Rory Bremner: Comic on the anger and division of 'identity politics,' steering clear of Scottish independence debate and Festival Fringe fears

Comic Rory Bremner is set to make festival appearances in Scotland

Rory Bremner can vividly recall his first nasty taste of the “identity politics” he believes have led to the UK becoming a far more divided and “angry” country over the past decade.

The Scottish comedian and impressionist had recently moved back to his home country when he made a BBC programme taking a satirical look at the Scottish independence debate.

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But the one-off show, which saw Bremner interview politicians, pundits and fellow comics, left many independence supporters unamused and provoked a social media “pile-on” against the Edinburgh-born star.

Rory Bremner. Picture: Press AssociationRory Bremner. Picture: Press Association
Rory Bremner. Picture: Press Association

Bremner recalled: “I had just joined Twitter for the first time. I remember Gyles Brandreth saying to me ‘you must be very careful because people on Twitter can be very ungracious’.

"I did this show and after a nice few weeks when people were following me because they liked what I did, I suddenly had a pile-on with people saying ‘you did a joke about Alex Salmond. Don’t insult me – I voted for him’.

"Never in my life had I had people saying that my comedy or satire was insulting people. It was bizarre and the hostility rocked me at the time. When I’ve thought about that over the years, I’ve felt ‘we need to push back against this’. The idea that somebody saying something you disagree with is insulting you is ridiculous.

“In a way, that kind of lies at the heart of the state we’ve got ourselves into, where everyone is just so angry now.”

Edinburgh-born comic and impressionist Rory Bremner. Picture: Lloyd SmithEdinburgh-born comic and impressionist Rory Bremner. Picture: Lloyd Smith
Edinburgh-born comic and impressionist Rory Bremner. Picture: Lloyd Smith

Speaking ahead of a run of appearances in Scotland, including the Perth Festival of the Arts and the Borders Book Festival, Bremner admits he is dismayed at the changes he has seen in Britain in the decade since the independence referendum.

The 63-year-old pins much of the blame on identity politics, and the media and social media companies he accuses of “monetising division” and “stirring people up every day”.

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He said: “In the old days, there used to be several stops between calm and angry. You could feel disillusioned, frustrated or dismayed before you got to anger. Now people go straight to anger. You can really see that in a cultural sense and political sense.

"People are now encouraged to take up positions based on what their politics are, or what their religious beliefs are or what their sexual preferences are, rather than be part of a bigger picture.

Rory Bremner. Picture: Tristan Fewings/GettyRory Bremner. Picture: Tristan Fewings/Getty
Rory Bremner. Picture: Tristan Fewings/Getty

"I’m dismayed. I just think ‘what happened to this thing where people could discuss, disagree and enjoy things together? Where did the centre ground go?’ It’s all got very divided and polarised.”

The comic made his name lampooning politicians like Tony Blair, John Major and Gordon Brown in TV shows like Rory Bremner...Who Else? and Bremner, Bird and Fortune. But Bremner, who sold his Borders home in 2019 and is now permanently based in Oxfordshire, admits he now tries to steer clear of the Scottish political landscape.

“People say to me ‘can you come up and do something?’” he said. “But I don’t like to tread on that ground because it is so factional and tribal now.”

Bremner, who has returned to stand-up in recent years, is a regular on TV and radio panel shows like Mock The Week and I’m I Haven’t A Clue, and played Chris Tarrant last year in the stage play Quiz, about the cheating drama on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?

Rory Bremner starred as Chris Tarrant in the stage show Quiz last year. Picture by Seamus RyanRory Bremner starred as Chris Tarrant in the stage show Quiz last year. Picture by Seamus Ryan
Rory Bremner starred as Chris Tarrant in the stage show Quiz last year. Picture by Seamus Ryan

But he bemoans the fact there appears to be no appetite for TV shows taking a satirical look at the political landscape, drawing a contrast with the modern era when politicians like Jacob Rees-Mogg had their own shows.

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He said: "It is weird the amount of sketch shows that were around when I was younger – either on them or watching them. That format just doesn’t exist any more. Bremner, Bird and Fortune, was taken off in 2010, which meant the government coalition kind of went untouched, by us at least. That was when the seeds were laid for Brexit.

"The political satire programmes just aren’t there now – partly because the broadcasters don’t have the money, but it’s also because they don’t have the balls to do them. A lot of people come to me now and say ‘I learned so much about politics from watching your show’.

"I really do miss it. I think there is a public appetite there that TV has shied away from. But it has got to be well-informed and well-researched. It can’t just be graffiti. It needs to be intelligent.”

It is more than 40 years since Bremner first performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and he still makes regular appearances at the event.

He shares the concerns of many long-time performers over the cost now involved in putting on a show deterring many unknown performers from trying to make their name in Edinburgh in future.

Bremner said: “I’ve been touring with I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue recently. People have been talking in the green room about doing a show in Edinburgh and how it is now just so expensive. Everything I hear about the Fringe now is that it’s now incredibly difficult for young comedians to come and perform.

“The other problem is the sheer weight of numbers of comedians in Edinburgh. The whole spirit of the Fringe is that anybody can take part. What do you do if everybody wants to have their opportunity?

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"I think maybe those of us who have done well out of the Fringe should somehow subsidise those who haven’t. It would be like the ravens leaving the Tower of London if there was no Fringe in Edinburgh.

“One of the most exciting things I can think of is standing at the top of the Royal Mile, looking down and seeing the whole place thronged with the colour, the street theatre, the posters and people selling their shows. It’s high summer, it’s packed and there is so much creativity, overlooked by St Giles’ Cathedral, with the sea in the background. That’s my Edinburgh.”



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