What Drop The Dead Donkey tells us about the modern condition

It’s an old cliché, but there really isn’t that much to watch on TV. Now the cycling is finished, I don’t even bother turning it on most nights. Occasionally I’ll watch one of the news channels. Occasionally I’ll see if there is anything on catch-up (there probably won’t be). Apart from Modern Family (a seriously guilty pleasure) there is not much going on comedy-wise. That is until the new series of The Thick Of It appears of course. A show that I am extremely excited about.

I’ve been reduced to trawling 4OD on youtube. Fortunately the complete Drop The Dead Donkey can be found on there, so my few hours of weekly TV watching time are at least brilliantly entertaining (I’m sick of Father Ted now).

It’s a pretty good show actually, and there have been quite a few laugh-out-loud moments. Henry Davenport, played by David Swift, is a joy to behold at times. A lot of it is silly, and by contemporary standards (i.e. the canon of Iannucci and Morris) some of the satire is pretty tame. Gus Hedges, supposedly the evil one is shrewd and a perpetual schemer, but ultimately a paper tiger. Malcolm Tucker isn’t a paper tiger.

Unlike a lot of the 21st century equivalents the characters have redeeming features and moments of clarity where they see themselves and the world around them honestly and thoughtfully. It isn’t as relentlessly cynical as Thick and the characters aren’t all irredeemably despicable.

But on another level it is far more daring and radical than anything on right now.

Considering that the show finished at the fag-end of the Major years and the beginning of the Blair epoch, it actually seems like a world away. The huge technological leaps forward in the media are naturally a significant difference and have a big impact on the format of the show. But it’s the politics that are the most noticeable change.

The show is virulently anti-Tory. Most shows contain several digs at how morally despicable the Conservatives are and various character assassinations of government ministers. The cast and writers go to enormous lengths to expose them as lying, amoral, hypocritical, out-of-touch and personally corrupt bastards.

Free-market capitalism and the policies of free market capitalists are given a far harder ride than anything you would find in TV right now. Even Davenport, who I assume to be basically a Conservative character, frequently exposes the self-evident irrationality of policies that we now take for granted. In one episode there was a running joke about privatizing the police force and how unimaginable and absurd it would be. How little they knew…….

The female characters are for the most part unashamedly feminist and willing to call out any act of misogyny. Men are made to pay when they behave like pigs.

So there is little attempt to disguise the political mission of the writers and the actors.

For instance I watched an episode this weekend where the staff walked out on strike in support of their colleagues who had been threatened with dismissal. The strikers were portrayed as principled and heroic. The strike-breakers on the other hand were cowards, reprobates and cynical opportunists. A clear moral line in the sand was drawn. Can you imagine that on a mainstream comedy show in 2012?

The other striking aspect of the show is its overtly anti-monarchy stance, and this is probably the side to the show that seems the most other-worldly. At the time (the mid-nineties) the monarchy’s popularity was at an all-time low and they were routinely lampooned and derided even by mainstream comics and TV shows. Prince Charles was a standing joke. They appeared to be an institution withering away and their every flaw was exposed. Of course fundamentally the Royal Family is the same as it was 15 years ago, but perceptions have changed dramatically in the meantime. Nobody would dare stick the boot into them on primetime TV anymore. They have become largely untouchable and have regained their ‘national treasure’ status.

It just isn’t a show that you can imagine being made in 2012. If one was being hyper-intellectual, you would say that the team behind the show hadn’t capitulated to postmodern ideology and still believed in something. The attacks on politicians on DTDD are cruel and bile-filled. But there is some kind of alternative being posited. There is an acknowledgement that it doesn’t actually have to be like this. In many respects it is more comforting. But right now it is probably a lot more unrealistic I guess. Iannucci’s genius is that he exposes the truth, that most politicians are shite and irredeemably so. They are all stupid. They are all self-serving. They believe in nothing apart from themselves.

Of course the mid-nineties were different, more optimistic times for the liberal-left. We had yet to be disappointed by Blair. The Tories and their intolerant, hidebound ideology appeared to be in headlong retreat. But in all honesty that was a hopelessly superficial analysis. New Labour was the product of a deeply pessimistic worldview. The optimism was a carefully choreographed but ultimately content-free charade. We saw that demonstrated vividly after 1997.

I suppose the point I’m trying to make is that many of us smugly comfort ourselves that we live in more enlightened, classless, progressive times than even a decade or so ago. A quick trawl through the archive of DTDD would suggest, the huge disappointment of New Labour aside, otherwise. In many respects, intellectually we are definitely regressing.

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