Saturday, July 14, 2007

Festival of Ideas: You cannot be serious! The boundary between reality and satire

I got all Festivalled out for a while there and also had to meet my Wednesday deadline, but there are two more sessions I want to write about before I move on. This satire discussion and the one the previous day on whistle-blowing were my picks for the two best sessions I went to. In the case of the whistle-blowing session it was partly about the calibre of every speaker and partly about the gripping nature and the grave seriousness of the content, more of which, as they used to say, in my next.

What made the satire session so extraordinary was something quite different: the stellar quality of Phillip Adams' moderation. My admiration for Adams has always been heartfelt but heavily qualified and the one direct encounter I've had with him, a brief spot on LNL chatting about a book I'd edited, did not endear him to me (I don't think it endeared me to him, either), but I'd never seen him onstage moderating a discussion before, and the job he did keeping the quality of discussion high and lively and the three potentially self-indulgent, not to say feral, speakers on some kind of interesting track was really quite remarkable.

The three other people on the stage were two of the Chaser boys, Julian Morrow and Charles Firth, plus Private Eye deputy editor and Karl Marx biographer Francis Wheen, an old-school Brit wit and sort of a sober Christopher Hitchens (for whom my admiration has also always been heartfelt but only became heavily qualified when he Turned) without the gravitas, the spleen or the contrarian-conservative politics, if you can imagine such a thing. Which I doubt. You had to be there.

There were no individual presentations; rather, via gentle steering and occasional quiet interventions, Adams orchestrated and conducted a conversation that stayed, as I think it was meant to, mostly fairly light-hearted and very funny but, thanks to Adams, was repeatedly elevated to another plane about what satire is, where it comes from, what it's for, and where (if anywhere) its lines are, or ought to be, drawn. The next time I find myself in one of those onstage chairing situations at a conference or festival I am going to remember and draw on as much as I can of what I saw Adams do, and copy it as well as I can.

The content itself, however, consisted mostly of funny stories and one-liners, beginning with a hilarious story told by Francis Wheen. Wheen is (or appears to be, when sitting down) a man slightly below middle height, with a cherubic face topped by the kind of baldness that involves bare pink skin on top and a couple of thick white tufts of hair like koala ears sprouting from the sides of his head. He had been walking down to North Terrace earlier in the week, he said, when while crossing at the lights he became aware that a truck driver stopped at the lights was shouting at him in a violent and hostile manner. 'It took me a while to work out what he was saying,' said Wheen, 'but I finally realised that he had mistaken me for your Prime Minister.'

A swell of laughter grew as we looked at him and it dawned on us that this was not only entirely credible but all too likely. Then he very slowly and deliberately took his glasses out of his breast pocket and put them on. The resemblance sharpened. The audience roared. Then he started doing things with his eyebrows and his teeth and the audience howled. It was slapstick, not satire, but it was an excellent start.

Since it was a real conversation and therefore meandered and digressed all over the place like Fair Isle knitting, the best way to report it is probably just to quote the lines I thought were good enough to write down. So here they are.


Julian Morrow: 'Observers of satire tend to project onto it a lot more power than it actually has.'


Phillip Adams: ' I've got a new audience of much younger people because of the [podcasting] technology.'

Charles Firth: 'Capitalism doesn't reform itself just because technology changes the way they all do the same thing.'


Julian Morrow on Gerard Henderson: 'You can't win, with Gerard. But you can't lose, because it's Gerard.'

Francis Wheen on Margaret Thatcher and Edna Everage: 'I think Edna is now more Thatcher-like than Thatcher herself -- who's now a bit of a busted flush, poor girl.'

Julian Morrow on Paul Keating: 'If you're going to be put down by Paul Keating, you want it to be gloriously eviscerating.'

Francis Wheen on Rupert Murdoch: 'Murdoch never rises to it. One of the thousands of things that are irritating about Rupert Murdoch is that he doesn't give a toss.'

Julian Morrow on Kevin Rudd and Paul Keating: 'There'd be a role in Rudd: The Musical for a former PM, where he comes in just before the election and f*cks everything up.'


Ann O'Dyne said...

"Christopher Hitchens (for whom my admiration has also always been heartfelt but only became heavily qualified when he Turned) without the gravitas, the spleen or the contrarian-conservative politics, if you can imagine such a thing. Which I doubt. You had to be there."

and I so wish I had been.
Thankas for the great PM & the Truckie story.

Anthony said...

"Francis Wheen, an old-school Brit wit and sort of a sober Christopher Hitchens ... without the gravitas, the spleen or the contrarian-conservative politics"

I loved Wheen's biography of Marx, and quite liked his much earlier one of Tom Driberg. But then came 'How Mumbo Jumbo Saved the World' which seemed so intellectually slipshod it was embarrasing: postmodernists and Margaret Thatcher all thrown into the same bag as Bad Things etc. A whole grumpy old man performance worthy of Nick Cohen who's not actually that old. And why the use of African tropes to signify nonsense? 'Mumbo Jumbo'; 'Voodoo Economics' etc.

Anyway, the mention of Private Eye reminds me of an excellent insight of Peter Cooke's on the role of satire. He said, on opening the Establishment Club at the height of the satire boom in mid-1960s London that he hoped the club would recapture the satiric vision of the cabaret clubs of Weimar Germany which, he gleefuly pointed out, 'did so much to halt the rise of Nazism and the advance of Adolf Hitler'.

In an interview Tom Lehrer picked up on this when asked whether his stage show was just preaching to the converted. Not even that, he said, it's just titillating the coverted.

audrey said...

I know this is an ooooold post, but I've just read it now so nyah.

I have to agree regarding Adams as well - his moderation was spectacular. I saw him moderate Indigenous Futures, and it was seamless. Apart from one particularly nauseating old skool lefty moment of patronisation, he was a dream.