Criticks Reaquainted: You’re Dead To Me – The History of General Elections Back

The You’re Dead To Me podcast on the history of general elections was released in the run-up to the UK general election of December 2019. It combines humour, historical expertise, and present-day comparisons to bring history to life for a diverse audience at a moment of heightened electoral interest, focusing on electoral practices and abuses up to the Reform Act of 1832. The podcast has renewed topicality at a time when the 2020 US presidential election has again seen elections take centre stage. Indeed, historians have considered comparisons with the eighteenth century, when election results were frequently disputed. The podcast also encourages us to think more generally about different uses of comedy and satire to represent political life. A multitude of different satirical and comic forms (from popular television programmes such as The Daily Show with Trevor Noah and Saturday Night Live, to parodic internet memes circulated through social media) have contributed to widespread comment on the US presidential election. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, elections were also represented to diverse audiences (including those who could not vote) through a variety of such forms, something demonstrated, for example, by Hogarth’s influential election series, inspired by the disputed Oxfordshire election of 1754, and the rhetoric of contemporary newspapers. This is, then, a timely moment to revisit Gráinne O’Hare’s January 2020 review of You’re Dead To Me: The History of General Elections, which raises questions about aspects of similarity, and important differences, between the political past and present.

– Dr Kendra Packham, Newcastle University

Reviewed on: 24th Jan 2020

‘Well, Mrs Miggins, at last we can return to sanity. The hustings are over, the bunting is down, the mad hysteria is at an end. After the chaos of a general election, we can return to normal.’ So opens the first episode of Blackadder the Third, ‘Dish and Dishonesty’, in which we see Edmund Blackadder conspire to install his dim-witted dogsbody Baldrick as the Member of Parliament for a constituency almost exclusively populated by farm animals. Although the story has many comedic and ridiculous turns, none seem quite as amusing and absurd as this opening notion; the idea of serene post-election normality.

The BBC Radio 4 podcast You’re Dead To Me, in a topical episode released in late November 2019, highlights that there is indeed great comic potential to be mined from the history of general elections. Described by reviewers as ‘Horrible Histories for grown-ups’ (a redundant description if you are, like me, a grown-up who watches and enjoys Horrible Histories), the podcast is hosted by public historian and author Greg Jenner. Jenner is joined each episode by a comedian and a historical expert, describing the podcast as ‘basically a coalition government between the rival parties of fun and facts.’ To discuss the history of general elections, he welcomes historian Dr Hannah Nicholson, and Irish comedian Catherine Bohart.

Much of the focus of the episode is on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; the first British general election was in 1708, although Nicholson notes that the practice of sending elected representatives to parliament dates from around the 1290s. Arguably, the whole of parliamentary history from medieval times to present day could be simply covered by further gerrymandering the borders of the long eighteenth century. Robert Walpole emerged as the first prime minister (or ‘top bro of the House’, as Bohart puts it) although the role did not yet exist as we know it; ‘prime minister’ was used as an insult for someone who was felt to have risen impudently above their station. Walpole was gifted 10 Downing Street by the king, and insisted that the property belong not to himself but rather to the office of prime minister. Jenner also mentions that it was at the time known as 5 Downing Street. Bohart reacts to this bombshell with the same level of devastation as I did upon learning that the Downing Street scenes in Love Actually were not in fact filmed in Downing Street.

Nicholson explains that women, Catholics, and anyone under the age of twenty-one were unable to vote, but that franchise requirements could vary from area to area. A potwalloper borough, for example, was not, as it sounds, a constituency in Middle Earth, but rather refers to boroughs in which the vote was extended to householders who owned and lived in a property with a hearth large enough to boil a pot on. The notorious rotten borough of Old Sarum had only eleven voters, none of whom were resident in the village; two MPs continued to be sent to Parliament until 1832 despite the constituents consisting solely of a flock of sheep. We learn that it was not uncommon during political speeches for unpopular electoral candidates to be heckled by having dead cats thrown at them. You’re Dead To Me is a steady trickle of this entertaining trivia. Rather than what Jenner terms an alliance between the ‘rival parties of fun and facts’, the facts are fun in and of themselves, buoyed further by the irreverent commentary of the host and guests.

The Horrible Histories books upon which the TV show is based (Jenner having worked on the latter as a historical consultant) are recognisable by such titles as, for example, ‘Vile Victorians’ or ‘Terrible Tudors’; the instalment on Irish history, however, is entitled simply ‘Ireland’, a grisly hyperbolic adjective apparently having been deemed unnecessary. A welcome segment of You’re Dead To Me sees the focus turn to Irish political history, Bohart underlining the important distinction between charismatic political orator Daniel O’Connell and Donegal crooner Daniel O’Donnell (then veering swiftly away from disparaging the latter lest she become a social pariah in Irish country music heartland). After covering Catholic Emancipation and the Great Reform Act of 1832, the discussion concludes with a short nuanced reflection from Nicholson on some of the topics addressed, and a quick-fire quiz recap for Bohart.

Writing for History Extra in September 2019, Jenner observed: ‘I do take history incredibly seriously, and I’ve dedicated half my life to arguing for its importance. But it’s precisely because history is such a vital subject that I usually adopt a humorous stance. For me, using comedy doesn’t belittle history’s stature, instead it’s one of our best techniques for communicating the complexities of the past to a general public who might have found the subject to be bewildering, boring, or irrelevant.’[1] You’re Dead To Me offers a lively and accessible introduction to the history of general elections, Jenner, Nicholson, and Bohart together making for an effervescent and entertaining ensemble. Nicholson provides engaging and perspicuous insight into electoral politics of the long eighteenth century, complemented by Bohart’s often incredulous and always hilarious commentary. Jenner’s podcast aims to make history accessible and enjoyable without patronising or alienating its audiences; though pitched as ‘a history podcast for people who don’t like history’, history-lovers too will find much to amuse and divert them. A pleasant and light-hearted look at the evolution of the general election amidst present parliamentary turbulence; the 2019 election may have come and gone with no instances of unpopular candidates being pelted with dead cats, but perhaps historians of the future will reflect with similar levity on the political weaponization of the strawberry milkshake.

You’re Dead to Me: The History of General Elections was released on 22 November 2019, and is available on the BBC Radio 4 website.

[1] Greg Jenner, ‘“A history podcast for people who don’t like history”: Greg Jenner on his new podcast You’re Dead To Me.’ History Extra, 26 September 2019.