On 29 March 2018, the Radio 4 broadcast a day of programming under the title ‘Britain at the Crossroads‘ marking a year to Britain’s scheduled departure from the EU. The following is an extract from News-watch’s forthcoming report into the day’s coverage.
Performers from the Radio 4 comedy impressions programme delivered six two-minute sketches broadcast at intervals throughout the day, featuring ‘imagined voicemail messages from key players in the Brexit negotiations.’ Three impressionists – Jon Culshaw, Jan Ravens and Duncan Wiseby – imitated the voices of nine politicians: Theresa May, David Davis, Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbot, Nigel Farage, Michel Barnier, Jean-Claude Juncker, Angela Merkel and Donald Trump. The six editions were as follows:
Sketch One, 9.45am
David Davis leaves a voicemail message for Theresa May, focusing mainly on the implications of Brexit for the Irish border. David Davis was presented as naïve: believing Ireland to be ‘a magical place full of whimsy’, but taken to an ‘abandoned farmhouse’ and electrocuted by men who had placed his feet in a bucket of water and attached bulldog clips to his genitals.
Sketch Two, 1.55pm
Diane Abbot leaves a voicemail message for Jeremy Corbyn. The main target of the sketch was Labour’s inconsistent Brexit policy. Ms Abbot noted that Owen Smith had been sacked for stating that Britain should have a second referendum, despite her having taken a similar position and remained in post. She outlined a convoluted plan for: ‘a Britain both out of the single market and the customs union, whilst inside a customs union and single market. So we are inside the outside, trading freely and not freely, as a member and not a member of the EU’, and noted ‘It’s so simple.’ Towards the end of the sketch there were references to the Anti-Semitism row engulfing the Labour Party.
Sketch Three, 4.57pm
Nigel Farage leaves a message for David Davis, who is ‘unable to come to the phone right now, as Barnier has me in a headlock’. In the first section of the sketch it was revealed that Mr Farage, rather than being in a busy pub, was using a sound-effects CD he had bought ‘from a Russian’, and there were references to the 2016 referendum being won by ‘shadowy billionnaires’ and ‘that Cambridge data whatsit firm’. The second half of Mr Farage’s message focused on the issue of the ‘iconic blue passport’ being made in France, and issues surrounding the Common Fisheries Policy, with Mr Farage suggesting that both issues could be solved simultaneously by replacing the current burgundy passport with fish.
Sketch Four, 6.30pm
A message from the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier to Brexit Secretary David Davis. The premise of the skit was that Mr Barnier’s claims that Brexit was ‘a sad milestone in EU history’ were belied by the sounds of a celebration going on in the background, replete with ‘a conga line passing through’. Mr Barnier flattered the UK for having brought ‘so much to the European project’, with ‘the spirit of generosity and compromise’, only to suggest he was mistaken and actually talking about Finland.
Sketch Five, 8.58pm
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, leaving a voicemail for EU President Jean-Claude Juncker. She noted that the British had humiliated themselves in the negotiations, singling out David Davis as having poor negotiating skills. In contrast with the view from the EU portrayed in previous edition, Mrs Merkel was keen to ‘find a way to make the UK stay’, her reasoning being that ‘hating Britain is the glue that prevents the entire EU project crashing down’, and she expressed her fear that Britain would make a success of Brexit. The sketch ended with her suggesting that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg could ‘fix it’ so that Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable could be swept into power before March 2019.
Sketch Six, 10.43pm
Theresa May leaving a message for US President Donald Trump, to remind him that it’s exactly a year to Brexit and to assert that Britain can rely on the ‘special relationship’ with the US. She explained that she is looking forward to a ‘new era of free trade between our two great nations’, including inedible biscuits, overpriced medicines and chlorinated chicken. Midway through, President Trump picks up the call, at first mistaking Mrs May for Stormy Daniels, and suggesting that Theresa May ‘is such a great porn name’, and notes that he has ‘bigly plans’ for the NHS, which Mrs May agrees to sell to him.
The politicians lampooned by the Dead Ringers team have been excluded from the speaker and word count totals for the survey as whole, given that their input could not be fairly compared to contributions from real-life guests. However, statistics have been compiled separately for each ‘contributor’.
Brexit Secretary David Davis received the most space (419 words), appearing in three of the six sketches, first leaving an extended voicemail for Theresa May, and then, in subsequent editions, acting as recipient of messages from Nigel Farage and Michel Barnier. Despite being awarded so little space elsewhere in the ‘Britain at the Crossroads’ strand (just a short 25 word contribution to The World Tonight), an impression of former UKIP leader Nigel Farage accounted for the second largest amount of space (355 words), indicating that Mr Farage is still seen as a pivotal figure in the Brexit negotiations, despite UKIP receiving a sharp decline in coverage in the mainstream news and current affairs programming monitored by News-watch since the referendum.
Dead Ringers, as with all parody, depends on a level of audience familiarity: its targets are individuals whose voices, mannerisms and opinions are well-known, and the humour is created by exaggerating established perceptions, or playing on well-worn stereotypes. It also relies on familiarity with current ‘big themes’ in news and current affairs – audiences will only understand and appreciate the jokes if they are aware of a particular topic through its coverage in serious news programming.
Studies into the persuasive impact of satire discount the idea of immediate attitude change following exposure to a humorous message, with audiences being likely to dismiss its contents as ‘just a joke’. However, research also provides evidence of a potential ‘sleeper effect’: memorable messages may encourage audiences to think about issues more over time, which can increase the persuasive effect and influence on attitudes.
On Dead Ringers, the jokes tended to fall into a number of distinct categories:
‘Little Englander’ stereotypes
The sketches lampooning David Davis and Nigel Farage were predicated on links between anti-EU sentiment and xenophobia, an association repeated regularly on BBC news and entertainment programmes over the last two decades.
In his Dead Ringers incarnation, David Davis was cast as the ‘Brexit Bulldog’, noting that it was just ‘one year to go till we march up to Johnny Foreigner’, while explaining that he only speaks two languages, ‘English and slightly slower, louder English for when I’m on holidays.’ At one point he referred to an imaginary EU national as ‘Pedro’.
Similarly, the script for Nigel Farage featured the former UKIP leader referring to an EU border guard as ‘Fritz’, stating that he didn’t ‘bloody well care’ about the Irish, and stating that unless the Brexit issue was sorted he would ‘unleash the kind of hell not seen since my local introduced Peroni on tap’ – the inference that he would dislike the Italian beer on account of its nation of origin.
The Dead Ringers sketches also used their characters to ‘say the unsayable’, using mimicry to make strong personal attacks, or, conversely, to make a particular target seem foolish by implying ignorance.
Michel Barnier, for example, referred to David Davis’s ‘stupid, grinning, gappy-toothed face’, adding, ‘But I am being rude and unprofessional, and I really should not – because that is your department’. Similarly, Nigel Farage called David Davis an ‘old snaggletooth, inbred embarrassment’. Mr Farage was later mocked for having adopted a ‘salt of the Earth Englishman’ persona, while relying on Russian billionaires and the services of Cambridge Analytica to secure the Leave vote in the referendum.
Prominent Conservative Brexiteer Jacob Rees Mogg also came under fire, with jokes at his expense bookending the six editions. In the first sketch, Theresa May noted that she was unable to come to the phone ‘as Jacob Rees Mogg has rung for his elevenses’ – presumably a combined reference to his social class and the prime minister’s perceived subservience to the pro-Brexit wing of her party. Nigel Farage complained to David Davis that he had let the EU ruin the fishing industry, noting that ‘soon the only wet fish left in the country will be Jacob Rees-Mogg’. In the final skit, an imagined conversation between Theresa May and President Trump, at the suggestion that selling the NHS to Mr Trump would make her ‘the most hated and reviled politician in Britain’, Mr Trump responded, ‘There would still be Jacob Rees-Mogg’, at which point Mrs May concedes to the deal.
By contrast, there were relatively few jokes aimed at the European Commission or EU leaders, and the quips were less personal in tone. They also tended to simultaneously criticise Britain or its government. For example, Angela Merkel began her message, ‘I’ve had a difficult time recently, but it could be worse, I could be Theresa May,’ and said later, ‘Yes, I know they are belligerent and small-minded, but that is the point: without Britain to hate we’ll all end up squabbling with each other.’
Only two brief sequences were aimed squarely at the EU institutions: first, EU bureaucracy was mocked in the answerphone message of EU President Jean-Claude Juncker, ‘I can’t come to the phone right now, as doing so would directly contravene the EU Directive 8976/456 subsection 923/83 paragraph 7, appendix 2’; second, Angela Merkel revealed that her darkest fear was, ‘what if Britain actually makes a success of Brexit?’.
The Impact of Brexit
The sequence of sketches also included material focusing on the possible material effects of Brexit, and these were unremittingly negative: the hard border in Northern Ireland potentially ushering a return to terrorism; that ‘taking back control’ meaning that Britain would be doing exactly what the EU said for the next two years; that the NHS could be sold to the Americans; that any future trade relationship with the US would lead to a decline in food standards.
The ability of the British negotiating team was criticised frequently. Angela Merkel said, ‘it would have been so easy just to humiliate the British and make them look like idiots, so far better that you allow them to do it for themselves’, and Michel Barnier suggested that he had avoided David Davis’s ‘little traps’ and left him ‘flat-footed every time.’
Theresa May, meanwhile, referred to herself as ‘a strange grey-haired lady’, and was positioned by the narrative as being so ineffectual that she was forced to remind President Trump who she actually was. The notion of a trade deal with the US was pilloried, ‘Of course, there are those claiming you won’t give us a good trade deal, based on nothing, as far as I can see, but every single decision you’ve made as President’.
It is difficult to deconstruct jokes semantically in the same way one might analyse news and current affairs. Mimicry as a comedic genre is multi-layered: audiences may focus on of the skills of the imitators, gain pleasure from assessing the impressions for accuracy, or simply enjoy suspending their disbelief and hearing familiar voices articulating points that their real-life counterparts would never (or could never) make.
In addition to the impressions themselves, Dead Ringers also depends on the topical: audiences recognise issues and themes made salient by ‘serious’ news and current affairs. There is a symbiotic relationship – for audiences to be ‘in’ on a particular joke, it must reflect news themes that have gained traction elsewhere. So, for example, the impressions of Nigel Farage and Angela Merkel referenced the alleged influences of Cambridge Analytica, ‘Russian billionaires’ and Facebook on the 2016 EU Referendum and US Election. Dead Ringers could, alternatively, have satirised Remain having spent significantly more than Leave on its campaign, or mocked the BBC for carrying anti-Brexit advertisements on its overseas website, but because these issues have been downplayed or ignored by mainstream news programmes it would be difficult for them to resonate as readily with the Radio 4 audience.
Similarly, the David Davis sketch focused on the potential of a return to sectarian troubles in Northern Ireland. A paper for the Policy Exchange has argued that the Irish border issue has ‘disproportionately dominated discussion over the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the EU’ and that, ‘arch-Remainers have used it to scaremonger about the threat to the Good Friday Agreement and peace in Northern Ireland.’ But Dead Ringers acted in concert with its ‘serious’ counterparts to echo and amplify a strong anti-Brexit message.
There were further textual imbal
A year prior to the current survey, News-watch monitored the Today programme in the week that Article 50 was triggered. On 4 April 2017, Today carried a report on The Craft of Comedy, an annual conference held in Llandudno. Correspondent David Silitoe reported that, in a room containing approximately one hundred comedy writers and performers, only one person admitted to having voted Leave – writer James Cary. Mr Cary said that being pro-Brexit ‘is not a widely-held view within the comedy community,’ and when asked by Mr Silitoe if this was a good or bad thing, he replied:
I think in a sense it’s a bad thing, because you would hope that there would be a range of views, within those people who are writing comedy and aspiring to write comedy. I think it’s because Brexit is associated with conservatism and patriotism and nationalism, which are all things which comedians generally find distasteful. I think what some comedians are realising is that if you are very much a London based . . . that England and London are two very, very separate places. People in London should be a little bit careful about seeing England as, as backward and nationalistic or patriotic or racist.
Certainly Dead Ringers made these precise associations, particularly in the stereotypes used in the portrayal of David Davis and Nigel Farage. If the straw poll taken at the conference in Llandudno is representative of views within the comedy industry more widely, then Dead Ringers’ inclusion as part of the ‘Britain at the Crossroads’ strand was not editorially neutral. Rather, it was a decision guaranteed to produce sketches dwelling on the negatives of Brexit and presenting audiences with an almost entirely pessimistic view of both the ongoing negotiations and the personalities involved in delivering Britain’s future outside the EU.
 In the last News-watch survey of Radio 4’s Today programme, undertaken in October-November 2017, of the 183 speakers on EU matters, there was only one appearance from UKIP, a short 76-word soundbite from leader Suzanne Evans, equating to 0.2% of the words spoken on the EU during the survey. http://news-watch.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/News-watch-Winter-2017-Survey.pdf
 Nabi, R., Moyer-Gusé, E. and Byrne, S. (2007). All Joking Aside: A Serious Investigation into the Persuasive Effect of Funny Social Issue Messages. Communication Monographs, 74(1), p.41
 Ibid. p.49
 See, for example, News-watch’s reports on the BBC’s ‘How Euro are You?’ (October 2005) in which Andrew Marr and Dara O’ Briain invited audiences to undertake a quiz to ascertain their level of support for the EU. The programme used blunt cultural stereotypes throughout, with the most Eurosceptic category referred to as ‘Little Islanders’. http://news-watch.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/How-Euro-Are-You-Newswatch-Analysis.pdf
 During the referendum campaign, the BBC ran advertisements from Britain Stronger in Europe focused on George Osborne’s claim that Brexit would cost each household £4300 on its international websites, visible to up to 2 million British ex-patriots living on the continent. See: http://news-watch.co.uk/bbc-passes-the-buck-over-pro-eu-website-ads/
 BBC Radio 4, Today, 4 April 2017, ‘The Craft of Comedy’ Conference, 7.42am