Tuesday 18 March 2008

Laughter may be the only answer

Whenever news of a gruesome tragedy breaks, I check my watch and make a modest bet on how long it will take someone in the City of London to email me a tasteless joke on the subject. I’m eagerly awaiting the first on Bear Stearns, but so far my inbox is empty. I hope this reflects my dodgy broadband connection, rather than the financial markets losing their famously black sense of humour.

As Charlie Chaplin observed, “A day without laughter is a day wasted.” It seems strange to derive such wisdom from one of the least funny people ever to make a living from comedy, but it’s hard to disagree. What else is going to get us through the developing financial meltdown?

Last week I went to three events calculated to lift morale. The first was a preview screening of Mike Leigh’s new film Happy-Go-Lucky, centred on a mindlessly jolly primary school teacher. Her relentless prattle is presumably intended to raise the spirits of the audience, though it had precisely the opposite effect on me. Then there was Shaw’s 1905 play Major Barbara, which used comedy to make some serious and surprisingly topical points about the international arms trade, and the corruption and powerlessness of politicians.

Finally I attended a dinner with 450 assorted Tory activists and supporters, held with delicious irony in the gigantic working men’s club attached to the former Federation Brewery. The guest of honour was William Hague, the funniest man in British politics and a brilliant Parliamentary orator. His recent Commons speech describing Gordon Brown’s agony as the motorcade of Europe’s new President Blair pulls into Downing Street was both piercingly accurate and as hilarious as anything ever dreamt up by Ken Dodd.

As Conservative leader he regularly got the better of Tony Blair at Prime Minister’s Questions, yet led his party to a further disastrous defeat in 2001. This led me to wonder whether a politician can be too funny for his own good.

The earnest Gladstone was as dull as ditchwater, while the opportunistic Disraeli did jokes. Churchill was a legendary wit. Throughout history, the right tends to lead in the comedy stakes, though I remember Harold Wilson coming out with the odd decent quip, while Ted Heath and Margaret Thatcher famously had no sense of humour at all.

Critics of Gordon Brown constantly lay into him for being dour, as well as obsessive and chronically indecisive, but would we have him any other way? The attempts to coach him in the lighter social skills have had truly gruesome results. As was said of Sir Robert Peel, his smile resembles the silver plate on a coffin.

Alistair Darling’s Budget speech last week was universally excoriated for its soporific dullness. He certainly missed the opportunity created by his distinctive colouring, which gives him a natural head start as a clown. But would we respect him any more if he had leavened his depressing material with a few jokes?

Everyone liked Charles Kennedy, and he led his party to its greatest electoral success since the 1920s. Yet even before his drink problem became public, would we really have trusted such an accomplished entertainer with power? Despite Ken Livingstone’s many alleged character flaws, will the voters of London ditch him in favour of a man better known for knockabout quiz show buffoonery than tangible political achievement?

It’s a very brave strategy that the Tories have adopted there, as is their refusal to promise tax cuts despite the evidence of rampant waste in Government and all the huge, freedom-crushing schemes in the pipeline just crying out for cancellation.

The reality is that things look pretty grim for this Government and its successor, whoever is in power, and indeed for all of us. So perhaps the only sane strategy is to focus on keeping a smile on our faces, and to vote for the party with the better jokes.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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