Vrij Nederland Micha Wertheim schrijft zijn held
Micha Wertheim schrijft zijn held
Amsterdam, February 2012
Amsterdam, February 2012
Dear Armando Iannucci,
My name is Micha Wertheim. You probably don’t know who I am, but I write for Free Netherlands. Last month I sent you two requests for interviews, but so far I have not heard from you. Do you know Free Netherlands? It’s a Dutch magazine somewhat like The Green One. Free Netherlands got its name in the Second World War and they never took time to think of a new one.
This week’s issue revolves around satire and so the editor asked me to write something special. But since I try to write satire every week I thought the best thing for me was to try and not be funny and reflect on satire. The best way to do that, I thought, was to interview you.
Whenever an interviewer asks me who my comic heroes are, I give them your name. But they never know who you are, so your name never makes it into the interview. What they want me to say, of course, is that I am very much influenced by Freak The Young One. Have you ever heard of Freak The Young One? Unlike what you might expect, he is a rather old man who used to be a good comedian. The last ten years of his career he has spent defending his own legacy. All his shows and interviews are now about how he deserves more respect. Freak is so obsessed with his place in history that every time he is a guest in The World Turns Through he becomes more unsympathetic.
Have you ever heard about The World Turns Through? It’s a very important Dutch talk show hosted by Mathew Newchurch. Have you ever heard of him? He looks just like that BBC talk show host Jonathan Ross; same hair, same suits. But unlike Ross, who is very funny, Mathew Newchurch can talk really fast. To compensate for not being funny he has a table gentleman. Giel for example. Dou you know who Giel is? He is a fifteen-year-old mind trapped in the body of a thirty-five-year-old man. You could call him the opposite of Bart the Count. Do you know who that was? Bart was like Giel, but the other way around. Bart’s body did not grow as his mind grew older. It was so sad that the Dutch government decided to give him his own broadcasting company.
But back now to why I would want to interview you. First of all because I suspect that in the course of the interview you would be so impressed by how cleverly funny and witty I am that you would ask me to be your new best friend. But also, perhaps, because I would like for more people in Holland to know who you are, what you have made and how you go about your writing. The interview would have started with me asking you why you gave up writing a PhD at Oxford to become a satirist. This is not really important. I already know the answer because I have read all your interviews, but it would be a good way to impress the readers. Make sure they understand you have not fallen on the back of your head. And perhaps some of your intellect will reflect on me.
In your answer you would explain how you started in radio and then in 1994 created The Day Today, a British of on television (yes, I have taken that sentence straight from Wikipedia). I would then proceed to ask if I am right to say that ever since The Day Today the intersection between media and politics has been the main theme in your work. In your answer you could play down how important it is for you to criticize politicians and media personalities. You could say something modest like: ‘For me, being funny has always been my core interest.’
I would then proceed to ask you about the character of Alan Partridge, the fictional sports commentator turned media personality that you created with Steve Coogan among others. A fictional character so real we immediately know who he is. (I would then stop the interview to show you a video of Ivo Niehe. Just so you know there is a Dutch media personality with an inflated ego very much like Alan Partridge who unlike Partridge is not fictional.) In your answer to what wasn’t really a question I could then explain to some of my readers how this fictional Partridge has grown older with you. He has had his own BBC chat shows and later his own reality shows. I would also show how you have used his character over and over again to spoof celebrity culture, most recently with the brilliant and hilarious autobiography I, Partridge that became a bestseller in the UK.
Then I would have proceeded to The Thick of It, the political satire you wrote for the BBC. Just when Dutch television decided to make a dreadful remake of Yes Minister, you wrote and directed its undisputed successor. The Thick of It was a brutal attack on how New Labour ran the country. My first question would be about when you first got disappointed in New Labour. Then I would want to know what your view is of Malcolm Tucker, the fictional spin-doctor that is clearly modelled after Alastair Campbell. More specifically, my question would be: ‘Is your ever-swearing spin-doctor really the cynical one, or are we as citizens naïve to think you can run a government without spin? Is it not cynical to make politics look like a big farce?’.
This is when we would get down to the conversation I was most hoping to have. Obviously you are very disappointed by the political system. But unlike satirists such as Martin Twain and Woody Allen, who seem to be disappointed in the entire human race, you still seem to think there are alternatives. In fact, you have been very outspoken politically, for example announcing that you would vote for the Liberal Democrats and calling on the general public to sign petitions against health care reform in the UK. My question would be: ‘Aren’t you ever afraid to overstep your boundaries? Don’t you think there is a danger both aesthetically and morally in blurring the line between satire and real politics? More specifically, aren’t you afraid that by attacking populism the way you do, you risk becoming a populist yourself?’ I ask you this because often I am, especially in the week that Dutch public discours has lost two of its main anti-populist thinkers.
Finally I would have wanted to know if the BBC is comfortable with your political outspokenness. In Holland, public broadcasters have become afraid to be politically outspoken. That question would then lead to your last project. (VEEP, the HBO comedy you wrote about the extremely boring life of the American Vice President). Was there a difference in being commissioned by the government-run BBC and the privately run HBO?
Pleas write back.
Micha Wertheim (Groningen, 1972) studeerde Cultuur- en Wetenschapsstudies in Maastricht. Sinds 2009 schrijft hij voor Vrij Nederland een wekelijkse column.