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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 can’t 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 Bush’s poodle at war with Iraq in the satirical song and dance Follow My Leader back at Hampstead Theatre last spring.
But Beaton’s 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 else.
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 jury’s 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: “I’ve 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, he’s more rooted in truth than Josiah Bartlett, played by Martin Sheen, from the White House hit TV drama The West Wing.
He continues: “I’ve 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. It’s just making the terrorists more and more dangerous.
“And underneath the wilder reaches of comedy in my novel, there’s 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 there’s 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 to her.”
On the other hand, his fictional president “is a disturbed man who thinks his son’s 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 wasn’t 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 Brown’s speeches, then rehearsed the jokes with him over the phone.”
But the relationship between the politically disillusioned satirist and the dour politician didn’t 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 I’d 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: “I’ve done my anger for this year. With the novel, I felt able to be playful and to have fun.”