Make 'em laugh: Humorists see funny side of UK's EU debate

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Mary Poppins supports the EU, but Basil Fawlty is backing Brexit.

The practically perfect nanny and the bad-tempered hotelier may be fictional, but they have been dragged in to Britain's EU membership debate — providing a welcome dose of levity for referendum-weary voters.

Two weeks before Britain decides whether to walk away from the 28-nation bloc, electors are enduring a long and bitter campaign that has seen rival politicians trade predictions of doom if voters make the wrong choice.

Little wonder that even the political professionals are seeking diversion.

Pollster YouGov recently took a break from surveying real-life voting intentions to ask how various fictional characters might regard the EU.

Respondents thought Mary Poppins, lovelorn diarist Bridget Jones, time-traveler Doctor Who, super-spy James Bond and bumbler Mr. Bean would support staying in. The "leave" camp included cerebral detective Sherlock Holmes, Dalmatian-tormenter Cruella de Vil, Groundskeeper Willie from "The Simpsons" and the hapless hotel owner played by John Cleese in "Fawlty Towers."

"We found that most of the fictional characters people thought would remain were — quote unquote — nice people," said Joe Twyman, YouGov's head of political and social research. "On the other side I guess you could characterize it as a bit, well, not so friendly — or perhaps slightly scheming."

Twyman hesitated to extrapolate from that result to the likely outcome of the June 23 vote. But he said many respondents were happy to be asked something light-hearted amid a campaign marked by hyperbole, oversimplified arguments and personal attacks.

That kind of politics may be a turnoff for voters, but it's a boon for humorists.

"They seem to have dialed it up to 11 from the outset on both sides," said Andy Hamilton, co-writer of "Power Monkeys," a sitcom about the referendum airing on Britain's Channel 4. "It's comic in the widest sense, although it's gallows humor."

Hamilton's writing partner, Guy Jenkin, said facts have been swept aside in the debate: "Leave" campaigners warn that Britain will be "flooded by 500 million Turks" if the EU expands to the east, while the other side claims "the economy will collapse and we'll all be rooting around in rubbish bins for food" if Britain leaves.

"Power Monkeys" is partly written on the day of broadcast for maximum topicality and focuses on a cast of beleaguered foot-soldiers — press officers, spin doctors and volunteers struggling to rally voters behind incompetent, inconsistent or unpopular politicians.

Hamilton says they're "everyman characters who are dealing with all the ripples and shocks that get caused by the ridiculous tactics."

Britain has a robust tradition of political satire, from the savage 18th-century drawings of William Hogarth to the parodic puppetry of "Spitting Image" in the 1980s and '90s.

Many humorists lament the blandness of present-day politicians like the emollient Prime Minister David Cameron. The referendum has provided a welcome change, bringing forth the likes of rumpled, Latin-spouting former London Mayor Boris Johnson and ruddy, pint-swilling U.K. Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, leaders of rival "leave" campaigns, and the Labour Party's socialist leader, Jeremy Corbyn — a nominal "remain" campaigner with little evident enthusiasm for the cause.

"It's fantastic," said Nev Fountain, who writes for satirical magazine Private Eye. "It's a real rogues' gallery."

The EU debate has shattered traditional politics, dividing parties down the middle and creating awkward alliances. On the "remain" side, Cameron has been forced to stand alongside rivals he has publicly derided, including London's Labour Party mayor, Sadiq Khan.

"It's like when Simon and Garfunkel had to reform and they really hated each other but they still had to stand on the same platform," Fountain said.

Much of the referendum humor has an undercurrent of worry. There's a sense that the anti-EU movement, the rise of Donald Trump and declining support for centrists around the world are signs that old political certainties are being swept aside by global crises and public anger.

Jenkin says that as a satirist, he's torn. Someone like the larger-than-life Trump "is a magnificent comic character. On the other hand, he may wipe out humanity, which we do recognize has a downside."

British political humor has long had an air of fatalism. Much of it seems to say: Whoever you vote for, the government always gets in.

The referendum may change Britain forever, but it hasn't changed its sense of humor.

In "Power Monkeys," a Kremlin functionary notes that "the British government has made the schoolboy error of asking the people what they want."

"And what do they want?" asks an underling.

"They want it to be over."


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