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The new Establishment

Peter Cook’s satirical nightclub changed few minds about politics – but it did help make comedy respectable

22 September 2012

9:00 AM

22 September 2012

9:00 AM

The Establishment Club reopens in Soho this week, and it is easy to see why. Peter Cook started the original club in 1961, when there was an unpopular Conservative government, led by a cabal of Old Etonians, presiding over a recession; and the Establishment Club’s Soho premises were at the centre of the satire boom that mocked the Tories and led to their losing the 1964 election. Aside from the satire on the stage, Private Eye briefly had its offices in the club; upstairs there was the studio where Lewis Morley took the photograph of Christine Keeler naked astride a chair which illustrates every article about the Profumo affair. This is the reason for the club’s legend: for the first and only time in English history, it seemed that satire worked.

That is the legend: but it’s not true. For all the claims made for Private Eye, it was The Spectator that did more to undermine the Conservative government. Sir Alec Douglas-Home himself believed that the single most important factor in his defeat was Iain Macleod’s account of the 1963 party leadership contest published in January 1964, which described a ‘magic circle’ of Old Etonians who fixed the 14th Earl of Home’s election, thereby establishing the Conservative party as out of touch and undemocratic more powerfully than Peter Cook’s impersonations of Harold Macmillan ever could.

Cook was fully aware of this. He spoke about the Establishment Club as being modelled on ‘those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the second world war’. At best, satire is ineffectual; at worst, it can be counter-productive — even after the Berlin cabarets were closed, Hermann Goering encouraged jokes about himself, believing, rightly, that it is always better to be satirised than ignored. (I was once persuaded, in about 2001, to go to the recording of a pilot for a satirical television programme, and I was prepared for a stream of anti-Tory invective. Halfway through, I realised that there had been no mention of the Conservative party whatsoever. I knew then that the next election was already lost.)

Part of the reason for satire’s uselessness is the self-selecting nature of the audience. The audience came to the Establishment Club to hear Tories being mocked. On one occasion, when a sketch poked fun at the anti-nuclear campaigner Pat Arrowsmith, a woman in the audience shouted, ‘That’s not what you’re here for’ before hitting Cook with a handbag and walking out. As Tom Lehrer remarked about his own satirical songs, ‘It’s not even preaching to the converted; it’s titillating the converted.’


Jokes are based on shared premises: there can be no punchline without the set-up. Even in comedy without any political intent, a routine will fall flat when the audience doesn’t trust the set-up. I’ve seen new comics with great punchlines about being single get no laughs if they have mentioned their girlfriend earlier in their set, or even if they’re suspiciously good-looking to be unattached. This is exacerbated when it comes to satirical comedy: a joke that’s contrary to what the audience believes will not be a joke to them, because they don’t buy the premise.

This is not to say that satirists can only deal in their audience’s prejudices — although you’ll always get your best response from doing exactly that — but an audience has to trust both you and the premise before they will laugh. The danger of basing a joke on something the audience doesn’t already know or feel is twofold: either the audience will not trust the premise, and the joke won’t work, or you spend time on explaining the premise, in which case the audience loses trust in you as a comic. (It’s probably intentional that some policies are so complicated they are impossible to satirise; no comic makes jokes about Gordon Brown’s tax policy, since no audience will sit through an explanation of fiscal drag.)

The American satire The Daily Show gets round this problem by blurring the line between news and satire — if you’re not laughing, it must be the news part; if the journalism isn’t hard-hitting, we’re an entertainment show again — but, aside from being deeply disingenuous, this approach won’t work in a club.

The Establishment Club was no exception. In fact, it wasn’t even original: Alan Bennett said that he had always felt that what became called satire was only what they’d been doing for years in ‘smoking concerts’ at Oxford and Cambridge. What was different about the Establishment Club was Peter Cook’s realisation that he could recreate the atmosphere of these smoking concerts outside the university.

At the time, the Lord Chamberlain had the power to censor theatrical productions — even stage directions. (When Cook’s revue Beyond the Fringe was submitted for approval, the phrase ‘Enter two outrageous old queens’ was changed to ‘Enter two aesthetic young men’.) Usually this censorship was of sexual matters — and since the Lord Chamberlain’s office used a blue pen, obscenity is still known as ‘blue material’ — but anything resembling political satire was also forbidden on the stage. Unless, of course, it was in a private environment.

The Establishment Club was the first private members’ club outside a university where performers would be free to enjoy the licence which had been taken for granted among the undergraduates of Oxford and Cambridge. In the smoking concerts, you could say anything — but since undergraduates could rely on more shared premises when talking about authority than when talking about sex (at least in the late 1950s), most of the comedy was anti–authoritarian. But the people writing it were exactly the same people who would be joining the establishment after graduating.

Previously, comedy had been an amusing undergraduate diversion before you buckled down to a proper job — Jonathan Miller had intended to be a doctor, Alan Bennett a historian — but now it was possible to carry on after graduation. If you look at the Cambridge Footlights website, the list of alumni divides neatly between Before Cook and After Cook: the famous names in the bc period are men who went on to be attorneys-general, or bishops, or the president of the International Olympic Committee; After Cook it’s nothing but comedians.

The real impact of the Establishment was that it made comedy more -establishment.


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