Looking Back At THE NEW STATESMAN - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Tony watches from the backbenches.
It seems a little absurd to remember a time when The New Statesman was satire. Both appallingly sharp and (at the time) justifiably crass, the show, by seasoned sitcom writers Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, was commissioned as a more grown-up and less slapstick “solo” vehicle for Rik Mayall – who had previously won the hearts of Britain’s anarchic early 80s youth with his roles in The Young Ones (as lefty student poet, Rik), and was simultaneously starring in Filthy, Rich and Catflap for the BBC.

The New Statesman was an absolute turnaround for Rik Mayall, and for the way lots of people saw him. Having made his name on characters like Rik, and the similarly nerdy Kevin Turvy, the first real inklings of a different performance had come in the first episode of Blackadder II, when he had played an ultra-sexualised schoolfriend of Rowan Atkinson’s Lord Blackadder. Lord Flashheart had been pure charisma and gittishness, and Rik had rocked it with the sheer power of his performance.

The New Statesman was to take that level of performance and stab it straight into the heart of Britain’s Thatcher government.
Alan Beresford B’stard was the prototype new Thatcherite backbencher. Self-made through a thousand dodgy deals, married to old money and a bisexual nymphomaniac (played with a joyful Sloany abandon by Marsha Fitzalan), and both willing and able to tear the world off its axis for the tiniest advantage or profit, he had the charm of a punch in the groin and the morals of a pubic louse.

He was irresistible TV. If you happened to agree with Thatcherite politics, you could watch The New Statesman, knowing it was satire, and yet rejoice in the number of times Alan (Mayall) would use his conniving brain to come out on top. And if you were left-wing, he was the grotesque to which you could point, showing the end result of the era’s scorched-earth capitalism.

He was joined at least initially by Michael Troughton as Piers Fletcher-Dervish, the kind of Tory MP who got on in life by not disagreeing with powerful people, and Sir Stephen Baxter, an old, corrupt former Tory cabinet minister (unthinkable, we know), who was now sitting on the back benches, getting ever more rich by default. Sir Stephen was played by John Nettleton, in a joyous moment – he also played Cabinet Secretary Sir Arnold Robinson in the significantly gentler BBC political satire Yes, Minister/Yes, Prime Minister. Ironically, Yes, Minister/Yes, Prime Minister was Mrs Thatcher’s stated favourite TV show.

Every episode of The New Statesman showed off B’stard’s shallow skills, his soulless pre-occupation with money and power, and his ability to move the needle of the country by pure Machiavellian manoeuvring. But it also showed how entirely sociopathic the ‘archetypal’ Tory backbencher was during the Thatcher era, pushing the envelope of what was acceptable to the nation. And it also showed how fundamentally empty and unsatisfying his life was – or would have been, had he had the slightest scintilla of self-knowledge.
In early episodes, for instance, responding to blackmail from the local police chief in his constituency, who hears the voice of God and has compromising, blackmail-ready material on him, Alan manages to overcome the natural handgun-resistance of the British people and shifts the needle so that the police are equipped with hand cannons. Naturally, he’s making both his political reputation on the front end by bringing handguns to the police, and money on the back end, supplying (ultimately malfunctioning) guns to the force, made of melted-down Eastern European cookware(!).

Similarly demented (at least, back then) episodes involved taking money to store nuclear waste, and then dumping it under a junior school, crossing swords with his father-in-law, Roland Gidleigh-Park, who’s a local Tory grandee of a different stripe.

Reigniting the Cold War? No problem for Alan B’stard.

Hunting for Nazis in hiding in Britain, only to have their identity (and death) covered up by a Prime Minister? Easy.

Making dirty deals over oil discovered in Hackney Marshes? No problem as such, though gloriously, that episode saw Alan being staggeringly racist and sexist, but outsmarted by a black socialist woman.

A controversial assassination attempt seemed to mark the end of the B’stard career, only for it to turn out that he had staged the whole thing to garner support for Mrs Thatcher’s drive to reinstate the death penalty in Britain (an element drawn from real life – she tried to bring it back three times during her time in Number 10).

When B’Stard himself was convicted of murder and sentenced to hang, his own shoddy practices in supplying wood for gallows saw him ‘spared’ allegedly by ‘God’ when the whole gallows snapped under his weight.

And in a terrifyingly prescient episode, Alan B’stard gave an impassioned speech at a special party conference, promoting the then-unthinkably irresponsible and world-rocking idea of Britain leaving what was then the EEC (and which subsequently became the EU). His fiery and racist rhetoric swayed the crowd and created a political crisis when the Conservative Party voted to support the idea of leaving the EEC.

In response, Alan forms a breakaway party, the New Patriotic Party, and ends up winning a majority in parliament and declaring himself Lord Protector – a second Cromwell, and as close to king as makes no odds.
Weirdly, the incredible and continued rise of B’stard by using naked capitalism and utterly soulless self-interest was regarded at the time as far enough in the realm of fantasy that it worked well as a satire of the fundamental political self-serving soul-emptiness of a specific type of new Tory MP in the Thatcherite era. Yet some of the stories that the show used would come back to haunt the country as a whole.

Dumping nuclear waste under a junior school? How about dumping raw effluence into public rivers? That would have been a New Statesman plot, but it probably seemed too extreme at the time.

Changing laws to allow Alan B’stard to avoid the consequences of his illegal or unethical actions? Totally New Statesman.

Destroying companies or industries to make money for his friends – that’s practically a whole New Statesman episode dealing with luxury car manufacturing. Not deregulated power companies, but the idea is there.

And leaving the EEC? Forming a new right-wing party to drive that disaster into reality? OK… we mentioned that it’s absurd to look back and remember that The New Statesman worked as satire, right?
Now, there are elements of The New Statesman which haven’t survived 30 years of societal advancement well. There’s a whole episode where Alan gets involved with a young girls’ organisation, expressly for the purpose of grooming the teens for sex. While the idea is to show the utterly soulless venality of B’stard, it’s hard to watch that in the wake of Operation Yewtree and the #MeToo movement. He’s openly racist, sexist, homophobic (he blackmails a Chief Whip in one episode, after pretending to be gay to prompt the Chief to his own coming out), and burns money in front of the poor (coincidentally mimicking the initiation rituals of the Bullingdon Club – to which both David Cameron and Boris Johnson belonged while at Oxford University). He is MEANT to be the ultimate distillation of the kind of venal, vacuous, self-promoting, right-wing, empathy-free sociopath who made money and power both in business and politics during the fling-the-doors-wide era of Thatcherism. He is MEANT to be a grotesque, the extension of that anything-goes self-serving capitalist mindset to the nth degree, so that it’s so far beyond reality that it’s funny.

That doesn’t necessarily always make for easy watching over 30 years on, when the window of satire – and the window of politics - has shifted, and the revelation about what people in the media and politics were ACTUALLY getting away with back in the 70s and 80s has replaced speculative comedy with realistic horror.
The extreme, self-revolving grotesques of those in power and in business during the Thatcher era is also the contextual window through which to view a storyline that would now be seen as at least problematic, and potentially transphobic. Alan’s devious accountant, Norman, (played from the start by Rowena Cooper) aims to have a sex change and flee the attentions of INTERPOL. On TV in the 21st century, the cynical adoption of a trans identity as a method to escape responsibility for dodgy deals would be deeply troubling.

Again, the only way to make that storyline LESS troubling is to view the whole thing in the context of extreme grotesques – Norman is exactly that soulless, a man who would adopt a trans identity just to escape his responsibilities. That said, it doesn’t necessarily make it easier or more consequence-free to watch in the 21st century, particularly because the kind of cynicism Norman displays is used as a ‘standard’ of behaviour ascribed to trans people by TERFS (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) and straight-up transphobes to deny the reality and validity of trans lives.

Just as it’s weird to imagine that The New Statesman was an extreme satire of grotesques when so much of the absurdly inventive right-wing ideas it used to explore that grotesquery have become the common currency of politics in our day and age, so it’s weird to imagine that even as an example of grotesque and soulless venality, Norman’s plan was judged as funny 30 years ago.

It’s these elements of grotesquery that give The New Statesman its trouble when watched 30 years down the line. At the time, B’stard was far enough into the realms of fantasy to be funny, because we didn’t know what people exactly like him were getting away with in the reality behinds the scenes.

Imagine what we don’t know today, and watch The New Statesman as much as prophecy as comedy.

Watch The New Statesman today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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