Satire under the Nazis

Via the excellent Smashing Telly, Laughing With Hitler, originally on BBC Four and now on Google Video. It has its weaknesses, but if you're interested in satire you'll surely get a lot out of watching it. Much struck home — some of it amusing, plenty that was simply shocking:

  • Werner Finck ('The bad times are over, we now have a thousand year Reich to get through'; 'How odd: it's spring, but everything is turning brown') and his club, Die Katakombe — look around the 8 minute mark.
  • Traubert Petter and his performing chimps (c 28 minutes). The chimps were taught to give the Hitler salute (to the initial, stupid acclaim of party members — 'Even the monkeys greet us'), but then a party decree was issued banning apes from saluting the Führer. Traubert Petter was sent to serve on the Russian front (and survived).
  • Fritz Muliar (c 32 minutes) who at 21 wrote his last will and testament, thinking he would be sentenced to death for making jokes about Hitler. Instead, he endured five years of hard labour in a penal battalion in Russia: 'I thought I would never laugh again'.

  • Robert Dorsay (c 48 minutes): opponent of the Nazis, he was betrayed by a fellow actor and was executed on 29 October, 1943, for telling jokes and making defeatist remarks.
  • Dieter Hildebrandt (c 51/52 minutes): 'In those days you took a tiny hammer and hit a small bell and it went [loud, reverberating noise]. Today, you hit a huge bell with a huge hammer and it goes 'ping'.'

  • Fr Joseph Müller (c 52 minutes): parish priest of Groß Düngen, he was arrested (11 May, 1944) by the Gestapo. Appearing in the People's Court before Roland Freisler, he was found guilty, sentenced to the guillotine and was executed on 11 September, 1944 — for preaching Christian values and telling a joke about a dying soldier: 'Show me the people that I'm dying for', says the dying solider. A picture of Hitler and a picture of Göring are placed by him, one on each side. The soldier dies, saying, 'Now I shall die like Jesus Christ, between two criminals'.

Tony Blair

I was listening to the excellent Reduced Shakespeare Company on Radio 4 perform 'The Condensed History of Tony Blair'. You can catch it again here (about 45 minutes in) between now and next Sunday's Westminster Hour. Jonathan Isaby, writing on The Daily Telegraph website:

It opens with the line: "In the next 15 minutes, we will present 10 glorious years of the greatest prime minister ever known to man," announced by Long with several large dollops of irony. Now I did initially wonder whether having Americans playing the characters would work, but it really does. Blair and Brown are played in the style of Californian dudes, rather like Bill and Ted meets Beavis and Butthead. … listen out for the hilarious song about the Millennium Dome, the love duet between Blair and Alastair Campbell, and the 45-second finale which summarises the entire Blair decade.


Armando Iannucci's Observer column yesterday was again great stuff:

Am I going mad? I heard that Tony Blair thinks so. Not just me; everyone. You too. He thinks we're all mad. Someone close to his circle told me recently that the reason Blair seems so resolute, so calm in the face of criticism, is that he thinks the media are just mad. And he confronts unpopularity with the knowledge that we, the public, are turning mad as well. The more we say: 'He's going mad', the more it proves to him that we must be mad. Is that the logic of a madman?

I only mention this because I was struck by the madness of a remark Blair made last week. It was just as the High Court ruled that the government's recent consultation with the public over what our future energy policy should be wasn't consultative enough, and that he and his ministers would have to consult us on the policy again. Asked if this would put on hold his plans to build more nuclear power stations, he said: 'No. This won't affect the policy at all. It'll affect the process of consultation, but not the policy.'

Take a good hard look at that quote again. It's mad. It's based either on a belief in the possession of psychic powers so discriminating they can predict the outcome of a consultation before it happens (which is mad) or they're based on the belief that words have no meaning other than the meaning one chooses to give them and that this meaning can change at any particular moment (which is at least three times as mad as the first example of madness).

John Naughton quoted this yesterday and wrapped up, 'Britain needs a new constitution. At present we have an elected dictatorship which can do what it likes so long as the Prime Minister has a working majority'.


k-punk, writing about Robbie Williams and post-modernism:

There's surely a Robin Carmody-type analysis to be done of the parallels between Williams and Tony Blair. Williams' first album, the tellingly-titled Life Thru a Lens was released in 1997, the year of Blair's first election victory. There followed for both a period of success so total that it must have confirmed their most extravagant fantasies of omnipotence (Blair unassailable at two elections; Williams winning more Brit awards than any other artist). Then, a decade after their first success, an ignominious decline into irrelevance (the post-Iraq Blair limping out of office as a lame-duck leader, Williams releasing a disastrous album and checking himself into rehab on the day before this year Brit awards, at which he had received a derisory single nomination). Of course, there are limits to the analogy: Blair is popular in the States, whereas Robbie...

Williams and Blair are two sides of one Joker Hysterical face: two cracked actors, one given over to the performance of sincerity, the other dedicated to the performance of irony. But both, fundamentally, actors - actors to the core, to the extent that they resemble PKD simulacra, shells and masks to which one cannot convincingly attribute any inner life. Blair and Williams seem to exist only for the gaze of the other. That is why it is impossible to imagine either enduring private doubts or misgivings, or indeed experiencing any emotion whose expression is not contrived to produce a response from the other. As is well known, Blair's total identification with his publicly-projected messianic persona instantly transforms any putatively private emotion into a PR gesture; this is the spincerity effect (even if he really means what he is saying, the utterance becomes fake by dint of its public context). The image of Blair or Williams alone in a room, decommissioned androids contemplating their final rejection by a public which once adored them, is genuinely creepy.

Spincerity — who coined that? Search for it on Google and you get (just now) 87 results, headed, 'Did you mean: sincerity'.

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Today, Truth!

Today, we hold our annual upper sixth (year 13) conference, something we run jointly with St Helen & St Katharine. (For those outside the UK, upper sixth = secondary school leavers/18 year-olds.)

I've enjoyed my involvement with these conferences, brief though it's been, and recall the others with pleasure:

  • 2004: 'at the school I teach at, we are preparing for a sixth form conference on 'IT and the challenge of change'. Speakers include Cory Doctorow and Jyri Engeström. Cory will be talking about DRM and, in the run-up to this event, I have begun chatting with Colin Greenwood (Radiohead), getting the views of an artist, someone without whom there would be no music to share in the first place.'

Colin, Jyri and Cory gave memorable talks, and there was a great "panel" session with Cory sitting alongside Colin, fielding questions from some very engaged students. Jyri's talk, much admired on the day, is online here.

  • 2005: 'Today, we hold our annual conference for our school leavers and this year the theme is 'Making a Difference: changing the world'. I am delighted that we will be welcoming to speak Sir Thomas Shebbeare, James Mawdsley and Julian Filochowski: respectively, they will be addressing — How to Make a Difference, Global Democracy and Justice, Global Poverty Issues.' (More about each speaker on my original blog post.)

James Mawdsley and Julian Filochowski made a great impact, comparable only to that of Clive Stafford Smith (Wikipedia) when he spoke here last November.

And today? Truth …

  • Truth in Politics: Ann Widdecombe, MP — Wikipedia, own website
  • Truth and Satire: Craig Brown, satirist — Wikipedia
  • Truth, Diplomacy and The War on Terror: Craig Murray, formerly our Ambassador to Uzbekistan — Wikipedia, own website
  • Truth and Activism: Laurie Pycroft & Tom Holder of Pro-Test

My colleague, Jim Summerly, a historian, will talk about 'Truth and History' (official histories and propaganda vs what's really going on — from Stalinist Russia to contemporary, democratic regimes). Now, if all that doesn't get the hall a-buzzing …

I particularly enjoyed establishing that Laurie could join us: he had to get out of school for the day. That's humbling. What were we each doing, aged 16?

Stephen Colbert, satirist supreme

I remember Ian Hislop once saying how he had tried to take a satirical programme (a version of Spitting Image?) to the States, only to be met there with disbelief: 'You mean you want to make fun of the President?'. Which makes the performance of Stephen Colbert at the White House Correspondents' Dinner the more remarkable.

Thanks to Tom Coates ( for these links: a clip of some highlights (this may have been taken down; at least, it's not running right now — has CSPAN paid them a YouTube visit?); a BitTorrent link to a movie of the evening; an Editor & Publisher piece about the speech.

Botherer covered it well:

… what wasn’t reported in the UK and elsewhere, disturbingly including the USA, was the main speaker for the evening, Stephen Colbert. Currently riding high with the success of his excellent Daily Show spin-off, The Colbert Report (pronounced “Colbert Report”), the honour of giving the main speech at the dinner, which is intended to poke fun at the president, was his. From the reaction it seems no one was quite expecting what Colbert had to say.

In character, he addressed the audience from the perspective of his programme, ironically adopting a Fox News-like stance in order to make a mockery of it. Throughout, Bush was sat two chairs to his right.

“Now, I know there are some polls out there saying this man has a 32% approval rating. But guys like us, we don’t pay attention to the polls. We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in “reality.” And reality has a well-known liberal bias.”

Salon, too:

Make no mistake, Stephen Colbert is a dangerous man -- a bomb thrower, an assassin, a terrorist with boring hair and rimless glasses. It's a wonder the secret service let him so close to the President of the United States.

But there he was Saturday night, keynoting the year's most fawning celebration of the self-importance of the DC press corps, the White House Correspondents' Association dinner. Before he took the podium, the master of ceremonies ominously announced, "Tonight, no one is safe."

To my friends and colleagues teaching satire: teach this! There's a transcript of Colbert's speech at Daily Kos (excerpt below) and, in addition to the Torrent link above, you can download the full video at these links: Part 1, Part 2. It is compelling, very sharp and very funny.

I stand by this man. I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message: that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound -- with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world. …

And I just like the guy. He's a good Joe. Obviously loves his wife, calls her his better half. And polls show America agrees. She's a true lady and a wonderful woman. But I just have one beef, ma'am.

I'm sorry, but this reading initiative. I'm sorry, I've never been a fan of books. I don't trust them. They're all fact, no heart. I mean, they're elitist, telling us what is or isn't true, or what did or didn't happen. Who's Britannica to tell me the Panama Canal was built in 1914? If I want to say it was built in 1941, that's my right as an American! I'm with the President, let history decide what did or did not happen.

The greatest thing about this man is he's steady. You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday. Events can change; this man's beliefs never will. As excited as I am to be here with the President, I am appalled to be surrounded by the liberal media that is destroying America, with the exception of Fox News. Fox News gives you both sides of every story: the President's side, and the Vice-President's side.

But the rest of you, what are you thinking, reporting on NSA wiretapping or secret prisons in eastern Europe? Those things are secret for a very important reason: they're super-depressing. And if that's your goal, well, misery accomplished. Over the last five years you people were so good -- over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn't want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out. Those were good times, as far as we knew.

But, listen, let's review the rules. Here's how it works: the President makes decisions. He's the decider. The Press Secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the Press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put 'em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know - fiction!

Because really, what incentive do these people have to answer your questions, after all? I mean, nothing satisfies you. Everybody asks for personnel changes. So the White House has personnel changes. Then you write, "Oh, they're just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic." First of all, that is a terrible metaphor. This administration is not sinking. This administration is soaring. If anything, they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg!

You can leave a thank-you-Stephen-Colbert message here. There's a good Flickr photo from the evening here. And if you use Firefox and haven't yet got the Video Downloader extension, it's here.

Update! Inside Google reports:

The Google Video blog posts on how they’ve come to an agreement with C-SPAN to show the content, and agreement YouTube apparently failed (or never tried) to make. You have three options: You can watch the entire 1 hour, 35 minute video of the dinner, or stick to an 11 minute excerpt of President Bush and Bush impersonator Steve Bridges, or go for the 25 minute excerpt of Steven Colbert’s speech. Of course, if you want to enjoy Colbert’s biting remarks, make sure you quit about 16:45 in, because the press conference/chase segment is as tragically unfunny as it gets.

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Falling out over satire

BBC News:

Newspapers across Europe have reprinted caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad to show support for a Danish paper whose cartoons have sparked Muslim outrage. France Soir, Germany's Die Welt, La Stampa in Italy and El Periodico in Spain all carried some of the drawings. Their publication in Denmark has led to protests in Arab nations, diplomatic sanctions and death threats. Islamic tradition bans depictions of the Prophet, but media watchdogs defend press freedom to publish the images. Reporters Without Borders said the reaction in the Arab world "betrays a lack of understanding" of press freedom as "an essential accomplishment of democracy."

In Berlin, the prominent daily Die Welt ran a front-page caricature of the prophet wearing a headdress shaped like a bomb. The paper argued there was a right to blaspheme in the West, and asked whether Islam was capable of coping with satire.  "The protests from Muslims would be taken more seriously if they were less hypocritical," it wrote in an editorial.

Also from the BBC, further details of the Die Welt commentary:

The paper points out that the issue has nothing to do with "a battle between cultures" as there are "thresholds of consideration" which cannot be crossed when it comes to making fun of religion. "But the standards that Muslims require are overtaxing for open societies," the paper believes.

The daily points out that in the West there is no right of exemption from satire. "Christianity itself has become a subject of pitiless criticism, an object of satirical analysis, which marks the triumph of humour over religious worship", it argues.

It points out that there was no protest when a primetime programme on Syrian TV portrayed a rabbi as a cannibal.

And from the same BBC site:

Sweden's Expressen says the front-page letter published in Danish, English and Arabic by Jyllands-Posten in which it apologizes for publishing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad "sends out unpleasant signals that threats work".

"How Jyllands-Posten thinks - or rather does not think - plays less of a role after the flag burnings, threats and diplomatic pressure from Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries over the last few days", the paper says. Jyllands-Posten's "retreat-like humming and hawing is simply an unpleasant confirmation that fundamentalist threats - against individuals, against economic and political interests - win through", it goes on.

"Defending freedom of expression against fundamentalist threats is a cause. It is a matter of principle, whether it involves Rushdie's 'Satanic Verses', a film about veils and the oppression of women or some clumsy drawings in a Danish newspaper."

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Calcium Made Interesting

Calcium Made Interesting is the title of a newly published collection of Graham Chapman's writings. Chapman (1941–1989) has been called 'the only true anarchist in Monty Python' (Jonathan Lynn). Trained as a doctor, but turning to comedy sketch-writing and then emerging as a comedy actor/performer, he nearly ran on to the self-destructive rocks of alcoholism. Michael Palin:

His restless ever-inquisitive need to be freed from the boring and the conventional had led him to the brink, but his cautious disciplined rational side saved him at the last minute from toppling over.

Eric Idle said of Chapman's A Liar's Autobiography, 'This is life viewed as comedy, that only a doctor faced constantly with the physical comedy of our bodies can see'.

John Cleese's famous speech at Chapman's memorial service can be read here and a clip viewed here:

I remember his being invited to speak at the Oxford Union, and entering the chamber dressed as a carrot---a full length orange tapering costume with a large, bright green sprig as a hat----and then, when his turn came to speak, refusing to do so. He just stood there, literally speechless, for twenty minutes, smiling beatifically. The only time in world history that a totally silent man has succeeded in inciting a riot.

I remember Graham receiving a Sun newspaper TV award from Reggie Maudling. Who else! And taking the trophy falling to the ground and crawling all the way back to his table, screaming loudly, as loudly as he could. And if you remember Gray, that was very loud indeed.

It is magnificent, isn't it? You see, the thing about shock... is not that it upsets some people, I think; I think that it gives others a momentary joy of liberation, as we realised in that instant that the social rules that constrict our lives so terribly are not actually very important.

The new book is reviewed today in the Telegraph by John Preston (not online — yet?), and two things in this piece caught my attention:

From the start he seems to have been beset by conflicting impulses: orthodoxy on the one hand and extreme unorthodoxy on the other. When he was a child, Chapman once put a chair in the kitchen sink and sat on it for several hours in order to gain a different perspective on the room.

And the other, a stage direction to a script:

A corridor, fairly butch.

And then there is this quotation, via Eric Idle: 'After all, who of us in our lives hasn't set fire to some great public building or other …'


Thank God for Private Eye. It's been a busy fortnight and I'm catching up. The hoo-ha about hoodies — are we supposed to take this seriously? Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, writing in The Independent (registration and fee required):

… as soon as they have latched on to an issue, New Labour falls headlong into trite, headline-grabbing, dangerously Maoist ideas, thus alienating those who would be onside. The young shall not wear hoodies at the false churches of modern Britain, the consuming malls which only respect money. The Bluewater shopping centre in Kent and others like it, which have killed the human spirit of this country, now have the power to dictate what people may wear - not for reasons of decency, but arbitrarily. Young men and boys and women and girls, too, in sweatshirts with zips and hoods are deemed a terrible threat to the nation.

My sweet daughter loves them, and has just bought two tiny hoodies for new twin boys in our family. Our delicate Deputy Prime Minister has thrown his bulk behind this ban, saying he is scared of hoodies, finds them intimidating. Are we meant to respect these views of the legendary Mr Fisticuffs? Does he respect our intelligence when he comes out with this rubbish? Sure, for some criminals, the garment helps them to avoid identification on CCTV, but for others it is only ever a fashion item. By the way, are they going to ban shops selling hoodies in the centres, too? And what next? Women in burkas? People in large sunglasses and caps?

Mark Steyn in The Daily Telegraph (free registration) blames CCTV:

The British are the most videotaped people in the history of mankind, caught on camera by official surveillance devices as they go about every humdrum public manoeuvre. If you're a grown-up, this might not seem a big deal: you can go back to your pad, collapse on the sofa and pick your nose far from Tony Blair's prying eyes, though doubtless this chink in the 24/7 monitoring system will eventually be rectified. But, if you're an adolescent, far more of your social rituals take place in public - meeting friends at the bus stop, enjoying a romantic moment by the non-operative ornamental fountain outside the KwikkiJunk Centre, etc - and it seems entirely reasonable that adolescent garb has artfully evolved to provide its wearers with such privacy as can be found under the constant whirr of the Big Blairite Brother's telly cameras.

Oxyrhynchus: against divided art & audiences

The name of Oxyrhynchus meant little or nothing to most people (myself included) until 1990 and the production at London's National Theatre of Tony Harrison's The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus. One of the best things I've ever seen in the theatre, I went with some students of mine — and then returned very quickly, with another group, for a second serving. Trackers_2Time Out described it as "total theatre" (see Faber's Trackers page — click on thumbnail) and the nearest I've come to experiencing anything as visceral since was in the (quite different) Tropicana production currently running in London (which my students also enjoyed …).

In the programme for the 1990 production, Professor Parsons (at the time, Regius Professor of Greek, Oxford) noted that 'the traditional classical world has left us no books: all the contents, say, of the great Library of Alexandria, or of the 28 public libraries of imperial Rome, have disappeared without trace — fire and damp disposed of them. What we possess of the literature of the Greeks and Romans we possess because a selection of works were copied and recopied, first on papyrus and later on parchment, through the Roman Empire and then through the Middle Ages — Latin in the West, Greek in the East. In the Renaissance, the surviving manuscripts were hunted out; and the invention of printing meant that works which had survived up to then would go on surviving. But it was a chancy business; for example, just one copy of the poems of Catullus survived to this point … (and) even surviving authors survived only in part. Sophocles wrote 123 plays; of these seven were transmitted through the Middle Ages, because in the late Empire they were chosen as set books, and all the rest disappeared. … These losses seemed to be final — until the Egyptian rubbish (at Oxyrhynchus) came to the rescue, for the dumps included, sporadically and in fragments, books which were circulating before the great massacre of the Middle Ages.'

Harrison's takes the 400 lines of Sophocles' satyr play, Ichneutae, discovered in 1907 at Oxyrhynchus by Grenfell and Hunt (Oxford University) — the pioneers of a new branch of Classics, papyrology — and around them and through them, with the aid of be-clogged satyrs, weaves a play for our own times. Harrison, steeped in classical literature, finds in Greek culture a wholeness of imagination, an 'essential catholicity', a 'unity of tragedy and satyr play', which was subsequently betrayed — divided into 'high' and 'low'. This division perpetuates 'divided audiences, divided societies' (introduction to the Faber edition of Trackers).


With the loss of these plays we are lacking important clues to the wholeness of the Greek imagination, and its ability to absorb and yet not be defeated by the tragic. In the satyr play, that spirit of celebration, held in the dark solution of tragedy, is precipitated into release, and a release into the worship of the Dionysus who presided over the whole dramatic festival. (ibidem)

Teachers and "guardians of culture", beware. In a Daily Telegraph interview (February, 1990), Harrison said to Trevor Bates:

The play is part of my slow burning revenge against the teacher who denied me an opportunity to read poetry and take part in plays because of my accent. We chose Salts Mill [where the production visited in April 1990] because we needed a venue where the ghost images of the past were strong. Clogs are one of the principal expressions of the rhythm of life and they gear the satyrs into action.


Barrie Rutter and Tony Harrison during rehearsals at Delphi. Photo Sandra Lousada


The Independent recently ran a story (purchase necessary) about the reserach being done on Oxyrhyncus material by contemporary Oxford academics working alongside specialists from Brigham Young University (BYU), Utah. Hailed in The Independent as a collaboration 'likely to increase the number of great literary works fully or partially surviving from the ancient Greek world by up to a fifth', there was then a strange silence, and, finally, a sceptical posting on Ars technica. Dirk Obbink, papyrologist at Oxford and the academic at the heart of the new work on the Oxyrhynchus material, has attempted to clarify the picture, e-mailing by proxy on the papyrologists' discussion group (registration required), and some of what he had to say can also be read here, at the Oxford Papyrology site (POxy: Oxyrhynchus Online):

We scanned portions of the unrolled Herculaneum papyrus in the Bodleian Library and experimented on problematic carbonised and non-carbonised samples in the Oxyrhynchus collection in the Sackler Library (including documents), some of them for final checks in texts scheduled for publication in the next two volumes of The Oxyrhynchus Papyri. The results … were of mixed success, revealing many new readings and confirmation of uncertain readings in some problem areas, none at all in others, depending on settings and surface type. In some ranges and surfaces even less writing could be read than with the eye or none at all. As usual with the Oxy. papyri a number of new identifications emerged of literary and documentary texts not previously made by the usual means, together with the isolation of four or five different types of surface and obscurity that respond well or not well to the BYU process. … The process seemed to work best on darkened, charred, or stained surfaces, and can image through some surface materials, but sees nothing through mud, clay, or silt. It produced excellent results on palimpsests, cancellations and damnationes memoriae, and on disintegrating surfaces where the ink has settled deep into the fibres. It was least successful on surfaces that were partially or entirely washed out. … Surprisingly, in one trial the process successfully imaged through painted gesso, revealing a previously unknown document … on the papyrus cartonage surface underneath. The London press got wind of this … and reported enthusiastically, if selectively.

More details about the processes involved and their results are available in Dirk Obbink's email and POxy posting, and also here.

Tally of extant & lost plays (using Professor Parsons' figures)

Aeschylus: 7 extant; 83 lost (including about 20 Satyr plays)

Sophocles: 7 extant; 116 lost (including about 30 Satyr plays)

Euripides: 19 extant (including 1 Satyr play, The Cyclops); 61 lost (including about 15 Satyr plays)