‘The New Statesman’ at 30

❉ Alan B’Stard MP captured the mood of the time. Get rich quick and to hell with the cost, providing you look good in a suit and a Rolex watch.

The thirtieth anniversary of the very first series of The New Statesman caught some of us by surprise. Yet it was the most obvious year for there to be a political sitcom/demolition ball to be unleashed upon the public. B’stard was played by Rik Mayall, one of the brilliant new wave of young comedians who was toppling our parent’s unfashionable, but much watched, middle-aged comedians.

By 1987, we had experienced eight years of Conservative government with Margaret Thatcher in charge, and after a recent General election victory, there was another four years to come. There was now a new breed of over-confident and very rich young men, working the money markets and stock exchanges: yuppies, flourishing Filofaxes, big watches and sexy blue striped shirts, a confidence that would in later years become dented by the first of a series of economic catastrophes. Unless they bet for it to happen. There may be some white powder underneath their nose too.

The New Statesman presented aspects of the controversial 1980s political and social scene. Sex is Wrong shows a religious Right anti-sex morality crusade (B’stard only attends their meetings to watch some porn) and the figurehead of the group only naturally ends up wanting to – and does – shag B’stard.

Three Line Whipping features B’stard’s favourite brothel frequented by many top officials and party figures, the type who used to visit the late Cynthia Payne. It is raided by the police, only to have their operation scuppered by a police commissioner who has been ‘coming’ here for years.  On this occasion B’stard has received a good caning rather than applying one, making his appearance on TV AM (remember that?) to discuss a by-election result a somewhat uncomfortable experience. Especially since he had no idea of the result.

The first series finished with a couple of American fast food owners wanting to open restaurants in Britain to ‘feed our starving people’.  My personal favourite is John Woodvine as a Chief Constable who has drinks with Jesus in a pub. He was based on James Anderton. ‘Have a pork scratching, says the Lord’, he tells B’stard.

Alan B’Stard MP captured the mood of the time. Get rich quick and to hell with the cost, providing you look good in a suit and a Rolex watch. He was the brash new Thatcherite which deregulation unleashed. In other times, he would have been a black-market spiv but now his practises were legitimised.

And his excesses were funny. He killed, or at least wounded, his political opponents to win an election. He forced in legislation to arm the police force (with his own guns, naturally). He is happy to dump nuclear waste beneath a school. He conned a load of MPs into thinking they were being hijacked after discovering he had been conned himself. That he has a very small penis and climaxes within thirty second in no way informs his tastes and desires. In fact, he is rather proud of it. You can use him to time boiling quails’ eggs, apparently.

First series B’stard isn’t the confident player he became in later series. He is feeling his way around the world of high Tory politics. When B’stard tries to dispose of a taxi driver he thinks he has inadvertently killed, he ends up giving Mrs Thatcher a lift. She is hidden behind official papers, because she is played by Steve Nallon, who provided her voice for Spitting Image. We will not see this version of B’stard as he strides through the next three series with a confident swagger, tempered only occasionally when someone tries to kill him, and that is frequent. When we next meet Thatcher, in the second series, Nallon is only disguised by a face full of ointment and we see the ruthless PM cracking nuts in her fist.

Any talk of The New Statesman inevitably draws attention to Mayall, his incredible physicality, his ability to turn from glee to horror to malicious evil in the space of a few seconds. Yet it is seldom noted just how brilliant the writing is, especially the complicated plotting created by writers Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran. Some of their later episodes are just masterpieces in how to convey plot in only 22 minutes of screen-time. Some of these stories feature complicated financial scams, blackmail, you name it. Astonishing material and frequently overlooked.

The direction by Geoffrey Sax is also high quality. The first series is finding the tone, but the second sets it in concrete, which future director Graeme Harper will transcend. The description ‘dark’ is all too often misapplied to comedies that try hard to shock, but The New Statesman deals with death, drugs, assaults, torture, deviancy, and it is hilarious.

B’stard’s wife, the delicious, bisexual Sarah, played by Marsha Fitzalan, is as evil and Machiavellian as her husband. She has a penchant for orgies with rough working class men ‘who can screw for hours’. She would screw anyone who was useful, especially if they could destroy her husband. There’s a condom machine in the bathroom. B’stard’s foil and accomplice and reciprocate of brutal punishment, was the incredibly nice, decent, inbred Piers Fletcher-Dervish, played by Michael Troughton. He went onto receive some astonishing sadism to his wobbly bottom. He was played with brilliance by Troughton, and it is hard to overstate his importance to the show. B’stard apparently murders Pier’s mother in order to kill his own. He certainly nearly killed Pier’s wife, and had sex with her. And nearly dropped their baby out of a window. Yet, they were mates.

The first series featured a regular cast who did not return for the second. We lost his political agent, Norman Bormann, played by Rowena Cooper. He was a man who undertook a sex-change operation, as it was called then, in order to escape fraud charges. Cooper starts of as a man including a moustache and ends the series as an attractive lady, whose hard knockers and retention of a penis is enough to kill off a potential rival for a scheme of B’stards. Peter Sallis, currently on BBC1 as one of the Last of the Summer Wine, can be seen here as pub landlord Sidney Bliss who was the last hangman of Britain. He has a fear of depths.

Best of all, the magnificent Charles Grey plays B’stard’s father-in-law, a racist, anti-Semitic old Tory land-owner sheep-farming snob, who loathes his lazy nouveau riche son-in-law, who only became an MP since he was chairman of the local Conservative party. It turns out they do share a common interest in disposing cheaply chemical weapons ‘You’re almost a big a bastard as I am,’ says Alan. ‘Gotcha!’ replies his father-in-law.

B’stard’s MP mentor was Sir Stephen Baxter, who bowed out in the second series where he accepts a peerage after witnessing what he thought was Fletcher-Dervish fellating a chap on the floor. Actually, it was an inflatable Alan. ‘This is not the Liberal party!’ he exclaims, hitting him with his order papers.

They were no longer needed. B’stard, Sarah and Piers stormed, killed, and shafted their way through three more series. A controversial Conservative MP of the time, Edwina Curry, once remarked how the coming of B’stard influenced the younger and flasher Conservative MPs. Ironically, during B’stard’s reign, she was having an adulterous affair with future Prime Minister John Major who was the complete opposite, a decent man regarded as boring tucked his shirt inside his grey underpants.

Sunday nights on ITV were always good for a comedy. Spitting Image, the media satire Hot Metal and The New Statesman. It was that or That’s Life on BBC1 which featured carrots which looked like a penis. B’stard would not have recognised it, of course. Those carrots were always far too big.

❉ Michael Seely’s biography of Kit Pedler, ‘The Quest For Pedler’ (Miwk Publishing, 2014) can be purchased directly here. You can hear Michael Seely discussing his book with Miwk here.

 Michael Seely’s biography of director Douglas Camfield was published by Miwk Publishing in May 2017.  Click here to order.

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