Laughable history of power lampooned

1st September 2006 at 01:00
For a higher form of public service, politics has long had among the lowest of public images, and never more so than in the age of television. The tradition of merciless lampooning born with Punch magazine's publication in 1841 found new impetus on the airwaves and the past 25 years have seen several satirical masterpieces which have defined their time.

Yes Minister, charting the verbose battles between hapless MP Jim Hacker and his Machiavellian permanent secretary Sir Humphrey, was regarded by many insiders as an uncannily accurate expose of the machinations of the Civil Service, loosely disguised as a popular sitcom.

That winning formula was given a Blairesque twist by last year's The Thick of It, in which a foul-mouthed and aggressive policy enforcer with a passing resemblance to Alistair Campbell kept an unfortunate MP in a spin and left no one in any doubt that he ruled the roost.

Back in the real world, figures this week showed that spending on spin has trebled since Labour came to power in 1997. The Government's public relations bill has jumped from pound;111 million to pound;322m, while the number of press officers working in Whitehall and for an array of quangos around the country has shot up from 300 nine years ago to 3,259 today.

Spitting Image, which ran from 1984 to 1996 as a staple of Sunday-night viewing, kept closer to the Punch tradition. Peter Fluck and Roger Law's parade of grotesque latex puppets poked fun at a diverse range of public figures from Cliff Richard and Margaret Thatcher to the Queen.

The models began as straightforward caricatures but became more extreme until, by the series' last gasp, John Major was completely grey and Kenneth Baker had mutated into a slug.

In the late 1980s, Tory caricature Alan B'Stard, played by Rik Mayall, burst on to the scene in The New Statesman as an over-privileged, corrupt, greedy, unscrupulous one-man cesspool of political sleaze.

The series coincided roughly with a surge in high-profile ministerial sex scandals which left John Major's government bogged down in accusations of hypocrisy and sleaze, culminating in Mr Major's call for a "back to basics"

approach to moral standards in public life.

Some years later, it was revealed that Mr Major had conducted a four-year affair with Edwina CurrieMP. In a stage play, Mr B'Stard crossed the floor to become a New Labour MP. No one noticed the difference.

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