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Total disorder

13 January 2017

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THE post-Christmas season has, for centuries, been a topsy-turvy time. The Roman Saturnalia, the tradition of boy bishops in medieval cathedrals, and lords of misrule in Renaissance courts — all enacted a conceit in which the world was temporarily turned upside down.

Radio 4’s experiment in anarchy last Saturday, The Lord of Misrule, was intended to remind us what an endearing bunch are its usually staid and sober voices, ever ready to take a joke at their own expense. But it was worth it to hear the comedian John Finnemore prancing around the schedules as the eponymous jester, sabotaging the Shipping Forecast and goading a continuity announcer into singing his links to The Archers’ theme tune.

All harmless fun; for, as the guests on Week in Westminster (Radio 4, Saturday) reminded us, satire never changed a thing. As the adage goes, the trouble with political jokes is that they get elected; and the election of Donald Trump makes the lives of Rory Bremner, Jan Ravens, and Matt Forde that much more difficult. When the real-life character pre-empts even your most outrageous caricature, where do you go for material?

Indeed, one might argue that making fun of somebody such as Boris Johnson actually legitimises his clownish behaviour. What is more of a problem for left-leaning comedians is that it is the Conservatives — Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg, and others — who appear better at taking a joke than the Left. The Corbynistas are a distinctly serious lot, and thus make themselves the perfect target.

Comedy might not change governments, but it can play an important part in that feedback loop formed between the media and the public, through whose agency attitudes are changed. Ability (Radio 4, Saturday) is a sitcom featuring Lee Ridley, who won the BBC Radio Stand-Up Comedy Award in 2014. The “situation” is the relationship between Lee and his newly appointed carer; the comedy arises from the interaction between Lee’s external and internal voices — all of which might sound straightforward until you understand that Lee has cerebral palsy, and speaks with a computer-generated voice.

Lee’s inner monologue, voiced by another actor, has a Geordie twang. Lee’s external voice is mechanical and laborious. Much of the comedy then arises from this interaction. It is a fascinating conceit, besides provoking much thought about our communicative abilities and disabilities.

On BBC Radio 4 Extra on Saturday morning we were taken back to a time when comedies that engaged in this way with disability, race, and social exclusion would have been unimaginable.

In Hardeep Singh Kohli’s Making Himself at Home, it is to our host’s credit that this was not simply a chance to mock the ignorant intolerance of yesteryear, but to laugh at his own community’s naïve enthusiasm for British culture: when having a black family on Family Fortunes was enough to get everybody around the TV.

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