Played interchangeably by John Fortune or John Bird, (Sir) George Parr points up the utter absurdities, the rank prejudices, the craven scandals and the simply unbelievable happenings which those in high places involve themselves in, seemingly without the individuals involved feeling the slightest hint of personal embarrassment.
Last night, I pulled a book off one of my shelves – the original 1996 issue of “The Long Johns”. This is a set of verbatim scripts by Bird and Fortune from a great TV programme which in the 90s was called “Rory Bremner – Who Else”. They struck me at the time as utter gems, lasting no more than 5 minutes or so, as inserts into Rory Bremner’s show. I religiously recorded them all onto video, and when someone had the sense to publish the best of the scripts on Audio cassette, and lastly in Book form, I felt that my Entertainment Cup ranneth over.
Spookily coincidentally, I noticed today, that His Nasalness Sir Melvyn Bragg is devoting tomorrow night’s South Bank Show to Bird and Fortune. At last someone I’ve heard of - so that’s a must to watch and record.
The pair of them have been on the scene for so long now that you almost forget what modern TV satire was before them. Actually you can’t forget it, it wasn’t there until they put it in place. John Bird was the Cambridge Director of the original Footlights reviews, which shot Peter Cook into the public’s awareness. A couple of years later, John Fortune followed in Bird’s footsteps. They have been tweaking the tail of the Country’s establishment ever since, and it comes as a rather worrying surprise to realise that John Bird is now 70. Many of his “fellow travellers” have gone to the great TV studio in the sky – Ned Sherrin only a week or so ago, Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore.
Between them, they’ve got the pompous, the frighteningly intense and humourless politician or the scurrilous businessman, well and truly taped. And they do so in a simple way – all they do is to get the infinitely flexible George Parr to tell the truth – about Youth Crime, Prisons, the NHS, Asylum and immigration, Old People’s Homes, The Armed forces, Defence Procurement. Apart from one glorious sketch on Prison reform where they got a complete fit of the giggles, they play it dead straight. No laughs from them – that’s your job.
The really scary thing is that, in their hands, the truth is horrifyingly funny. You really can’t believe that we elect or allow the movers and shakers in the world to do all these things, but we do. Paul Hoggart’s “Times” note today sums their view on one aspect of it all - British Defence - “With British defence policy, you don’t have to make up jokes. You just say it.”
Their disarmingly simple conversation slashes like a rapier, leaving its marks, Zorro-like, over the subject, and, by making no judgements themselves, they leave you with an inescapable and logical conclusion, after, that is, you’ve wiped the tears of hysterical laughter from your eyes.
I’m not going to put lots of examples here – just watch the "Bremner, Bird and Fortune" Shows, watch the South Bank Show, buy one of their compilation cassettes, or read one of their books.
As bursters of political and business Egos, there are none finer. Absolute National Treasures.
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