Sunday, April 06, 2008

Send in the Clowns

(The latest Touching Base column, also available at the Wardman Wire, once it's back online after some nasty hacker got after it last week.)

Laurel and Hardy.
Eric and Ernie.
Ken and Boris?

The instantly recognisable comedy pairings of a straight man and a fool, where the fool constantly reveals the foolishness of the 'sensible' one. It's a theme which goes back to the classic clown pairings of whiteface and auguste, the sensible superior one, and the put-upon dimwit. However its the dimwit who usually ends up with the sympathy of the audience, and who has much more freedom to tell the unadorned truth than their uptight partner.

Sometimes the fool turns out to be the savant, with a wisdom not available to the sensible. From Peter Sellers simple gardener in Being There to Forrest Gump, (and possibly Jack Sparrow) we tell ourselves stories about simpletons who have a better grasp on the important stuff than anyone with a suit and a plaque on the door. In medieval times the Jester was given a place in the royal court, and often had license to say things as the Fool which the sensible courtiers would have been beheaded for. As the Joker he was a wild card, with no fixed place in the hierarchy, protected by the fact he spoke as a fool. Now we have, erm, Jeremy Clarkson.

Maybe this is why comedians are given the time of day as social commentators.

Send in the Clowns
In the week following April Fools Day, Ben Elton has found himself in the media over comments in a magazine interview, as his new book explores contemporary attitudes to faith in society. Fellow comic Rowan Atkinson has been at the forefront of campaigning on laws surrounding blasphemy, free speech and religious hatred, and for several years Rory Bremner was a more effective opposition to New Labour than the Conservative Party.

Camerons main triumph as a political leader was a single stand-up routine (a bit short on laughs, admittedly) which headed off the prospect of an election last autumn, and bought the Tories precious time to completely turn the tables on Newish Labour. Scripted jokes for PMQ's have now become standard, thanks to William Hague, as the political establishment tries to annex the comedians territory in the vain hope that we'll not spot the difference between Peter Hain and Peter Kay.

Every Ruler Needs a Custard Pie
Not being a Londoner, I've not been privy to the delights of the congestion charge, the latest whiff of corruption around Kens team, or Boris coming up with a cogent policy. KL's attempt to do an April Fool - if that's what it was - hasn't left many of his colleagues rolling in the aisles. For a smashed machine New Labour seems to have spluttered on remarkably well until the last few months. But who is best for mayor? Most of us would prefer Boris to Ken as host of Have I Got News For You, but there's a difference between being an entertaining game show host and being the most powerful administrator in a city of 7.5 million.

At least that's better than being ruled by Robert Mugabe. What most dictatorships lack are the truth-tellers, those given the public space to criticise those in power and make fun of them, who in turn give permission to everyone else to critique the powerful. From China to Zimbabwe via Saudi Arabia, the court Jester is sadly absent, either beheaded, locked up or exiled. One strength of the Old Testament monarchy, when it was working properly, was the partnership of prophets and kings. The kings ruled, but the prophets had permission to speak on God's behalf to the absolute ruler. So King David, after bedding a local beauty and having her husband killed, is skillfully nailed to the wall by the prophet Nathan, and repents. He can't undo it, but neither does he get away with it.

God deliver us from leaders who can't hear the truth. And may He send us a plentiful supply of fools to keep us wise.

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