Excerpt from Yannick Erwig’s “European Clauses”: Britain’s conformist irony

Yannick Weston Erwig (44) teaches at Marchant University, Toulouse. He has published three major works to date, “The burden of non-being”, “Without peace and war” and “The red pill: masculinity’s civil war”.

It is a harmless sketch, in truth.  The opening episode of season 4 of “A Bit of Fry and Laurie” contains an unimaginative pastiche of “It’s a Wonderful life”.  Hugh Laurie stumbles onto a bridge, with a fearsome blizzard whirling around him.  He looks down at the freezing water and, in a coarse Australian accent, laments that life is not worth living before throwing himself into the depths.  When he comes round he finds himself alive and greeted by Stephen Fry, his guardian angel – and it is here that Laurie’s character is addressed as Rupert. He reinforces defiantly to his angel:

“…I own the largest conglomerate of newspapers and a satellite television companies in the world! I’ve got better things to do than stand here speaking to a chocolate cake like you.”

From here, his Angel (Fry) guides Rupert Murdoch through a United Kingdom that has been untouched by Rupert Murdoch. Without his tabloid newspaper The Sun and his satellite network Sky provoking disharmony and drowning out debate, the UK has become a cohesive society.  Recognising this wonderful and functional society Murdoch appears to have a transformation; he wants to live, and to live in this world.  Yet, alas, he wants to live in this (literally) ‘United’ UK so he can bring it to ruin.

“I can introduce big tits.  Break up the broadcasting monopolies.  Destroy the Times, the BBC, the royal family.  I could make an absolute bloody fortune.”

His guardian angel, realising Murdoch’s truth, hurls him back into the river.  Fry then looks forth into the camera and maliciously utters “Twat”.

Now this whole fantasy is troubling if we are to take the British seriously – and we should. The British are a slippery form of humanity for many outside their linguistic contours because, particularly for one who understands only the foundation of their language, rarely do they say what they mean.  They have a droll and ironic pessimism that, when taken at face value, alarms their European counterparts. For example, when posed with sincere questions about the monarchy a British friend of mine always answers in some form that he “..thankfully (doesn’t) have to live next door to her. Since (he) hates little dogs”. This response often confuses those who have little interaction with the British.  Obviously, being unfamiliar with the language can provoke intrinsic problems for the inquisitor, but even when translated directly for them the European is often still befuddled, “So he is just telling a joke?”.  The English sense of humour is so coded into their language that many people outside of British English find the people of Britain to seem frivolous and shallow – their irony used primarily to deflect expressing their true feelings.  Those who become more familiar with the British humour, and their highly coded language, know that within their jokes are their answers.  The British live in a strange form of subjugation, whereby one who argues for social justice and radical changes in society for the benefit of the majority is labelled a loony, while the dispute between a customer and a pet shop owner, regarding the sale of a dead parrot, is seen as the cornerstone of British humour; vis-à-vis the British identity.  The Dead Parrot sketch by the Monty Python Flying Circus remains the most pervasive example that Britain holds up for its own comedic genius – yet one must consider that the celebration of the sketch does not involve the wider conflict at its heart, a Kafka-esque/Orwellian tension between customer and business, or more pointedly between those who have the right to sell and those who can only purchase what is for sale.

One can certainly agree that Fry/Laurie and Monty Python et al are comedians and the sequences are, at their inception, solely intended to amuse.  Yet it is problematic that further interpretation is discouraged beyond this juncture.  This is the contradiction at the heart of Britain, that the sincere idealist is labelled a deluded clown for illustrating a dissatisfaction with the status quo, and the comedian is permitted to illustrate figuratively (or, in the case of the Murdoch sketch, literally) the absurdity and misery of the status quo, and they are labelled enlightened clowns; national treasures, even.  In Britain you risk being labelled a clown, unless you embrace it as your primary identity before you make any comment.  This in turn has led many of the populace to do the same, thus to some on the outside, the British can seem irreverent to the point of nihilism.  More than any other, British culture seems to apply great intellect to those in possession of wit.  However, does putting great intellect on those whose primary role is to entertain result in the British holding aloft an impotent intelligentsia – eunuchs, if you will that have no possibility of leading, because no one follows a clown.

The sketch here though, does denote a concerning prejudice and it is a prejudice that came to the fore in the immediate reactions to Britain’s “Brexit” referendum – where anxieties over the freedom of movement was decreed as racism.  Dressed up as an insult to Rupert Murdoch the sketch is in fact a huge compliment to him, and a barbed comment on Britain’s working class. For, what wonders could befall a society that no longer faces the tyranny of an oppressive right wing press?

This wonderful Britain remains under the tutelage of the BBC (not mentioning that Murdoch’s attacks of the BBC’s power was politically condoned and orchestrated by the Thatcher government).  Here, England’s beloved two-storey terraced houses are not daubed with unsightly satellite dishes – a horror only for those with the opportunity to choose a dwelling based on the pleasure they derive from looking out of their windows. In this world without Murdoch the taxi driver is polite and subservient to his client.  The local pub is filled with different ethnicities, chatting gaily over a pint (not taking into account the Sikh, Hindu and various other teetotal communities in UK). What Fry and Laurie naively depict is that without Murdoch we have a world with an obedient and grateful working class; thus concluding that the problems with modern Britain is the closed-mindedness of its poorest citizens, and that their anxieties are imaginary.  The sketch may be focusing on the work of Murdoch but fundamentally it is lamenting that Britain’s working class are too easily manipulated and distracted.

Surely the truly radical joke to play on Murdoch in this scenario would have been to reveal to him that the world would have been the same had he never existed. To show Murdoch that he made no indelible difference to the world, because anyone with access to the relative capital and the opportunity would see that such practice and malice towards society is the most effective way to enrich oneself.  If not Murdoch, someone else.  A more effective irony perhaps, but maybe Mr. Fry and Mr. Laurie would be clear in instructing a fusty European like me that it is an irony that is not funny.


This Text is an edited excerpt from Erwig’s “European Clauses”, to be released by Hall Associated Press soon. Other books of Erwig’s are available via one-off prints that can be purchased through Hall Associated Press contact page.

“The burden of non-being” © 2014  (with introduction by M. Fealen)
“Without peace and war” © 2011
“The red pill: masculinity’s civil war”  © 2016  (co. auth.  M. Fealen)


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