I think I must share a similar taste in humour to blogger Clive Davis. Like Clive, I cannot see what is so funny about Ricky Gervais, the man who gave us the spoof TV show, The Office, and does standup. He leaves me completely cold. On the other side, Clive is a Peter Sellers fan and so am I. Sellers’ reputation has been a bit trashed of late, by this scathing biography in particular and in a recent rather cruel film starring Geoffrey Rush but despite his real or alleged personal shortcomings, he towers above most of the so-called comic actors of today, with a few exceptions.
Clive has a picture taken from I’m All Right Jack, which ranks alongside Dr Strangelove – the Cold War movie of Stanley Kubrick – as probably one of the sharpest pieces of movie satire since the war. The film was made in the mid to late 50s, around the time of the Suez crisis, when the government was led by men of such standing as Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan. Manchester United’s Busby Babes had entered the European Cup only to be cruelly cut down by the Munich air crash. The Soviets had launched the Sputnik satellite. Ike was in the White House. Ayn Rand had completed Atlas Shrugged. The Hungarian uprising of 1956 had been mercilessly suppressed. These were, in retrospect, times that shaped much of our lives today.
In some ways the 1950s were quite a good time in Britain, as this recent book demonstrates. Crime was much lower than today. Grammar schools enabled bright working class children a chance to get up the educational ladder. The Tories ended rationing – “Set the People Free” – while Elvis, Chuck Berry and the rest of them began to come on the airwaves and push aside the stuffier fare. Certain aspects of life were still far less liberal than today, such as laws on divorce, homosexuality and censorship, although arguably free speech was actually more widely respected than today (I suspect some commenters will agree with that).
And there was the Goon Show, the brainchild of comic genius and all-round nutter, Spike Milligan. Sellers was one of that show’s brightest stars and later built a career in films, some of them of mixed quality. But Sellers’ brilliant portrayal of an ultra-leftist trade unionist in I’m All Right Jack is the pinnacle, in my view. He played opposite Terry Thomas (“what a fwightful shower!”), cast as the cynical factory manager, and Ian Carmichael, as the upper-class twit sent to work in the company. And in a strangely modern twist, young Richard Attenborough plays a shady businessman cutting arms deals with Arab states (nothing much changes, does it?). As a final twist of genius, that old news hand, Malcolm Muggeridge, is cast as a tv current affairs host.
The film beautifully captures the prevailing view of the ‘enlightened classes’ at the time, which was that Britain was not ‘modern’ or ‘efficient’ enough, and that what was needed to solve this state of affairs was a more meritocratic, technology-driven business ethic. This proved in fact to be the wrong diagnosis, an essentially corporatist one. The problem with the sort of world lampooned in this film was not that Britons were inherently lazy, stupid or venal; no, it was that much of Britain’s industrial vigour had been sapped by decades of rising taxes, regulations, and the not-exactly-trivial business of two major world wars. It was not until the failed experiments of Harold Wilson in the 1960s that people realised there were no technological, managerialist fixes to Britain’s economic stagnation. The ‘fix’ was in drastic cuts to marginal tax rates, deregulation and removal of trade unions’ privileges, starting with the closed shop.
I have heard it said that Sellers’ portrayal of a trade unionist was so good that it greatly annoyed much of the left. If that is so, he deserves a vote of thanks for sending up a destructive attitude so cleverly. If only we had someone of Sellers’ genius to send up the intrusive state of today.