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Le rire européen

 | 
Alastair B. Duncan
, 
Anne Chamayou

Chapitre III. Rire des autres

Entente-mésentente-détente: revisiting Franco-British relations through humour and contemporary caricature

William Kidd

Texte intégral

  • 1 From ‘Vive l’Entente. A cross-Channel centenary celebration’, Independent Review, special issue, T (...)
  • 2 Guardian, 5 April 2004.
  • 3 Ibid.
  • 4 11 April, p. 3.
  • 5 5 April 2004.

1Question: ‘What do the English and the French have in common?’ Answer: ‘They both love France and hate the French’1. Disregarding the ‘English’ categorization with which the self-respecting Scot may beg to differ, this cartoon-based joke from an Independent feature on the centenary of the ‘Entente Cordiale’(signed in 1904) tersely encapsulates what passes in some places for received wisdom or existential truth. The same joke, in a different cartoon, featured on the Guardian’s front-page coverage of the same centenary: Austin’s ‘Best view of France from here’ shows a couple looking out across the Channel with the explanation, ‘You can see the country but you can’t see the people’2. In an accompanying article, political correspondent Nicholas Watt used survey data from each country to underpin the proposition that ‘After 100 years, we love France –but they don’t like us and we don’t like them’, and to highlight the historic misunderstandings and ambivalent or antagonistic perceptions that have marked their shared history3. Both tone and subject matter were echoed in other editions in the same week, including a Guardian Business section item on ‘Eurotunnel’s entente discordante’4. Less discordantly, a collaborative supplement co-produced by the Guardian and its sister paper Libération entitled ‘Our friends next door: 100 years of entente cordiale’5, offered a thoughtful if occasionally whimsical compilation whose topics included football, Brits buying property in France, Audrey Tautou, London’s expat French community and the cost of ‘rip-off Britain’, the best English pâtisseries, and the TGV. A centre-fold selection of Anglo-French cartoons illustrated some of the ways in which each country has seen or been represented by the other from 1921 to 2003. Evoking a celebrated if doubtless apocryphal 1920s newspaper headline, the French ambassador gently asked if anyone in Britain still subscribed to the view that ‘when there is fog in the Channel, the Continent is isolated’ (ibid. p. 2).

  • 6 The fullest and most recent survey is Robert and Isabella Tombs, That Sweet Enemy: The British and (...)
  • 7 This characteristic is sometimes deemed typical of a more general ‘Latin’ lack of martial virtue, (...)
  • 8 Steve Bell, Apes of Wrath (Methuen in association with The Guardian, 2004), p. 50.

2The notion of two peoples separated, not like Britain and the USA, by a common language but by a common stretch of water and several hundred years of problematic history is of course a cliché that has generated a considerable scholarly literature6, and a legacy of national stereotypes. The English (sometimes a synonym for British) are perceived as class-ridden, puritan and unemotional (at least until the Princess Diana’s funeral), smugly superior about their parliamentary institutions but indifferent to politics, and incapable of running a railway. Polite at home, arrogant or patronising abroad, alternating between splendid isolationism and reluctant continental intervention, from Fashoda to Mers-el-Kebir ‘Perfidious Albion’ always puts self-interest first. Conversely, the French are perceived as temperamentally volatile, sexually libertarian, politically unstable and historically unreliable, notably in their habit of being invaded and tamely running up the white flag7, or of (almost) losing wars and needing outside help to win through. Whence the familiar claim, recently attributed to a caricatural George Bush in the context of the Iraqui conflict but of more venerable vintage, that ‘We saved their ass in two world wars’8. Behind that sentiment lies a perception partly shared on this side of the Channel, though it is less stridently expressed, because of the ambivalent awareness of Britain’s own wartime dependence on ‘Uncle Sam’.

3These and other stereotypes endure partly because they contain a residual element of historical reality and, more importantly, because they have become part of the shorthand of mutual representation and the currency of intra and inter-cultural exchange, within and between Britain and France. The aim of this chapter is to examine some of the humorous dimensions of the relationship, its verbal and visual representations, and its capacity for generating laughter, mainly though not exclusively through a selection of cartoons.

CORPUS AND RATIONALE

  • 9 W. Kidd, ‘Borrowing Delacroix. From Marianne to Eurodisney: transnational iconography in caricatur (...)

4My sample consists predominantly of contemporary cartoons devoted to French, Anglo-French or European (EU) themes from the early 1990s to the present. Most of the corpus is drawn from UK sources, and intended for domestic consumption, and to that extent, the focus might be considered unduly partial, at best one-sided, at worst symptomatically insular. However, some of the examples are based on classical French artistic templates whose incidence in cartoons, advertising and other forms of branding in the last twenty-five years or so has constituted a significant vector of intercultural transfer9. As satirical or ironic critiques of social and political attitudes, they also provide a valuable data-base for an analysis of the mechanisms of humour. Are they funny and if so, why and for whom?

  • 10 Not all cartoons elicit laughter, and some, dealing with the ‘grim reaper’ (famine, death, genocid (...)

5In attempting to answer these questions, my approach will be empirical rather than theoretical or philosophical. Clearly, some caricatures might be construed as exemplifying, in their reductivism, Bergson’s ‘du mécanique plaqué sur du vivant’; and as with other genres, the creation and dislocation of patterns (‘interférences de série’), though subject to its own periodicity, is a feature of the cartoonist’s art. On the whole, however, classical tenets do not apply to a static visual medium in a sufficiently condign, detailed way to be illuminating. Nor, for similar reasons, does my analysis draw upon psychodynamic theories of the comic, despite the undeniable insights these have provided. In asking why particular images, ideas or themes are funny, i.e., why they make us laugh10, I pay more attention to the humorous or comic potential of the subject as exploited by the caricaturist, especially if it is a public figure or national icon; to the techniques of transformation, distortion, or heightening deployed by the artist, especially where an ironic or judgemental response is invited and/or where anomaly and incongruity trigger surprise and laughter; and to the interplay between the visible signifiers and the invisible, unstated or sub-jacent signified, the process whereby, by analogy with the Barthesian ‘relai’, the verbal (idea, concept) is conjured up by the visual, with or without an explicit verbal comment or accompanying strapline. Given the intercultural focus of my study, I also pay particular attention to the use of linguistic and other items which serve, stereotypically or more subtly, to denote and connote the problematic ‘other’.

6This point is significant to the extent that the corpus is drawn from newspapers and journals such as Le Monde or Libération, the Guardian, The Times and Independent whose readership usually has some familiarity with the language and culture of the other country.

7In the UK, this is historically an attribute of an educated middle and upper-class Anglophone elite, schooled in the tradition of satirical and political deconstruction exemplified by say, the Spectator, and wholly familiar with the daily cartoon in The Times or Guardian on an issue of actuality. They are also usually French speaking and whatever their fluency, able to place or understand the obligatory ‘de rigueur’ in an article though not always to spell it correctly, or casually drop into written or spoken discourse cultural markers such as ‘quelle surprise!’, accessory ‘du jour’ or the parodic ‘pompous, moi?’, of which at least one variant has found its way into cartoon form.

8Finally, in addition to borrowings from the an established iconographical repertoire, I use written extracts from three different periods and genres –correspondence, contemporary journalism, TV sitcom– to identify some recurrent themes of Anglo-French interchange and the dynamic interplay between the written, the audible, and the visual.

DIFFICULTIES OF COMMUNICATION: HEARING AS WELL AS SEEING THE CARTOON...

9The cartoons included in the Guardian-Libé selection were chosen to illustrate ways in which Anglo-French representation have reflected changing historical circumstances in a century of the ‘Entente cordiale’: colonial rivalry offset by common anxiety about Wilhelmine, and thereafter Nazi, Germany: uneasy wartime alliance complicated by differing attitudes to the USA; and personality differences between de Gaulle and Churchill, refracted in the 1960s through British ambivalence about the ‘Common Market’ and the developing European community, here exemplified in a cartoon by Papas in December 1967 portraying an improbable flirtation between Harold Wilson and De Gaulle under the cover of the Franco-British Concorde project. More recent items dealt with Mrs Thatcher and former Chilean dictator General Pinochet (see below), and France’s allergy towards the British ‘Bouledog’, updated in a cartoon by Schrank commenting on the European ban on imported British beef during the BSE crisis: Fifi the poodle says, ‘Le Rostbif? Non, non et non!’.

  • 11 Quoted in Alistair Horne, MacMillan, 1894-1956. Volume 1 of the Official Biography (London: MacMil (...)
  • 12 In the aftermath of May ‘68 a student newspaper headline trenchantly reminded the French that ‘qua (...)
  • 13 In an analogous area, Steve Bell has commented in a recent interview on the importance of speech c (...)
  • 14 Guardian, 23 April 2002, p. 18. Le Pen secured 16.9% of the vote, eliminating former Socialist Pri (...)
  • 15 From my own experience of showing this cartoon to French interlocutors, at the Perpignan conferenc (...)

10A notable absentee in this portrait gallery was former Conservative leader and Prime Minister Harold MacMillan, ‘Supermac’ who in the saga of Britain’s failed application in the 1960s to join the EEC had better cause than most to despair of Gallic inflexibility. In a previous incarnation, as wartime Resident Minister to the Free French authorities in Algiers, he evinced an acute sense of another aspect of their character. In a letter to Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden in February 1943, he compared his sense of ‘exhilaration’ at the cut and thrust of political dealings among the rival groups jockeying for position to the constraining environment of the House of Commons, with its backbiting, stuffy conventions, and curiously gentlemanly discipline procedures. In Westminster an uncooperative or problematic MP would be deprived of the whip; in Algiers, summary justice might include banishment, execution or, capriciously, advancement. And he added the following postscript: ’The French have two great words here, which they use perpetually. Everything is “indispensable”, and that means they make no effort to do it. Or else it is “inadmissible”. That means they do it all ‘the time’11. In context, this is an excellent description of MacMillan’s admiration for the ruthless, uncomplicated pragmatism of his French interlocutors, their guilt-free hypocrisy: say one thing and do, or don’t do, another, and the striking contrast between statement and behaviour. What gives it a humorous, less context-bound and more general resonance is the suspicion or recognition that emphatic qualifiers like ‘inadmissible’ and ‘indispensable’(or ‘insupportable’)12 are indeed frequently deployed as alternatives to action, or covers for its opposite, and, more importantly but subliminally, the way in which we ‘hear’ the remark through the familiarly patrician voice and languidly disabused tones of the later statesman. As we shall argue, just as memory or imagined memory can impart an apparently audible dimension to written texts, so too can they facilitate and enrich the complex reaction involved in the apprehension of visual caricature13. In the largest and only colour cartoon in the ‘Entente cordiale’ supplement, Jean-Marie le Pen’s alarming success in the first round of the presidential elections in April 2002 was strikingly encapsulated by the Guardian’s Steve Bell in an almost surreal vision of the exultant National Front leader, fists raised in triumph, emerging egg-like from a somewhat startled tricolour cockerel. Since this piece raises a number of issues germane to much of what follows, it is worth examining it in a little more detail. When first published, the cartoon accompanied an article on a serious subject, Hugo Young’s ‘French alarm bells ring for Europe’s body politic’ which argued that ‘democratic politicians must share the blame for Le Pen’s triumph’14. Though its iconographical logic is subverted by its patent zoological absurdity (which in part makes it funny), the image offers a powerful visual gloss on that message and the law of unintended electoral consequences. Published separately and/or in another context such as the Guardian-Libé supplement, the image retains its striking quality but its latent ambiguities come to the fore. Reversing the terms of Young’s article, it works perhaps better as a sign of European anxiety about the French body politic, and the anal-retentiveness that cannot quite expel and cannot quite digest the not-so-foreign organism within it. In short, this is a more complex, difficult-to-read piece than it first appears, and one which, because of its condensation and the absence of a verbal strapline, does not appear to transfer easily into the interpretative paradigms or laughter triggers of the other culture15.

  • 16 In Mrs Thatcher’s view, Pinochet had saved Chile from communism, championed the free-market econom (...)

11The problem of finding a sufficient commonality of visual descriptors is exemplified by the similarities and differences between Willem’s view of Mrs Thatcher and Gerald Scarfe’s in October 1999. The former PM had intervened to prevent ex-Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s extradition from Britain, where he was under house arrest, to Spain where he faced charges of crimes against humanity arising from the coup d’état of 1973. Though it was New Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw who, on medical advice, finally refused the extradition, it was Mrs Thatcher’s high-profile speech to the Conservative party conference on 6 October, and her undisguised ideological sympathy with Pinochet that most vividly struck cartoonists on both sides of the Channel16.

  • 17 Libération, October 1999, reproduced in the Guardian, 5 April 2004.
  • 18 The Sunday Times, 10 October 1999.

12Willem’s piece for Libération, with its unattributed ‘il n’y a que Thatcher pour sauver Pinochet,’ is the more understated and the more whimsical of the pair17. Against the outline of an imagined prison and the tiny figure of a bemused guard, Pinochet is spirited out of detention hiding in the Iron lady’s abundant, elaborately styled perm. She stares resolutely ahead, he holds firmly to her tresses, the two heads-one hairline producing an initial double-take, then the laughter of recognition. In some of the physical detailing, Scarfe’s duo have predictably similar, almost identical characteristics –Pinochet’s stubbly, jowled masculinity, Thatcher’s helmet-like coiffure and beak-like features, the skeletally sinister fingers and rapier-like nails, the hand bag. However concept and execution are different, the tone more emphatic. Inert in Mrs. Thatcher’s arms, with the label ‘Spain. Not wanted on voyage’ attached to his wrist, and carpet slippers contrasting incongruously with the general’s cap, Pinochet is a helpless grotesque, corpse-like, and either way a puppet in other people’s ideological agendas. Not least in its impact, the disparity between Mrs Thatcher’s extraordinarily personal support for the general, suggesting some displacement of normal affectivity, and the brutal reality of his regime, is the strident, hectoring tone imagined for, or from memory attributed to, the defiant, outrageous ‘Don’t you dare send this dear sweet man away!’18.

  • 19 Plantu, La France dopée (Paris: Le Seuil), 1998, p. 50.
  • 20 Independent, 29 June 1999.
  • 21 Loosely, ‘il se fout de nous’ or ‘de nos gueules’.

13In a different vein, the respective portrayals by Le Monde cartoonist Plantu and the Independent’s Dave Brown of Tony Blair‘s attitude to Europe offer insight into the extent to which communication and laughter may be facilitated by embedded or borrowed cultural referents. Blair had come to power determined, like John Major before him, to put Britain ‘at the heart of Europe’ and to play a full part in its development. Like his predecessor, however, he faced internal party resistance and, looming larger as the decade neared its end, the problematic adoption of a single currency by the member states which his Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown implacably opposed. In 1997, however, when enthusiasm was still high and the Blair regime had considerable novelty value at home and abroad, Plantu borrowed a contemporary British filmic reference to convey the Prime Minister’s unreserved espousal of the European ideal. Under the headline ‘Full Monty’, with the latter term scored out and replaced with ‘European’, a grinning Blair basks in the spotlights before an ecstatic, mostly female audience; in the background, a sceptical Jacques Chirac and Lionel Jospin look on19. Blair’s private parts are covered by an EU flag and a small Union jack helps identification for the French reader still unfamiliar with the British leader’s profile, without quite inviting the inference of a revealing, ‘little Englander’ regression. Two years later, in ‘Expediency leading the People’, Dave Brown used the French template of Delacroix’s ‘Liberty’ to dramatize the ambiguities in Blair’s European crusade20. In one hand, the European banner is held vigorously aloft, in the other ‘Liberty’s’ bayoneted rifle taunts and torments pro-European Conservative opponents such as Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke. Blair’s facial expression is one of grim resolution, and the people being marched towards the European barricades are a decidedly motley crew, anxious, uncertain or unwilling. Blair’s assertion –‘Europe– leaving out the Euro’ –and Clarke’s pithy rejoinder– ‘so really, he’s just taking... the pe!’21 – confirm that this ‘Liberty’ is a false revolutionary; despite the radical rhetoric, Britain’s response to Europe is still conditional, a Giscardian ‘oui, mais’, not a ‘mais oui’...

  • 22 See my 2005 treatment of this sub-theme in the previously cited article in Modern and Contemporary (...)
  • 23 See the Independent, 7 December 2006 for news of the award, in which the cartoon is called ‘Venus (...)

14Plantu’s piece captures something of Blair’s histrionic, actor personality, teasing, flirtatious, and almost sexually aware that the personality is the message. The laughter is generated by the easy amalgam effected between Blair and the highly successful filmic subject. In Brown’s, by contrast, the humour relies more heavily on the familiar verbal punchline, instantly apprehended by the indigenous viewer, less accessible without explanation to a non-Anglophone. Blair’s personality is subordinated to the message and the potentially sexual nature of the caricature present only residually in the Blair-Marianne amalgam and in the serial contextualization arising from the repertoire of similar representations22. Those dimensions were allowed much fuller expression in the same artist’s award-winning 2006 cartoon ‘Venus envy’23 summing up Blair’s near decade in office and representing the protean narcissist before the mirror, in the posture of Velasquez’s ‘Rokeby Venus’ (1651).

  • 24 Guardian, 22 June 2004.

15Differing perspectives on the single European currency, which had become symbolic of everything British opinion disliked about Europe’s ‘federalist’ ambitions, re-surfaced in 2004, in the centenary period of the Entente cordiale. Steve Bell’s dyptich ‘Myth. Reality’ juxtaposed Tony Blair once more as Liberty bearing a large EU banner and, in the other frame, the huge brooding presence of Gordon Brown holding aloft a tiny European flag24. That flaglet would acquire a retrospectively prophetic quality when on 13 December 2007, as Prime Minister, Gordon Brown signed the Lisbon Treaty alone, after the 26 other European leaders had done so.

‘AH! CES ANGLAIS!’, OR ‘THE TROUBLE WITH THE FRENCH’...

  • 25 E!Sharp, Brussels, September 2004. See http://www.andydavey.com/04-017%20Luvvies%20leading%20the%2 (...)

16The divisive nature of the European issue and its electoral ramifications were graphically captured in the Autumn of 2004 when Labour lost heavily in local and European elections. Andy Davey’s Delacroix pastiche ‘Luvvies leading the People’25, reworked the central female allegory as the actress Joan Collins, in lurid sex-goddess apparel, carrying the Union flag, flanked by United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) leader Robert Kilroy-Silk, a tanned super-smoothy looking at himself in the mirror, and Eurosceptic Tory leader Michael Howard keeping his options open with two flags. One says ‘NO’ [to Europe, symbolically present in the circular stars of the 0], the other, less prominent, states ‘Well... yes but with Tory characteristics’, a coded version of the Blairite ‘Europe without the euro’ whose champion is portrayed as one of the casualties of the new English national revolution. In the background, a rosette-wearing middle-class matron brandishes an umbrella. Making up the shock troops of the movement are England football supporters disappointed by the national team’s performance in Euro 2004, ready for fisticuffs or drowning their sorrows, one of them in the trouserless recumbent position of one the figures in the original.

  • 26 France-Football, 26 April - 2 May 1994, in Bill Murray, The World’s Game. A history of soccer (Urb (...)

17Davey ascribes a certain cross-class coarseness to English anti-Europeanism whose vagaries, football thuggery apart, probably have little or no resonance in Europe itself. However his incorporation of football supporters as actors in the Delacroix allegory subscribes to an established subset of the genre. In 1994, France-Football adapted the original ‘to parody the financial and other disasters at Olympique Marseille after 1993’26. In a scene of devastation, the central figure, a bare-chested player holds aloft the club banner with the emblematic OM initials and the motto ‘Droit au but’. The boy soldier ‘Gavroche’ figure raises the fingers, not pistols, and the throng includes a sartorially disparate group of those demanding cup success, a stronger squad, management change, etc. Among the ‘bodies’ in the foreground, one reads a sports paper, another seems from the proximity of wine glass and carafe to be waking from hangover, or nightmare.

  • 27 15 April 1998.

18In the UK context, an altogether different reason for taking literally and metaphorically to the streets was provided in 1998 by the Football World Cup. Both England and Scotland had qualified, and since Scotland found itself facing reigning champions Brazil in their opening match in the Stade de France, there was unusually strong demand for tickets north and south of the border. However the ticket allocation system devised by the FFF (Fédération Française de Football) unduly favoured the host nation, a circumstance that generated no little acrimony and some serious protest, formal and informal, to local and national associations. Under the banner ‘France 98’ and the slogan ‘Welcome to the biggest punch-up [bagarre] since the Revolution!’, Scotsman cartoonist ‘High’ transformed the frustrated supporters, scarf-wearing and fist-waving, into a contemporary avatar of the revolutionary people preparing to storm the FFF’s barricades27. The allegorical ‘Liberty’ is basically unchanged but no longer carries a rifle; the top-hatted artisan to her left has swapped his musket for a baseball bat; and Gavroche, whose flat cap bearing the word ‘ticketless’ offers a passing, though wholly coincidental resemblance, to a Scottish ‘bunnet’, has forfeited his pistols and manifestly much of his youth.

  • 28 At Hampden Park, 7 October 2006, and Parc des Princes, 12 September 2007.
  • 29 Not for the first time, confidence was misplaced. Scotland lost to Italy, France qualified for the (...)

19Humour arises here from the apparent disproportion between the grievance –but as we know, football is notoriously not a matter of life or death but something more important!– and the parodic, suitably domesticated, threat of revolutionary turmoil. There are no national signifiers in the piece, and no suggestion that the generally well-behaved Scottish international support might bring mayhem to the streets of Paris. By contrast, the ‘Tartan army’ received pride of place in September 2007 when the cartoonist celebrated successive home and away victories over the French eleven in the qualifying stages of the European cup28. ‘Liberty’, Gavroche and the musket-toting artisan are restored to full colour and martial glory, though the latter now sports tartan trews, and the main body of supporters, kilts, claymores and Highland bunnets –it might have been Culloden or, without the firearms, Bannockburn, and either way, ‘Hey Jimmy’. The treatment here is affectionate and ironic, but the slogan on the revolutionary banner, ‘ICI NOUS ALLONS’, triggers the laughter: it is a literal, ungrammatical and doubly aberrant translation of the ‘Tartan army’ refrain ‘Here we go, here we go, here we go!’, more properly rendered by ‘Allez l’Ecosse’ and wholly un-singable to the original rhythms which the cartoon calls to mind29.

  • 30 ‘Henley-on Seine’, Monday 28 August 2000, p. 9.
  • 31 Until a change in the law in May 2001, vasectomy and tubal ligation were illegal in France under p (...)

20Sport is of course the conduct of war by other means, a truism encoded in the name ‘Tartan army’, and, less benignly, in the reported outings at certain fixtures of the ‘Dambusters’ theme tune or, for an England-Germany match, the chant ‘There’s only one Bomber (H)‘arris’. In political and PR terms, no serious politician of whatever hue can afford to affect indifference to the ‘beautiful game’ and rugby too, though less universally popular, is also a major flag carrier and brand identity. The centrality of sporting metaphors to the Franco-British dialogue, and their capacity to generate the humorous negotiation of familiar stereotypes, was amusingly demonstrated in the summer of 2000 when the British Marie Stopes organisation took its vasectomy campaign to the French capital. The local reactions reported by Guardian correspondent John Henley ranged from disbelief to patriotic outrage30. Disbelief that so many Englishmen should submit themselves to a procedure almost unknown in France and likened to a form of castration31; outrage at the barbaric interference in another sovereign nation’s affairs (my pun: intended!). The proposal was seen as an attack on French national virility and a sneaky plot by ‘perfidious Albion’ to end France’s rugby dominance (since achieved by less drastic means...), prompting the riposte from the clinic’s marketing director that ‘despite their successes in the World Cup and Euro 2000, the French still have something to learn from the English about ball control’. Adding insult to (imagined) injury was an ad reportedly showing Napoleon with his hand stuck firmly down his trousers and the words: “The old man had a grip on things then. Why should he have a grip on yours now?” This cheekily lèse-majesty, or at least lèse-empereur poster remained unpublished but such is the familiarity of a certain Napoleonic stance, the visual cartoon readily forms in the mind, and brings its own accompaniment of humour. Despite its serious context, this short cameo rehearses a number of characteristic themes and motifs of Anglo-French representation: mutual distrust, arrogance or self-satisfaction variously assumed, attributed or projected; sporting and sexual bragging rights; and ribaldry leavened by linguistic crossover, from references to ‘keeping one’s couilles’ to the inevitable ‘It’s a snip at £200, monsieur’. A French woman indignantly dismissed the idea that her husband might emulate the apparently altruistic self-sacrifice of ‘un gentleman anglais’ as both an insult to her own wifely status, and an opportunity for her spouse ‘to jump his secretary’. And in the equally predictable but nonetheless laughter-inducing chorus, ‘C’est pas vrai! Mais c’est incroyable! C’est horrible! Les Anglais, vraiment!’, the mock but believable tone of indignation, the remembered or re-imagined accent and cadences, are part of the recognition factor that converts the written text into a more multi-sensorial experience.

FROM DAD’S ARMY TO SARKOZY: VIVE L’EMPEREUR!

  • 32 Written by David Croft and Jimmy Perry.
  • 33 See Jeffrey Richards, ‘Dad’s Army and the politics of nostalgia’, in Films and British National Id (...)

21The Guardian-Libé ’Entente cordiale’ cover illustration was composed of intersecting red, white and blue arrows over an outline map of the Channel symbolizing the invasions and resistances, influences and interpenetrations, that have marked the historically ambivalent relationship between each country’s oldest ally/nearest neighbour/problematic ‘Other’. As British colleagues and French ones familiar with British popular culture will immediately surmise, those symbolic arrows recall the celebrated BBC television sitcom Dad’s Army, the nostalgically remembered story of a Second World War ‘Home Guard’ detachment in the fictional south-coast town of Walmington-on-sea32. The programme was hugely popular during its nine-year run on BBC (1968-1977) and is regularly repeated in single-episode features, with some notable coverage in 2008 to mark its fortieth anniversary. Based on the uncertain period of national history in the wake of Dunkirk and the ‘Battle of Britain’, when the re-building of military forces was still slow and the threat of invasion still real, it undoubtedly captured something of the actual, as well as the mythical, Britishness of the times33. Indeed so successfully did it re-create period atmosphere that the series theme tune ‘Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Hitler?’, sung by Bud Flanagan but written in 1969 by Jimmy Perry and Derek Taverner, was popularly believed to be contemporaneous with events of the 1940s.

22In Dad’s Army, comedy arises from the clash of personalities, and from characterial idiosyncrasy or physical or verbal slapstick. The platoon is commanded by the peppery and pretentious reserve captain Mainwaring, in civilian life the local bank manager, in uniform a pompous suburban descendant of Plautus’s miles gloriosus who regularly gets his comeuppance, finding himself in the undignified recovery position, with cap missing, spectacles askew, and ill-concealed exasperated look. Humour is prompted by the repetition (and viewer expectation) of phrases associated with individual characters, such as ‘Permission to speak, sir’, ‘Stupid boy!’, ‘Don’t panic!’, ‘What is it now, Wilson?’, or the lugubrious Scottish undertaker, private Fraser’s apocalyptic ‘Doomed! We’re a’ doomed!’ Despite its frequent bathos and diegetic implausibilities, the format offered considerable scope for a social comedy of manners and mannerisms, in which the captain’s classically English name with its bafflingly a-phonetic pronunciation is delightfully, symptomatically apposite.

  • 34 Richards, p. 362.

23If social class is a comic factor in Dad’s Army, so too is national stereotyping. Mainwaring evinces a ‘typically British disdain for the French’34, whose predilection for long lunches and sexual dalliance make them unreliable in a crisis. If the intermittently present enemy (unexploded German bombs, paratroopers real or imaginary, a captured U-Boat crew) helps to structure the plot, part of the programme’s ‘non-dit’ inflecting viewer reception is the problematic French ex-ally responsible for this fine mess. Richards notes that the socio-demographic composition of the cast –butcher, greengrocer, bank manager, etc.– validates the ‘nation of shopkeepers’ epithet attributed to the English by Napoleon (ibid.), but not that Mainwaring is routinely described as Napoleon by his main local rival, Chief Air Raid Warden Hodges. Since, his small stature apart, there is nothing Napoleonic about Mainwaring, Hodges’s epithet is clearly designed, by its very incongruity, to puncture the latter’s inflated sense of his own importance. But in the historical context of a programme about the Second World War, and in the longer English folk-memory, the insult has a more general significance, namely that the continent on one level, is perceived as a threat, brings nothing but trouble, foreign complications and imbroglios, from Napoleon (‘Boney’) to Hitler, from one ‘little corporal’ to another...

  • 35 That Sweet Enemy: The British and the French from the Sun King to the Present, p. 302-305.

24However, as Robert and Isabella Tombs point out, historic British attitudes to ‘Boney’ have sometimes been more ambivalent, distrust being offset by admiration for the revolutionary military commander and even a kind of affection35. The successive ways in which Napoleonic tropes have been used to characterize contemporary politicians from the 1990s to the present widens the thematic as well as the iconographical field of our enquiry, just as their increasing prevalence offers insight into the changing personalities of the leaders themselves.

  • 36 Scotsman, 25 November 1994.
  • 37 The piece was originally commissioned for diplomatic reasons. Five versions were made, three for p (...)
  • 38 Scotsman, 28 May 1993. [‘Belle occasion d’un remaniement ministériel’!]

25‘Last one to Waterloo’s a Eurosceptic!’, based on Jacques-Louis David’s ‘Napoléon franchissant le Col Saint-Bernard’ (1801), graphically captures former Prime Minister John Major’s attempts in 1994 to flush out and neutralize his anti-European MPs36. The humour lies in the contrast between the iconic original, itself a propagandist idealization37, and the false energy of the floundering British leader issuing a comical playground challenge which he seems to enjoy as much as the viewer. Despite leading the Conservatives to a surprise electoral victory in 1992, Major lacked political authority over many of his backbenchers and some members of his cabinet, a situation illustrated in another French-derived piece by the same cartoonist, based on Géricault’s ‘Le Radeau de la Méduse’ (1819), ‘I know! let’s have reshuffle’38.

26Though undoubtedly more dramatic and more tragic, the historic events encapsulated in Géricault’s ‘grande machine’ –a Restoration captain promoted beyond his ability and experience, internecine rivalry among officers and crew in the battle to save their own skins– offered some uncanny parallels with the shipwreck of the Major years with their atmosphere of distrust and decline. The PM’s comically futile suggestion of a cabinet re-shuffle on the very brink of disaster captures the naïvety of it all and echoes, subliminally, another familiar expression of glorious maritime inconsequentiality, ‘re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic’.

  • 39 Guardian, 30 August 2000.
  • 40 The TUC horse, a British cartoon cliché, might require elucidation for a foreign reader; the pin-s (...)

27Steve Bell applied the Jaques-Louis David template to Major’s successor, portraying Tony Blair as a grinning Napoleon on a lumbering pantomine horse bearing the letters TUC (Trades Union Congress), determinedly urging the unions where they manifestly did not want to go (freer markets, labour reforms, etc)39. Here the emphasis is less on Blair’s ‘imperial’ pretentiousness, ably dealt with elsewhere by Bell, than on New Labour’s relationship with the wealthy: along for the ride, its claws and teeth firmly embedded in the horse’s rump, a ’fat cat’ symbolising the new generation of global capitalists exploiting the system40.

  • 41 Scotsman, 19 February 2003.
  • 42 Spectator, 2 November 2002.

28Among ‘Napoleonic’ variations on recent French political leaders is Ian Greer’s portrayal of President Chirac41, based on Meissonier’s ‘1814, Campagne de France’ (1864), a work which because of its conception and tone is sometimes mistaken for a representation of the retreat from Moscow. The context of the cartoon was the Iraq imbroglio and the differences in attitude between the American and British coalition, which initially included Spain and some ‘emergent’ nations, but neither France or Germany, denounced in January 2003 by Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld as ‘Old Europe’. That phrase, picked out on the cockade of the caricatural Emperor’s hat, gives a more general import to the solitary, downcast figure wrapped against the weather, his horse almost disappearing beneath the surrounding snow. Franco-German opposition to the invasion was not wholly disinterested, and France’s attempts to protect its own Middle-East petroleum and political agendas had been graphically encapsulated only two months before by Nicholas Garland, who portrayed a vampish, cigarette smoking, slit-skirted ‘Marianne’ in a clinch with a lecherous-looking Saddam Hussein42. By contrast, however, with the highly selective and deeply dubious campaign waged by the UK government to secure public approval for the invasion, ‘Old Europe’ had a more legitimate claim to the moral high ground. To that extent, Greer arguably does his subject less than justice, while capturing a sense of ominous resignation in the face of a conflict that was unstoppable and the ‘shock and awe’ that would shortly unfold.

  • 43 Guardian, 21 November 2007.

29Also based on Meissonier is Steve Bell’s more contemporary view of Chirac’s successor, Nicholas Sarkozy, representing the embattled but defiant President in his conflict with striking public service workers in November 2007. Having asserted that the government would neither surrender nor retreat in the face of organized labour, here is the President in Napoleonic uniform riding his horse under a wintry sky along empty rail tracks, signals set at red, beneath the unused electric wires. In the background, the ‘grande armée’ of transportless Parisian commuters marches silently towards the city43. In this example, the irony of the message and the accuracy of the drawing are mutually reinforcing.

  • 44 Guardian, 27 March 2008. The expression ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’ was used in an episode o (...)
  • 45 Independent, 2 February 2008.

30In contrast to Chirac, President Sarkozy has given the impression of a young man in a hurry, keen to make up for lost time, to re-assert France’s role in the world, and to mend some fences with Britain and the USA. But his small stature, acerbic authoritarianism and thrusting energy have undeniably made him vulnerable to the more overtly satirical, disrespectful or deflationary attentions of the caricaturist. To mark the state visit to London in March 2008, Steve Bell resorted to Hyacinthe Rigaud’s celebrated 1701 portrait of Louis IV in regal, erect pose. Magnificently robed, wigged and gartered, the monarch looks at the viewer as if he might well have uttered the historic but apocryphal catchphrase, ‘l’état c’est moi’. In Bell’s adaptation, a diminutive Sarkozy stands on a stool and proclaims, in defiant reversal of a previous slogan castigating French cowardice, ‘Le Cheese-eating attack Meurnkey... C’est moi!’44. Sarkozy’s whirlwind courtship and marriage to the singer-songwriter and former supermodel Carla Bruni, whose tempestuous celebrity-status and media presence upstaged her husband, afforded further scope for graphic accounts of Presidential suffisance. Dave Brown portrayed the couple in bed, the president holding a newspaper in his hands indignantly declaring, ‘La belle et la bête: ‘ow dare zhey call you a beast!’45. If the humour from incongruity here is relatively self-explanatory, the juxtaposition of the more remote high cultural resonances in the headline (Cocteau, legend) with the tabloid mock-French accent of the punch-line adds a further dimension to a view of the President’s personality which, though British, is neither xenophobic nor exclusively Anglo-centric.

  • 46 London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007.
  • 47 ‘A Frenchman’s air miles’, New Statesman, 24 January 2008.

31Sarkozy’s British-based compatriot compatriot Agnès Poirier, Libération correspondent in London, a contributor to the Guardian and the BBC, and author of Touché: a Frenchwoman’s take on the English46, has expressed provocative views on the UK, from what she considers its rampant consumerism to the philistinism of its elites. She also warned French political leaders such as Ségolène Royale and Nicholas Sarkozy against their fascination with the ‘British model’. That said, she is not uncritical of the current French regime and like many French people sensitive to the very high public profile established by the new incumbent at the Elysée. Writing of his frantic round of overseas visits and his ‘awesome schedule of travels and stopovers’, Poirier opined that Sarkozy’s ‘appetite for the world looks Pharaonic. Or is Napoleonic a better word?’47. Since the piece was illustrated by a photograph of the Presidential couple in Egypt, taken against the background of the pyramids that the Napoleonic expedition to the Nile had been largely instrumental in introducing to a wider European public, the adjectival segue is coyly, knowingly appropriate.

  • 48 Independent, 5 April 2008.
  • 49 Independent, 13 August 2008.
  • 50 Independent, 23 August 2008.

32Dave Brown’s recent treatment of the global statesman has been less diplomatic. ‘Hi-Ho Sarkozy, away!’ revisited J-L David’s intrepid Alpine Bonaparte, with Sarkozy as the imperial charger, and Bush as the cowboy. The sign points towards Afghanistan48... And in what may be an unintended reference to Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s film ‘Amélie’ (2001), he portrayed the President in Moscow’s Red Square, olive branch in hand, as a ‘Globetrotting gnome’49. The continuing occupation of Georgia by Russian forces despite a commitment to withdraw also inspired Brown’s portrayal of Sarkozy, the architect of the agreement à la Meissonier incongruously astride the traditional Russian bear, with tanks in the background. To the statesman’s claim that ‘We are keeping the peace...’, the bear retorts, ‘This piece here!’50.

  • 51 Independent, 28 March 2008.
  • 52 Independent, 20 June 2008.

33Dave Brown, with Steve Bell one of the most prolific of the contemporary commentators and a regular borrower from the artistic repertoire, has also commented on the developing relationship between Sarkozy and the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, whose arrival in power was roughly contemporaneous. During the former’s visit to London in March 2008, he reconstituted the state banquet at Windsor castle through the prism of Gillray’s celebrated 1805 cartoon, ‘The Plumb-pudding in danger’ in which William Pitt and Napoleon carve out their rival spheres of influence on the terrestrial globe (the eponymous plum pudding). Seated opposite one another as in the original, the two modern leaders are shown carving not the globe but a football strategically placed over a naked madame Sarkozy reclining between them on the table51. In the background, HM Queen caustically observes that these two parvenus –not her word but the imagined accent says it all– are using the wrong cutlery. If the piece indulges the prurient media fascination with the presidential consort whose naked centrefold photos had been widely disseminated, there are arguably too many references latent in the reclining nude figure for the cartoon to be effective. That criticism is easier than creation is shown by a less complex black and white pastiche by the same artist on Anglo-French attitudes to the Lisbon Treaty, signed on 13 December 2007 but rejected by Irish voters in a constitutional referendum on 12 June 2008. This outcome left France, which had assumed the presidency of the EU on 1 July, in an uncomfortable position but did not unduly discomfit Britain, historically a reluctant fellow-traveller on the road to European integration. To Gordon Brown’s Nelsonic ‘I see no dead treaty’, with the implication that it would be business as usual, Sarkozy’s Napoleon utters the predictable rejoinder ‘not tonight, Gordophine’52.

CONCLUSION

  • 53 Paradoxically, one might argue that the internet has rejuvenated the cartoon to the extent that on (...)

34If, proverbially, there is nothing so stale as yesterday’s news, the cartoons that gave graphic expression to it have a life of their own, resist oblivion despite their apparently ever-greater ephemerality in an internet age53. Only time will tell which will survive to become classics of the genre, but the adaptation by contemporary cartoonists of works by Gillray or Delacroix testifies to the longevity and durability of certain visual templates and, sometimes, the ideas and attitudes underlying them. Archiving the contemporary, cartoons memorialise the present by resurrecting the past, function as capsules of recognition. In the Anglo-French perspective which has informed my survey, it seems appropriate to end with an intriguingly cross-cultural cartoon, prompted by Labour’s dismal performance in the English local elections on 1 May 2008. With just 24% of the vote, this was one of series of political setbacks that damaged the Prime Minister’s personal standing as well as his party’s and added to the impression of a government increasingly, perhaps terminally out of touch with the electorate.

  • 54 Guardian, 3 May 2008.
  • 55 Episode 54, originally broadcast in October 1973 and re-shown in 2008. Muller was played by actor (...)

35In ‘Doomed, n’est-ce pas?’,54 Steve Bell gave visual expression to that portent by re-imagining an episode of Dad’s Army in which the Walmington platoon have to deal with a captured U-Boat crew whose commander, the handsome and intelligent captain Muller, seems seriously capable of turning the tables on his bumbling captors55. In Bell’s reworking, captain Muller morphs into Conservative leader David Cameron placing his hand on the shoulder of a gaunt Gordon Brown in the guise of Private Fraser, whose rolling eyes and exaggerated Scots accent were key motifs in the series.

36The humour in this subtle though risky piece (the supposition in the title may prove ill-founded) is part recognition and part surprise. Cameron’s peaked cap, in a nod to his green credentials, incorporates a tree. The hand on Brown-Fraser’s shoulder may indicate dominance mixed with the confident commiseration of the victor. The appropriation of the verbal ‘signature’ offers an implicit unvoiced stated reminder of the inclusive ‘Britishness’ that Fraser helped to impart to Dad’s Army and has been a prominent theme in Brown’s recent ministerial and prime ministerial discourse. Last but not least, the ironic linguistic crossover to the other language –no, not German, French!– connects with previously mentioned subliminal dimensions of the original, and further demonstrated the humour to be derived from the almost ludic manipulation of intercultural material.

Notes

1 From ‘Vive l’Entente. A cross-Channel centenary celebration’, Independent Review, special issue, Thursday 1 April 2004, p. 6.

2 Guardian, 5 April 2004.

3 Ibid.

4 11 April, p. 3.

5 5 April 2004.

6 The fullest and most recent survey is Robert and Isabella Tombs, That Sweet Enemy: The British and the French from the Sun King to the Present (London: William Heinemann, 2006).

7 This characteristic is sometimes deemed typical of a more general ‘Latin’ lack of martial virtue, encapsulated in the wartime British adage that Italian tanks had six gears, one forward and five reverse.

8 Steve Bell, Apes of Wrath (Methuen in association with The Guardian, 2004), p. 50.

9 W. Kidd, ‘Borrowing Delacroix. From Marianne to Eurodisney: transnational iconography in caricature and advertising’, Modern and Contemporary France, Volume 13, No 2, May 2005, p. 193-207.

10 Not all cartoons elicit laughter, and some, dealing with the ‘grim reaper’ (famine, death, genocide), are decidedly un-funny, at best ironic.

11 Quoted in Alistair Horne, MacMillan, 1894-1956. Volume 1 of the Official Biography (London: MacMillan, 1988, p. 175).

12 In the aftermath of May ‘68 a student newspaper headline trenchantly reminded the French that ‘quand c’est insupportable on ne supporte plus’.

13 In an analogous area, Steve Bell has commented in a recent interview on the importance of speech characteristics (accent and inflection, cadence) for his visual re-creations of figures such as George Bush and Gordon Brown.

14 Guardian, 23 April 2002, p. 18. Le Pen secured 16.9% of the vote, eliminating former Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.

15 From my own experience of showing this cartoon to French interlocutors, at the Perpignan conference and elsewhere.

16 In Mrs Thatcher’s view, Pinochet had saved Chile from communism, championed the free-market economy, and rendered invaluable services to Britain during the Falklands campaign of 1982.

17 Libération, October 1999, reproduced in the Guardian, 5 April 2004.

18 The Sunday Times, 10 October 1999.

19 Plantu, La France dopée (Paris: Le Seuil), 1998, p. 50.

20 Independent, 29 June 1999.

21 Loosely, ‘il se fout de nous’ or ‘de nos gueules’.

22 See my 2005 treatment of this sub-theme in the previously cited article in Modern and Contemporary France.

23 See the Independent, 7 December 2006 for news of the award, in which the cartoon is called ‘Venus substitute’. I do not know when it first appeared.

24 Guardian, 22 June 2004.

25 E!Sharp, Brussels, September 2004. See http://www.andydavey.com/04-017%20Luvvies%20leading%20the%20people.html.

26 France-Football, 26 April - 2 May 1994, in Bill Murray, The World’s Game. A history of soccer (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1996), facing page 87.

27 15 April 1998.

28 At Hampden Park, 7 October 2006, and Parc des Princes, 12 September 2007.

29 Not for the first time, confidence was misplaced. Scotland lost to Italy, France qualified for the finals but were eliminated in the first round.

30 ‘Henley-on Seine’, Monday 28 August 2000, p. 9.

31 Until a change in the law in May 2001, vasectomy and tubal ligation were illegal in France under part of the Code Napoléon proscribing acts of ‘self mutilation’.

32 Written by David Croft and Jimmy Perry.

33 See Jeffrey Richards, ‘Dad’s Army and the politics of nostalgia’, in Films and British National Identity: from Dickens to Dad’s Army (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997), p. 351-366.

34 Richards, p. 362.

35 That Sweet Enemy: The British and the French from the Sun King to the Present, p. 302-305.

36 Scotsman, 25 November 1994.

37 The piece was originally commissioned for diplomatic reasons. Five versions were made, three for public display. The circumstances of Napoleon’s Alpine crossing, on a mule led by local guide, were more realistically captured by Paul Delaroche in 1850.

38 Scotsman, 28 May 1993. [‘Belle occasion d’un remaniement ministériel’!]

39 Guardian, 30 August 2000.

40 The TUC horse, a British cartoon cliché, might require elucidation for a foreign reader; the pin-striped suited, cigar-smoking cats that have replaced the top-hatted, cigar-smoking industrialists familiar from previous anti capitalist iconography would be more readily assimilated.

41 Scotsman, 19 February 2003.

42 Spectator, 2 November 2002.

43 Guardian, 21 November 2007.

44 Guardian, 27 March 2008. The expression ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’ was used in an episode of the US comedy series The Simpsons in 1995. An abbreviated version (‘Surrender monkeys’) headlined the New York Post on 7 December 2006.

45 Independent, 2 February 2008.

46 London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007.

47 ‘A Frenchman’s air miles’, New Statesman, 24 January 2008.

48 Independent, 5 April 2008.

49 Independent, 13 August 2008.

50 Independent, 23 August 2008.

51 Independent, 28 March 2008.

52 Independent, 20 June 2008.

53 Paradoxically, one might argue that the internet has rejuvenated the cartoon to the extent that one can now store, search and access a greater range of cartoons on-line than was ever possible in newspaper archives or library conditions.

54 Guardian, 3 May 2008.

55 Episode 54, originally broadcast in October 1973 and re-shown in 2008. Muller was played by actor Philip Madoc making a guest appearance in the series.

Auteur

Senior Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Stirling. He has published extensively on twentieth-century French literature, history and culture, including war, memory and iconography. Major publications include Les Monuments aux morts mosellans de 1870 à nos jours (Prix d’Histoire de l’Académie de Metz, 2000), Contemporary French Cultural Studies (2000; co-edited with S Reynolds), and Memory and Memorials. The Commemorative Century (2004; with B. Murdoch). He is currently studying group identity in exile communities in European frontier regions, including the Pyrénées-Orientales

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