December 9, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

Satire during the 1981 riots

2 min read
The 1981 riots - how we tried to laugh

The early 1980s was the era of so-called ‘alternative comedy’ addressing political and social issues that traditional comedians tended to avoid. It also rejected the casual racism and sexism of the old-style comedy circuit. And Thatcher – plus the 1981 riots her policies contributed to – gave this new class of comedian ample material for satire.

Traditional satirical titles like Private Eye also got in on the act. This magazine had been going since the 1960s and was born out of that decade’s boom in snarling satire. Though the talents spawned back then were very Cambridge University whereas the 1980s alternative comedy circuit had a large red brick university and even polytechnic component.

DISCOVER: 1981 riots blamed on left-wing agitators

Private Eye ran a front page in July 1981 that tried to see the funny side of the riots. That month had seen explosions of anger in Toxteth, Southall, Moss Side and Brixton as well as cities like Leeds and Bradford. Private Eye’s humour alighted on the looting that accompanied the violence.

Looking at it now – there’s a slight condescension about the depiction. And a mocking dismissal of left-wing sociological analysis with the woman saying “I blame my parents”. I do wonder if the woman concerned in real life was simply carrying her shopping to the car.

Satire should be directed at the powerful – not the powerless – in my humble opinion. So there is a dig at the bottom of the page aimed at the Home Secretary, William Whitelaw. In this bit of 1981 riots satire, he’s accused of dithering while Britain burns.

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