Opera singer turned cabaret performer Melinda Hughes uses songs to entertain and provoke thought. Satirists at the Fringe are doing a public service, she argues
Old Boris Johnson’s only got til Halloween
To work out what the hell does Brexit actually mean?
The far right’s gaining ground from Spain to Hungary
Tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1933
Racial prejudice – has gone beyond the pale
It’s all just off the scale
– Extract from Off the Scale song by Hughes/Limb/Evans
What is satire? Good question! It’s an essential tool to expose corruption or stupidity through the use of humour. It should make us take stock and want to correct such follies. As a satirist I have a point to make; I feel strongly about unjust and hypocritical situations. Yes, I am morally motivated, less politically so, but the lines are always blurred. Satire is everywhere and has become a normalised coping mechanism in a mad world of extreme situations, many too absurd to digest. I was chatting to Dusty Limits the other day and he coined it perfectly by saying, “I believe good satire can provoke both laughter and thought, and that the thoughts are easier to process when laced with laughter.”
For satirists such as myself, Trump is the gift who keeps on giving. I’m sure the writers at Saturday Night Live don’t have to try very hard to write a good sketch about him, and this has paved the way for satire to forge a huge comeback. Private Eye has hit its highest circulation in its 55 year history; programmes such as Have I got News for you and The Mash Report have prime TV slots; radio shows such as The Manifesto and Dead Ringers can get away with more risqué material, as can live performances such as the award-winning NewsRevue. We have really offensive lyrics in our internet trolling song which would see me banned for life if I ever sang them on BBC Radio 4 but all I’m doing is lifting sickening tweets and death threats from Twitter. It’s real life. It’s shocking, but turn them into a song with a wink and a smile, it’s hilarious. The world has gone mad and I have a compulsion to hold the musical mirror to it.
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I’d like to see musical satire on television. Even Tim Minchin doesn’t get onto mainstream television and he’s a genius. The last show featuring musical comedy was probably Flight of the Conchords over ten years ago but it took the American company HBO to develop that. UK television is so dumbed down with trite cheap contestant shows, I feel there’s nowhere for us to go. It’s a race to the bottom and that’s depressing. I believe the public deserves better. There’s so much incredible talent out there (it only takes you a few days at the Edinburgh Fringe to realise that) so why does it take so long for fresh faces such as Rachel Parris to reach our screens? Most likely because she was deemed niche; a clever female, a musician and a comedian… the dreaded triple threat. But remember Victoria Wood? Oh what joy! What talent! We had programmes of substance that made you laugh and think. We would wonder at the talent of The Two Ronnies and Morecambe and Wise who always featured music in their comedy. We have contemporary equivalents such as Fascinating Aida, Kit & McConnell and Bounder & Cad but instead our TV has been handed over to Love Island where women declare Barcelona is a city in Italy (which, by the way, is great satirical material.)
That’s the USP with musical satire; the craft of writing lyrics and music; fitting comic lines in rhyme together with a storyline which leads you one way but ending with a great pay off and a twist. You need a catchy tune too. I’m not a fan of using existing tunes, we write our own which makes it even more time-consuming. You’re lucky if your Brexit song has a shelf life of one year.
There isn’t a subject we don’t cover. We are always on the lookout for material; whether it’s people dying from taking selfies, cougars, modern art, hipsters, Royalty or impossible divas. Having been an opera singer for 20 years (until an accident prevented me from working) I love to parody the classical music world (something else I would like to see more of on television), but, sadly, the perception prevails that opera and classical music are elitist. With one in 20 pupils taking Music exams, how are we going to compete on the world stage if kids don’t have access to a piano? If it isn’t on our screens and not taught in schools, then of course it will be elitist.
The downward journey television, magazines and tabloids happily embark upon simply encourages the dumb to become dumber. It absolutely terrifies me. Perhaps I’m coming across as an intellectual snob but these people who don’t know their capital cities have the power to vote and change the shape of our political landscape so someone needs to take responsibility. Look at Trump; he’s been poised for war with North Korea, is now pointing missiles at Iran and gloating about it on Twitter. Now with the latest leaked emails from the British Ambassador, our relationship with the US is on thin ice. Yet we are anesthetised by his behaviour, we think it’s normal, acceptable, so much so that more and more politicians are talking in bumper sticker slogan talk.
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So how can we get a vital message across that things aren’t quite right and that something needs to change? Perhaps one way is through humour. People always love a laugh and a song, no matter their political leaning. I’ve had Trump supporters enjoying my show despite the fact that I lampoon Trump in my Melania’s Diary sketch.
Satire has been around since ancient Greek times. It played an important role in Soviet Russia keeping up morale during a totalitarian regime. Most importantly it was the last bastion of protest in 1933 Germany when plays and writings by Brecht, art and music by Jews and publications critical of the Fascist regime had been shut down and banned. Today’s drama is provocative too; The Handmaid’s Tale and BBC/HBO Years and Years are grippingly terrifying in depicting a crumbling dystopia and hard to digest, so instead why not do it with a laugh and a song? That’s where I feel people like myself have an important role to play at the Fringe. Let us entertain you but let us also provoke thought.
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Melinda Hughes’ show Off The Scale runs at The Assembly Rooms from tomorrow until 25 August (not 12/19), see www.edfringe.com