Playing from the gallery

Volume 34 Number 4 December 2023

I’m delighted to be proven wrong. When I started to type this piece it looked as if The Times had decided to save the price of a sketchwriter and not replace Quentin Letts after his return to the Daily Mail. It is a more natural habitat for a man of his pronounced sub-tribal loyalties, in my opinion. But that’s not the point. Much more important, The Times has signed up Tom Peck from The Independent. Excellent. Not so long ago, Times readers expected a full-page account of verbatim reports (was it really set in 6pt type?) of the day’s events in Parliament. An expensive anachronism in the online Hansard era, but it was a commitment to seriousness. At its best, the parliamentary sketch is a serious commitment to politics as theatre, entertaining but sometimes lethal.

I should declare an interest. From 1977-84, I was The Guardian’s sketchwriter, succeeding the brief first reign of Simon Hoggart, the very brief tenure of Peter Cole, and the long occupancy of Norman Shrapnel. Way, way back, Harry Boardman sat in the chair. His collection of sketches was called The Glory of Parliament and includes Boardman’s account of Churchill’s first entry into the Commons as prime minister in May 1940. It records that in that moment of existential national peril Labour MPs cheered, but that Tories didn’t. Most had been Chamberlain men.

Even Boardman’s reverential title serves to remind us that much has changed. Parliament’s proceedings are barely reported now: it’s all online, but you must do it yourself. Few do. But the sketch survives to offer a daily glimpse of the day’s drama and verdict. It has a long history. Did not young Dickens toil nightly in the crowded press gallery and also publish Sketches by Boz, including political ones? He did, but the foolish fellow left to try to make a living as a novelist – like many hacks have done since. The flame was long kept burning by Henry Lucy (1842-1924), an erudite, witty and acerbic polymath who had a popular sideline in sketchwriting. Knighted and painted by John Singer Sargent, Lucy even had a mountain in Antarctica named by Ernest Shackleton.

Fast forward to Bernard Levin (1928-2004), after whom no peak is named though he too was a hugely talented and famous polymath, honoured too: he was punched on live TV during That Was The Week That Was for being offensive, as he was paid to be. Levin is credited with being what Hoggart would call “the father of the modern parliamentary sketch”, writing as Taper (a nod to a Dickens political creep) in The Spectator. The change was an inevitable break with the heroic decades of war and rebuilding in the satire boom that followed Suez and the post-imperial hangover, trouserdropping political scandals included. A pompous lawyer minister called Manningham-Buller (MI6’s Eliza’s dad) became “Bullying-Manner” and the former Labour-to-Tory Sir Hartley Shawcross (Willie’s dad) became Sir Shortly Floorcross (as he did).

Which development leads us into the present era. Many have done the sketch in many newspapers (even the FT dabbles intermittently) and magazines (Robert Hutton cheerily sketches for The Critic) with varying successes, an unusually subjective opinion in any case as it mixes humour and politics, both very personal.

John O’Sullivan was highly ideological/free market for The Daily Telegraph, as was (with a Powellite twist) courtly Andrew Alexander, next to whom I sat for years. Andrew Gimson was and is a gentler observer who rashly sued the Telegraph when the paper wanted less gentleness as polarised populism crept in. Combative Edward Pearce actually had a fight, above MPs’ heads in the press gallery, over whose turn it was to sketch. The Guardian tried many after my time, the longest- running Andrew Rawnsley, who graduated to a “real” column (no jokes). Colin Welch (1924-1997), inventor of Peter Simple and grandpa to Florence, sketched for the Mail, a delightful man, a Peterhouse Tory who never soured or stopped laughing at absurdity. Today, The Guardian’s John Crace grapples with his often-acknowledged depression and daily-confirmed dislike of the Tories. He’s too visceral for me, but times move on and John has a big following.

There are three in my personal pantheon of sketchwriters. Matthew Parris is still gently witty and wise, a writer who (so he says) failed in three careers – diplomat, MP and TV anchor – but has triumphantly succeeded ever since.

Then there is my close friend Hoggart (1946-2014), son of the eminent Richard, a talented rascal who could raise an anarchic belly laugh impressively often. The joke came first with Simon, though he knew what was going on behind the Westminster stage. Sir Peter Tapsell, relentlessly mocked for his rotund style (“Sir Peter’s words are recorded on vellum”) used to lunch Simon occasionally as thanks for making him famous in old age and rescuing his career. Simon was less kind to Tony Benn and saw him as a wrong‘un. If you ever need cheering up, Google “Hoggart on Benn in Guardian, Oct 2013”. He was also mean to Tony Blair – not that he was interested in balance, he just smelled fakery.

That said, I give the crown to Frank Johnson (1943-2006) of the Telegraph and Times sketch, editor of The Spectator, and reporter on many regional dailies and The Sun. Why award him the gold? Frank was also a laugh-out-loud man, with a lightness of touch whose blows rarely broke the skin. The great Alan Watkins (who had a flat in an Islington house, with Frank and Matthew Engel in the other two) used to say that “Frank is touched with genius”. So he was.

It was my privilege and misfortune to compete daily with Johnson. If I got one over him once a week, I judged I was doing well. Frank was a High Tory, despite – or because of – being the son of an East End pastry cook. An 11-plus failure, he left school at 16 instead of going to Cambridge, because he was a born scholar. None of which stopped him mocking Margaret Thatcher in her pomp when she deserved it: the jokes came first. The story goes that his first Fleet Street job was as a messenger boy at the Express, where Frank fetched tea for Mr Watkins, who modelled his own columnar style on PG Wodehouse.

All of this adds up to a rich vein of Fleet Street history, not lightly to be let atrophy and die. Parliament might be in poor shape, its own traditions and practices fading (when did you last witness a full set-piece debate?), its collective decency weakened by ideological rancour and misbehaviour. But the sketch is part of the tradition and can contribute by offering MPs and their constituents both perspective and good humour. Some events can best be conveyed, and even best explained, by a good sketch. So cost-conscious editors might be tempted to save money on a luxury (Letts’s transfer salary back to the Mail was reportedly north of £400,000), but The Times editor Tony Gallagher has resisted false economy. Regular star columns of many kinds are what newspapers still do best. Don’t shoot the jester, Mr Editor. In grim times like ours, it’s too serious for that.


Michael White

The writer is a former sketchwriter, Washington correspondent and political editor of The Guardian. He edits the BJR’s books pages.


From the same issue

Breaking news

The veteran BBC correspondent Martin Bell, appearing recently on a panel to discuss the future of...

read more

Singling out the women

As press freedom declines, Russian authorities fear women journalists pose a particular threat to their control . . . and are targeting them accordingly

read more