Best of all the B'Stards

17:00, Jun 14 2014
Rik Mayall
SATIRE GENIUS: Rik Mayall made us laugh and he also made us think about what we were laughing at.

Among the many sad stories that seem to have dominated the news over the past fortnight, one stands out for me: the death of English comedian and actor Rik Mayall.

Before anyone accuses me of insensitivity towards the families of the Henderson dairy owner senselessly stabbed to death, or the innocent woman on her way home from work slain in a Birkdale cemetery, or the lovely Sumner family wiped out by a split second's inattention on a rural road - let me say, they are all tragedies.

They are random, horrible, unfair, tragic bolts from the blue that shatter the lives of those close to those killed. They remind us all that, there but for a stroke of fate go any one of us.

That's why they make the front pages and the top of the television news bulletins, of course. Most of us drive, shop at dairies, and walk home from work in the dark during winter.

But despite what we're told, these things are not occurring more frequently. The world is not a more dangerous place than it used to be; quite the contrary. If you're lucky enough to be reading this, congratulations - you live in the safest, most comfortable time in human history.

You will live longer, in more relative wealth and comfort, than your ancestors. It seems so obvious as to be almost trite to say it, but it bears repeating if only because we are constantly in danger of taking so much for granted: our right to long, healthy, prosperous lives.


Of course, none of us has any such "right". We're lucky enough to be living in a Western nation in the 21st century where medicine, technology, democracy and a fairly generous welfare state allow us to think beyond the simple act of keeping the proverbial wolf from the cave door.

Which brings me, in a round-about way, to Mayall. If the arts - and comedy in particular - are the hallmark of a civilised and intelligent society, then satire, I reckon, is at its apex. There is nothing better at tearing down pomposity, arrogance, privilege, and vanity than satire. And Mayall was one of the best of the best.

This weekend marks 30 years since former prime minister Robert Muldoon called the infamous "schnapps election", ushering in a Labour government and a series of reforms - good and bad - that turned New Zealand on its head.

But it's also about 30 years since the debut of Mayall's comic masterpiece The Young Ones, a post-punk anarchic piece of television comedy that didn't so much invite you to laugh as threaten you bodily harm if you didn't.

The Young Ones took aim at smug, conservative, Thatcherite Britain (and equally, hippies and punks too) and spat in its face. As a teen at the time, it had a far greater impact on me than the election of the Fourth Labour Government.

The show's University Challenge - Oiks Vs Toffs sketch ("that's not quite what I had on the card, but I knew your father, so 25 points") was a merciless parody of student life across the social spectrum.

Mayall's essay on the struggles of the impoverished but narcissistic and entitled Richie in the TV series Bottom was so much more than ultra-violent slapstick. It poked fun at middle-class prejudices about everything from poverty to racism to sex.

Mayall's character Alan B'Stard in The New Statesman was so close to privileged Tory truth that it was practically a documentary. B'Stard's promises on the hustings; abolish taxes, free housing, free tuition fees, and free electricity don't seem so very far away from what our own parties are promising in the upcoming general election.

Neither, incidentally, does B'Stard's frank admission that none of his promises will ever happen: "We just say we're going to make these changes, then when we get in we just blame the other lot and say they stopped us doing it."

And B'Stard on the beauty of proportional voting: "Even if they don't vote for me I'll probably still get in." The secret of great comedy may be timing, but good satire needs also to be uncomfortably close to the truth.

Perhaps that is why Prime Minister John Key doesn't share his sense of humour.

Key has dismissed the provision of $33,000 in election advertising funding for satirist Ben Uffindell's Civilian Party as "a joke on the taxpayer". Not at all - it is a joke for the taxpayer, and goodness knows we need some light relief in what is shaping up as a monumentally dull election campaign.

Uffindell's Civilian Party meets the requirements for public funding and will skewer a few inflated political egos, so good luck to it. And anyway, as the party says, who's to say the Civilians are the joke party and not ACT or the Conservatives?

What may worry Key more than the miserly amount of taxpayer money the Civilian Party is to receive is the fact that it might attract a few votes.

If a wildcard Tea Party candidate can defeat the Republican House Majority leader in the US Virginia primary while spending just $US200,000 to the Grand Old Party's $5.4 million, then maybe money can't buy political love after all.

It certainly doesn't seem to buy good home-grown political satire on television, which hasn't existed in New Zealand since A Week of It and McPhail and Gadsby and, on occasion, Facelift.

That's a pity, given our seeming obsession with crime and negativity. Mayall's contribution to society was not just that he made us laugh but that he made us think about what we were laughing at. He was also an equal-opportunities satirist: he took the piss out of everybody.

You can't ask fairer than that.

Sunday Star Times