Is Matt Forde Britain’s answer to Jon Stewart?

Matt Forde, via his website

The berserk news anchor leering over his desk as he fulminates against the blunders and mischief of his government is a phenomenon better known to America than to Britain.

For the longest time Britons have been forbade from this kind of open partisanship practised by the likes of Fox News, our broadcasters being bound by Ofcom guidelines which confine them to a mostly centrist political stance.

It is with this in mind that one must assess Matt Forde, a former Labour staffer turned comedian (at a time when there was some distinction) currently piloting a show that satirises the week’s events in a chat show format.

This is an event, and not because we don’t do satire on television. Indeed, Have I Got News For You has continued to lumber into its 50th season despite the tiredness of the format and often witless guest presenters.

Farther back Spitting Image had more than enough of the cruelty necessary for good satire, and the infamous Brass Eye episode on paedophilia sent even the tabloids carping about bad taste – a sure sign it was worth watching.

But what Britain has always lacked is the kind of advocacy-satire enjoying a golden age in the States under Trevor Noah, Steven Colbert, Bill Maher and John Oliver, a Briton who had to move across the Atlantic to do that kind of material.

Unspun with Matt Forde attempts to fill this niche for a British audience, with a BBC pilot being shot at the London Studios last weekend.

The format is loosely built on Forde’s excellent podcast, The Political Party, in which the comic mixes stand-up with a semi-serious interview with a political luminary.

For the pilot Forde was able to recruit former Labour home secretary Alan Johnson as his first guest, but his television interview style came off as rather cheap in comparison to the podcast, whose relaxed and lengthy style delivers some of the most revealing interviews in British politics.

Instead the focus of Unspun is on attacking the news agenda in quick-fire fashion, through a mix of set piece monologues (akin to Jon Stewart) and some set pieces from comedians and the odd journalist.

Mostly the gags in these worked on the overwhelmingly white and middle aged audience who had queued outside London Studios for an hour in order to watch Forde on Sunday.

But what the show noticeably lacked – and presumably must lack under the BBC’s Ofcom-esque guidelines – is a particular view on things.

Have I Got News For You has got away with attacking what panellist Ian Hislop has termed “vice, folly and humbug”, but attacking someone for a political decision, in the sense of having different values rather than being sleazy, incompetent or deceitful, has mostly escaped its remit.

Forde, as he raises many times on his podcast, is a declared Blairite. In some ways this is not an obvious position for a satirist, given that David Cameron, despite often being described as a shire Tory, has also been named the “heir to Blair” more than a few times.

The comic is also fond of Westminster as an institution, to the point where he defends prime minister’s questions, much disliked by the public.

There’s certainly mileage in slagging off stupidity, though as a rule the British are less tolerant of low IQ in their politicians than our American cousins. But what Unspun will lack are segments akin to Jon Stewart’s attack on gun laws in the wake of the Charleston massacre.

Perhaps this doesn’t matter: Forde can still build an audience without partisanship or merely standing up for certain principles.

But it is hard to see Unspun becoming the kind of institution that Jon Stewart became in America during his prime years, where he could plausibly claim that his audience trusted him more as a news source than supposed news channels.

Judging by the quick edit that appeared on the monitors at the recording, the Unspun cutting looks a bit quick at this point, and ignores the strength of the 20 minute segments that comics like John Oliver are producing in the States.

But should it make it out of development purgatory, there is something to watch here, even if it looks like Britain will continue to lack its Jon Stewart counterpart.

Image Credit – Matt Forde, via his website

Jimmy Nicholls

Jimmy Nicholls

Writer on Westminster, free speech, religion and so forth. Contact jimmy.nicholls@rightdishonourable.com

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