling the Socialist Worker: “When you consider what Tony Blair was saying about liberty, human rights and that sort of thing, it would be terribly revolutionary to sell the speeches he and Jack Straw made in 1994.”
It is a point Bremner hopes will be appreciated by readers of You Are Here, his first book – written with TV partners the Johns Bird and Fortune and producer Geoff Atkinson. It is a funny, fascinating and ultimately chilling account of the state of the nation and the world today.
“If you are cynical, you are without hope. I think that behind what we do there is the hope that somehow these people will learn from history” – Rory Bremner, political optimist
The book features research that underpins each episode of Bremner, Bird and Fortune’s biting satire, and further enforces their claim to be Her Majesty’s Opposition. Bremner felt it would complement what they do on the show, enabling them to share more of the absurdities and insider knowledge that underpin sketches. It will also slake the thirst of viewers eager to learn more of what the government would rather they did not know.
“Geoff Atkinson has always said that there is an audience out there that is hungry for this kind of information,” Bremner explains. ” But in a live show you have to wear that knowledge lightly, because a live show is about instant laughs and accessibility. The book is a perfect way to share more, because you have space to go into detail and it is a fascinating read.”
Bremner’s enthusiasm is tangible. He is utterly absorbed by politics and its idiocies. “You couldn’t make it up,” he says, and chuckles in disbelief. “I mean Avon and Somerset police force had their drink driving campaign sponsored by Threshers. Fancy driving around in a squad car with a sticker saying: ‘Threshers says, Don’t drink and drive.’ Or the Department of Education and another ministry were worried about duplication of effort, so what did they do? They set up two committees to look into duplication and neither knew what the other was up to. It really is a world beyond parody.”
“I am not remotely interested in becoming a commentator” – Rory Bremner, not commentating
The book is scrupulously sourced, though many of the sources cited in the book are not the original. The originals were insiders, speaking off the record, who give the book its power and the delicious sense of someone talking out of school. “We are rather in the position that used to exist at the BBC, where you feel that you can pick up the phone to people who are experts in their field and they will be very favourably disposed to you and share their knowledge,” Bremner says.
Asked about the motivation for You Are Here he explains: “We were never going to write The Bremner, Bird and Fortune Bumper Book of Toilet Humour, with a few sketches from the show thrown in. This is material that has caused us to rage and laugh out loud.” But, he adds quickly: “It is not a Michael Moore-style polemic.”
Michael Moore comparisons clearly irritate. “It is not an apt comparison,” he explains with a note of impatience. “To some extent Michael Moore has an easier job because he is dealing with the Republicans and Bush. They present a much clearer target. British politics is more nuanced. Part of the problem with New Labour is that they are a moving target.”
The spin-doctors may not like it, but the main parties’ obsession with marketing and the lowest common denominator were why You Are Here had to be written, Bremner believes. Voters are disillusioned by bland initiatives that have more with crowd-pleasing than policy or conviction. They want to understand what lies behind the platitudes.
“Politics now is rather like going into Starbucks for a coffee,” Bremner explains. “There are all sorts of different coffees on offer: vanilla or hazelnut shots, tall skinny lattes and Soya this or that. Politics is the same. You have UKIP, the Lib Dems, and Countryside Alliance. There are all sorts of choices on offer, but most people buy a cappuccino. New Labour is the equivalent to the cappuccino: it was trendy about 10 years ago; it is vaguely continental; you can drink it and pretend to be European and sophisticated, but it is basically a milky coffee.” The other parties have assumed the same bland exterior. No wonder voters are confused.
“You have to think through the issues in order to satirise them” – Rory Bremner on the importance of grey matter
Bremner’s sharp-edged observations are a far cry from his light entertainment origins. Does he see himself now as impressionist or a satirist? “I should always be known as an impressionist and comedian, it is just that what I do now is more topical and political in nature,” he answers. Besides, with politicians like Peter Mandelson and Michael Howard presenting such great targets for comedy, he says, there is plenty of material with which to work.
“Unfortunately, when you latch onto things,” he explains. “Peter Mandelson’s franglais is one thing.” Suddenly his voice becomes smarmy and camp: “‘Je suis le meilleur ami de M. Blair. Nous sommes comme a”‘ I have just hit on this seam of Michael Howard.” His voice changes again, taking on something of the night. In Michael Howard’s sibilant tones, he says: “‘It is all right, I won’t hurt you.’ I do find myself saying it to my children – not the hurt bit,” he adds hurriedly.
Is that not a bit frightening for one-and three-year olds, I ask? Bremner laughs: “No, no, I don’t say it in his voice. I am just fascinated by this reassurance from a menacing figure. It is rather frightening.” Hearing the voices, I am sure that it will be a long time before Bremner takes up station on Holloway Road.