At the National Theatre, Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston is resurrecting the 1976 film Network, the rage-to-riches story of newsreader Howard Beale who’s ‘mad as hell and not going to take it any more’.
Well, Jonathan Pie is a Howard Beale for the YouTube generation, a furious reporter on the edge who vents with a rare intensity against the incompetent, self-serving political class the moment the cameras are off. Ironically, this fake newsman brings a rare authenticity to political coverage, attracting big audiences online, and now in the real world on tour.
His second show takes the form of a dry run of a planned topical discussion show he’s hoping to pitch to the BBC or ITV elbowing out Andrew Marr or Robert Peston. Though maybe Rupert Murdoch’s outlet would be a better fit, if only for the Pie In The Sky pun potential.
Think that would be tacky? Wait until you see the hilariously low-budget and ill-conceived graphics put together for this pilot, which he describes as ‘Question Time meets Victoria Derbyshire meets Live At The Apollo – without the comedy.’ Harsh.
His first topic is the Tories, offering plenty of cheap shots to easy targets: from the Prime Minister’s woeful ineptitude to Michael Gove’s smug face to Pie’s crowd-pleasing, if probably over-simplistic, answer to the NHS funding crisis: ‘Just give them the money.’ This is not always subtle political science, nor nuanced humour. ‘Theresa May’s fucking shit,’ he opines to a roar of approval.
The reaction is Pavlovian, with rousing ovations whenever Pie sticks it to the enemy so bluntly. Yes, he can create the sort of towering edifices of eloquent insults once found on the Thick Of It, especially in his deliciously vicious ad hominem attacks, but just swearing at the powerful gets a mammoth reaction, and it can seem a bit easy. And that’s even before he gets on to Donald Trump, whom he can mock simply by reading out his deceitful, self-aggrandising tweets. Little comic imagination is needed.
However, the script (co-written by the support act, stand-up Andrew Doyle) sometimes strives harder, while Pie’s frustrated character adds enough background to counter the moments when it feels more like a rally than a routine. In this show, we get a little glimpse into the personal life that makes him so wound up, while his professional jealousy of Fiona Bruce or the frustrations of being on an interminable royal baby watch seem very real. Just ask the BBC’s Simon McCoy.
And in the second half of the show, things get a lot more interesting as Pie directs his volcanic anger towards the ‘woke’ liberals that comprise a large part of his audience. Turning on his own constituency as being quick to judge and quicker to censor, he confesses to being infuriated by ‘liberal people doing illiberal things in the name of liberalism’. Read Orwell, not tweets, he urges.
That the good ideas of political correctness have gone too far is a more widespread opinion than some bleeding hearts might acknowledge. Many have argued against the way virtue-signalling fosters a victim mentality, while doing more to massage the righteous ego of the ‘offended’ than anything meaningful to combat the big issues at society’s core. Other than opening the door for Trump, May and Brexit, of course.
But Pie is playfully fearless in bringing the fight to those who probably most need to hear it, revelling every provocative statement and the reactions he’s inviting, just toying with the idea that he wants to dismiss the idea there’s such a thing as white male privilege, for example. Tom Walker, the man behind Pie, delivers another barnstorming performance, steamrolling his point through with audacity, clarity and a good deal of wit.
Until, that is, his pitch for the TV show is brought crashing down by a blizzard of snowflakes, so perfectly illustrating his point about how the sanctity of free speech has been fatally eroded by hair-trigger sensibilities. There’s a slight touch of Alan Partridge pathos as he sees his dreams of moving out of the rain-lashed media scrum outside Downing Street and into the nice warm TV studio slip through his grasp. And of course, he reacts to this disappointment by displaying the only emotion he really knows: fury.
In a meltdown of Fukushima proportions, theatrics, invective and passion combine for a devastating rabble-rousing wake-up call for the majority in the middle of politics to show some common-sense, engage in meaningful debate rather than shutting it down, and turn their damn Twitter feed off. Powerful stuff – and very often funny, too.