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Artillery Row

Is there such a thing as right-wing comedy?

The issue of political balance in comedy is no laughing matter

Since he became the new Director-General of the BBC on 1 September, Tim Davie has certainly hit the ground running. He is probably the first Conservative, or at least Conservative-sympathetic, DG since Michael Checkland, and Davie’s order on his second day in the job that the Last Night of the Proms should contain sung versions of “Rule, Britannia!” and “Land of Hope and Glory” – as I anticipated last week – has seen him receive very favourable coverage from the Daily Mail and the Sun, who have excitedly hailed him as someone conducting “a war on woke”. 

Whether this lasts remains to be seen, but a more interesting and further-reaching idea than some singing being permitted at the Proms comes in Davie’s apparent desire to get rid of the left-leaning comedy ethos that is prevalent at the BBC and replace it with a broader and more eclectic selection of performers and programmes. He stated in his first public address to his staff that he wishes the BBC to be “a universal public service – a BBC for all, that serves and represents every part of this country” and that “we will need to keep reforming the BBC with urgency so that we are trusted, relevant and indispensable in this digital age”. Perhaps he read Nigel Jones’s attack on the organisation in The Critic recently.

The cynical might say that, with the question of licence fee sustainability very much up in the air, it will do Davie no harm whatsoever to rattle a right-wing sabre for a few weeks or months, and establish his conservative credentials with the present government, before quietly dropping most of his more controversial or striking proposals and instead trying to run the Corporation with the same intended “quiet competence” that previous DGs have (successfully or otherwise) demonstrated. But it might also be a genuine moment of change in our national broadcaster. With Brexit imminent, the distinct possibility (undervalued by the cognoscenti, in my opinion) of another four years of President Trump and the many as yet unknowable implications of the Covid-19 outbreak, it seems both impossible and untenable that anyone taking over the BBC could simply operate a platform of “business as usual”. 

No doubt BBC producers are praying for a high-profile right-wing yet “diverse” figure to emerge

Davie has also informed his staff that “if you want to be an opinionated columnist or a partisan campaigner on social media, then that is a valid choice, but you should not be working at the BBC”. This might seem like reasonable common sense, and will no doubt be seized upon by many of the organisation’s critics to level abuse at anyone, especially commentators and those who work on the political or news shows, who could be accused of a left or right-wing bias. But the wider issue now is how this can be reconciled with the question of whether a comedian such as Ian Hislop or Paul Merton on a panel show such as Have I Got News For You is “working” for the BBC, or simply a freelance contractor whose wages are paid by a production company that has been commissioned to make programmes for the Corporation. It might sound like a relatively minor, pedantic question, but there is now the possibility of that much-desired and difficult thing “balance” being a prerequisite for every comedy programme, which means that for every voice of the Left, there has to be a representative of the Right, too. 

This has been greeted with approval by the right-leaning tabloids, and with horror by the Guardian, who got their riposte in quickly. An article quoted “an anonymous BBC insider” who argued that:

Internally we’ve been asked to make sure we have more balance across our shows – we are constantly on the lookout but there aren’t many people who have those viewpoints on the comedy circuit. Tell me the names that we’re missing out on? Some people aren’t very good. The issue is a shortage of right-wing comics.

The result has been that right-leaning comedians who have achieved a degree of success and recognition such as Geoff Norcott and Simon Evans make a disproportionate number of appearances on programmes such as Mock the Week, but comedy at the BBC has been unapologetically dominated by writers and performers with left-wing view. This state of affairs has bothered the more splenetic commentators on the right but has generally been tolerated elsewhere, albeit not without a sense of weariness at yet another comedian making unoriginal jokes about Brexit, the Tories, Trump or apparently “safe” material. 

To suggest that there are no right-wing comics is nonsense. I can think of two, both household names who regularly appear on the BBC. Neither of them has ever chosen to discuss their political inclinations publicly but both of whom are open in private discourse about their views and beliefs. While it is easy to suggest that they should come out of the political closet in this new Davie-approved era and be honest about their stances, few have forgotten what happened to the actor Laurence Fox after he made an arguably ill-advised and immediately notorious appearance on Question Time in January. While Fox has reinvented himself as an “All Lives Matter” firebrand, offers of acting work seem to have been few on the ground, and a high-profile spat with Equity will hardly have helped his cause. It is unlikely that any comedian or writer would look at how Fox has fared in what remains a notoriously left-wing industry and think “splendid, sign me up for that”. 

So it is likely that, if right-wing voices are to be heard on comedy programmes and conservative faces seen on our screens, that they are not going to come from the old guard: Jim Davidson probably need not bother dusting off his CV. Nor is it likely that such privately educated and upper-middle-class figures as Phoebe Waller-Bridge are likely to start declaring themselves to be Tories all along, although perhaps the political ambiguity or neutrality of comedians such as Jack Whitehall, Michael McIntyre and Jimmy Carr might now start playing to even greater advantage. One can imagine a desperate booker crossing their fingers and hoping for the best, on the grounds that a white, public-school man represents some kind of “balance”, even as they resemble Davie himself in terms of appearance and background. 

It is instead more likely that new right-wing comedians will emerge from a younger generation, just as many youthful political commentators are unashamedly right-wing in outlook and attitude and consequently know that they will appear on the BBC and its ilk much more frequently than their vacillating centrist forerunners. No doubt producers at the BBC are praying for a high-profile right-wing yet “diverse” figure to emerge, who would satisfy several pre-existing quotas, and probably fulfil a few new ones as well. What has not been discussed is whether this man or woman would be remotely funny, or whether they would be as wearyingly dedicated to “anti-woke” humour as some of the more irritating current figures on the left embrace politically correct, point-scoring comedy.

Tiresome, box-ticking adherence to quotas and the like is what has stifled comedy on the BBC

In his excellent autobiography Balancing Acts, the National Theatre’s previous artistic director Nicholas Hytner reflected upon his professed desire to stage a “good, mischievous right-wing play”. Hytner wrote that, after he said this in an interview, “boring scripts poured in, all of them monomaniacal about making some point or other, none of them remotely theatrical … a hundred pages that worshipped at the altar of Margaret Thatcher were no more unstageable than the hagiography of Nelson Mandela that arrived a few months later”. Hytner’s words seem all the more salutary now, because it is inevitable that, emboldened by Davie’s statements, conservative and right-wing writers will inundate the BBC Writers’ Room with submissions, hoping that their time has come. There may well be the odd good one that emerges, but the majority will be rubbish, just as the majority of the uber-woke material that will emerge will be about as funny as an appendectomy. One can only hope that both are dismissed without fear or favour, and that only the best material, and the best performers, can emerge. 

If Davie is genuinely sincere about introducing “balance”, then he should also remember that the best comedy has always come about from punching up, rather than downwards. The Guardian’s controversial cartoonist Steve Bell once commented that he didn’t feel happy about caricaturing Jeremy Corbyn because he liked him and agreed with his ideas, thereby negating his worth as a satirist, if not as a polemicist. If a comedian was to appear on the BBC and exclusively lay into Keir Starmer and Nicola Sturgeon, remarking in passing that Boris Johnson was “a good bloke”, and a “top PM”, then it would come across like the Guido Fawkes website translated into a different medium, rather than the open-minded satire that people crave. 

Change is certainly needed, but it must come from within. Tiresome, box-ticking adherence to quotas and the like is what has stifled comedy on the BBC. One can only hope that the brilliant and the hilarious will still be given a chance to impress, and that their political inclination will be less important than their ability to make audiences laugh – which, frankly, we could all do with at the moment.

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