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Politics

How Satire Gave Boris Johnson His Persona

The bungling fool act masking the sinister operator was created on a prime-time comedy mainstay.

by Matt Charlton
20 August 2018, 1:24pm

Boris Johnson on HIGNYF (Screengrab via BBC)

I'm a comedy writer, and up until recently I was labouring under the illusion that satire existed to hold those in power to account – to undermine their pomposity; to highlight and mock their faults to such a degree that the public at large couldn't fail to see them – and that this would somehow feed back into our democracy: the loss of an election, or a vote of no confidence. Somewhere along the way, however, satirical comedy became a training school for powerful arseholes. Could it be, after everything, that satire is complicit in the rise of the twats?

Boris Johnson was, frankly, a God-send for any satirist. He was buffoonish, cartoonish, clumsily charming, unthreatening – as if he'd been drawn freehand for his own Beano comic strip. He embodied every preconception that a metropolitan liberal audience had of a Tory MP, and was great value chair-fodder on any TV show which happened to shove him in the general direction of a camera. Most of all, though, he was – either wittingly or unwittingly – funny.

Friday the 3rd of December, 1999 should be regarded as a red-letter day in politics, because on that evening, to an audience of around 10 million people, a little-known back-bench Conservative MP started his campaign to be Prime Minister, by hook or by crook. On that night, Johnson made his inaugural appearance on the BBC's satirical mainstay Have I Got News for You, a show held in such high esteem by writers, politicians and comedians alike that even now, nearly 30 years into its existence, to appear on it is a badge of honour, an endorsement by the establishment, and a huge career boost when played well.

Boris first appeared on the show as a fairly unknown quantity, and a panellist, but as soon as it was well received, everyone, including him, had a character to build upon. "BoJo the buffoon" became honed and popular, and an increasingly ambitious Johnson now had a takeaway character, designed by comedy professionals, for the rest of his career – one to call upon whenever there was a moment of crisis to diffuse the situation. Making racist comments about Muslim women, for example.

It was great TV. I remember watching with my parents, stifling laughter so as not to miss the next car crash as he blundered through the "Odd One Out" round. It's worth noting that his final appearance on the show was in 2006, two years before his first London Mayoral election. Maybe he wanted to be taken more seriously for a bit; maybe someone on the production team realised what they were helping Boris to become; or maybe it was just becoming apparent that he was now very much in on the joke… I can only guess. I'm not saying I’m an innocent bystander in all of this, mind you. As a professional, one of the first sketches I ever had commissioned was an audio manipulation for Radio 4, making it sound as if a jogging Boris was humping a reporter's leg. It was just so easy. He made it easy.

Since then, I have heard a lot of writers room anecdotes about Boris – the way he dishevels his hair before the cameras start rolling; how he purposely slightly untucks his shirt and sends his tie a touch askew before he walks onto a stage. There's footage from 2016 showing him outside the now infamous Brexit Bus, his bumbling persona suddenly dropping as he finished his time on camera – the calculating, impersonal Johnson then wrangling his minions as he planned his next move.

So he strode on, lending his name to the Leave campaign, lying to the electorate, starting fire after fire as an improbable Foreign Secretary, stabbing his beleaguered, incompetent Prime Minister in the back; and, last week, finally and explicitly showing his true colours as an opportunist bigot. But hey, he brought out some tea while wearing some Bermuda shorts – good old Bozza! And the worst thing is that it worked. When the time came to bring out the tea, Boris knew exactly what he had to do, and this was all because of his rookie training, gazing nervously into an autocue on a BBC comedy panel show 12 years before. The gathered journalists laughed at his lines, took the tea and, crucially, stopped questioning him about his comments. His name shot up Twitter’s trending list. People tweeted jokes about it, and a website went viral by superimposing his head on Mrs Doyle's body as she's pushing tea on Father Ted. As we laugh, Johnson sneaks around the back and into the corridors of power.

And what the hell is going to stop him, because now he has a blueprint. That blueprint – a cartoonish, opportunistic man, made famous by the media, ridiculed by the liberal elites and reviled and celebrated in equal measure for his controversial remarks – is now the leader of the Free World.

No amount of piss-taking will dislodge this Boris-shaped turd, and Johnson knows it. I could, for example, call him a racist leaking flour baby who's been dropped in a murky puddle; a bewigged porous colostomy bag; a soiled motel waterbed in a Windsor knot… and you may like some of those lines, quote them in tweets. But it does nothing – in fact, it does worse than nothing; it merely enhances his reputation as a loveable cartoon character.

Shortly before taking his own life, Kurt Tucholsky, a satirist exiled from Hitler's Germany, wrote, "I am slowly going crazy from reading how I have ruined Germany. For 20 years, I have been pained by one thing – that I have not been able to succeed in removing one policeman from his post."

It is our duty to stop indulging these people – mine as a satirist, and yours as an audience. A malevolent autocrat no longer wears military uniform, angrily screams platitudes from behind a podium and twirls his moustache; it's more nuanced than that now. By laughing at them we are not ostracising them – we are giving them oxygen. And has Have I Got News for You learned its lesson? Just ask Jacob Rees-Mogg.

@matt_charlton

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