Lunatics in the White House? Surely not?
Satirist Alistair Beaton tells Jane Wright
why there must be a core of truth at the heart of all his comic
assaults on the political elite
A Planet for the President by Alistair Beaton
Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £9.99
ALISTAIR Beaton cant be getting serious, can he? Of course,
as a satirist he has always placed a core of raw truth, as he sees
it, in his writing.
There was the rubber Maggie Thatcher dubbing her cabinet vegetables
in the 1980s TV satire Spitting Image and the Machiavellian, Alastair
Campbell-like spin doctor pushing the boundaries to keep government
scandal out of the news in the award-winning Feelgood at Hampstead
Theatre then the West End in 2001.
And finally there was Tony Blair as George W Bushs poodle
at war with Iraq in the satirical song and dance Follow My Leader
back at Hampstead Theatre last spring.
But Beatons first novel, A Planet for the President, published
last month, takes his concerns to a different level.
In it, ever-greedier American consumerism threatens the ecology
of the entire planet. But President Ritchie L Ritchie, rather than
making himself unelectable by drastically limiting the lifestyle
of his voters, considers the ultimate sanction: killing off everyone
Mr Beaton, who used to live Kentish Town in Falkland Road,
then Grafton Road before coming to rest round the corner
from Holloway Prison in Islington, reflects: I like
big themes and this book is rooted in environmental concerns. So
I do want to be serious. But I worry that would be equated with
dull. I can do comedy and I want people to turn the pages. I hate
to be preached at. So A Planet For The President is essentially
an entertainment, but which carries a frisson of truth and shock.
By abandoning the Kyoto Accord on climate change, he says, the United
States is behaving as if the jurys still out.
Meanwhile, he says Tony Blair makes an emotionally charged
speech on the environment every now and again, then offers no follow-up
or coherent environmental policy.
But, Mr Beaton adds: Ive got rid of my car, and try
to re-cycle a lot. And other people are asking: should I really
be taking a cheap flight to the sun this year?
Yet the government levies no tax on aircraft fuel and wants
to dramatically increase our airport capacity.
The writer even argues, despite the delirious, pantomime awfulness
of his awfully funny president, hes more rooted in truth than
Josiah Bartlett, played by Martin Sheen, from the White House hit
TV drama The West Wing.
He continues: Ive read back through the last eight presidencies,
while most conversations in the Oval Office have been recorded,
some clandestinely. All the evidence suggests there have been a
lot of sleazy characters involved.
He continues: September 11 has given America permission to
stop thinking. The war on terror is plain stupid. Its just
making the terrorists more and more dangerous.
And underneath the wilder reaches of comedy in my novel, theres
the same sense of an America out of control and running rampage
round the planet.
He has even modelled the family relationships of the most powerful
men in the world on life, by giving his president a gay son.
Mr Beaton explains: I think theres something glorious
about the vice president Dick Cheney having a lesbian daughter.
It forces him to be liberal and I think we should all be grateful
On the other hand, his fictional president is a disturbed
man who thinks his sons sexuality is more important than thousands
dying in New Orleans.
The writer admits, while writing A Planet For The President, he
employed two full-time researchers, because people can sense
if something is authentic, and the nerd in me loves all that stuff.
But he still wasnt sure how Americans themselves would react.
Happily, he claims: A major film studio over there is now
very interested in the book.
Mr Beaton was able to use his background for Feelgood, set at a
British party conference, (a world he knows inside out as a radio
commentator) as writers and spin masters agonise over last minute
adjustments to the all-important speech of the PM.
He says: When I believed in the Labour Party before
they came to power I myself cheered up Gordon
Browns speeches, then rehearsed the jokes with him over the
But the relationship between the politically disillusioned satirist
and the dour politician didnt last.
Mr Beaton recalls: I was rewarded for each speech with a bottle
of House of Commons Number One whiskey. Then I suddenly got sent
Number Two. It tasted the same, but I think Id been downgraded.
Feelgood has surprised him, he says, by becoming a play, not about
the British government and spin, but about the general cynicism
in modern politics.
As such it has found big audiences abroad, scoring a huge hit in
Portugal and attracting the Hungarian prime minister to the first
night in Budapest.
A Planet For The President became a novel because of the size of
its cast and Mr Beaton, who is more used to writing with partners,
says he enjoyed it as a different, gloriously selfish experience,
where I could let my ego run amok.
Then reassuring the fans who, though they may care about the environment,
are ultimately after a good Beaton-delivered belly laugh, he adds:
Ive done my anger for this year. With the novel, I felt
able to be playful and to have fun.