A woman I went on a blind date with in 1988 told me that witches she knew would consort with the devil at midnight, on the meadow by the river outside the town where I was a student. Soon after I decided to become a standup comedian, I sought them out, in the shadow of a ruined abbey, where the cursed remains of Henry II’s mistress Rosamund were destroyed in the dissolution. A bearded middle-aged man in a black polo neck and a pentangle pendant, a cliched look he nonetheless owned convincingly, stated terms on which I could be guaranteed to succeed beyond my wildest dreams. And, like a bloody fool, I accepted them. As promised, in 2018 the Times newspaper declared me the “world’s greatest living standup”. But I know the cost of that accolade. Deals with the devil have a habit of turning sour.
In 1930, at the age of 19, the travelling troubadour Robert Johnson stood at midnight, lit by the moon, at the crossroads of Highways 49 and 61, in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and sold his soul to Papa Legba in exchange for unprecedented blues power. On 13 June 2021, at the age of 94 and a half, the respected veteran newsman Andrew Neil stood in a studio in Paddington Basin, lit by some battery-operated torches bought from an all-night garage in the Harrow Road, and sold his soul, and his reputation, to GB News chief executive Roberto Rastapopoulos™®. What did Andrew Neil want in exchange for his precious essence? Money? Power? Some hair? And what did Andrew Neil get? Public humiliation, the loss of his hard-won reputation, the chance to play second fiddle to Nigel Farage and a tasty feast of hard cheddar, humble pie and human excrement. And no hair.
In happier times, hosting cult news-comedies like the BBC’s dog-infested Portillo fest, This Week, the fustian-tonsured anti-woke warrior recognised and roundly repudiated the alt right face-flatus of the American speed-blabbermouth Ben Shapiro, a reminder that within him once beat the heart of a real newsman. Shapiro was beyond reason even for a man who regarded the BBC’s thoroughly Reithian Horrible Histories as too leftwing. But the Sticklebrick Rapunzel, as I heard Neil called by a mischievous Ken Clarke behind his back when I guested on the show, would still shut down comedy contributors who mocked Nigel Farage on air, as he smelled the farmyard stench of Brexit on the wind and tried to remain upwind of history.
Angry with the BBC’s imaginary woke bias and feeling undervalued in his small hours niche, the Steel Wool Sinéad O’Connor flounced off to be the figurehead of the avowedly anti-woke new channel GB News. Neil’s theatrical exit has turned out to be the equivalent of a man storming indignantly out of a dinner party through a door into a broom cupboard. Right now, having been absent for two months, while his station is remoulded around the eminently less qualified but infinitely more commercial Nigel Farage and a gaggle of clickbait-harvesting lockdown sceptics and Fox News-style fantasists, Neil is waiting in the broom cupboard amid the mops and Domestos bottles. The Accordion Potato hopes that when the dinner party ends and the other guests go home, he can creep out unnoticed to minimise his humiliation, dusting himself down nonchalantly with the air of a man who had intended to spend two months in a broom cupboard all along, actually, so there.
But what if the GB News dinner party doesn’t end? What if the Farage factor’s unspectacular but acceptable viewing figures mean the guests are endlessly supplied with ever more crisps and Spitfire, like the temporally trapped diners in Luis Buñuel’s Exterminating Angel, and Neil must listen to their revels for ever, cursing his Faustian pact and bursting for the toilet, eyeing the mop bucket opportunistically and wondering if it will bear the burden of his buttocks?
It’s hard to have any sympathy for Neil. In sync with the fabricated culture war, driven by Boris Johnson’s propagandist sex-businessman Douglas Smith and the arts dimbo culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, Neil has driven a race towards the bottom of the news cesspit. Now he finds himself outperformed by Nigel Farage, who has no qualms about diving deeper into the cess than British broadcasters have previously thought advisable or possible. How can Grandad Neil compete with the young and thrusting Farage in the ratings-driven offence stakes? Farage hangs around Kent beaches calling the RNLI a taxi service and camera-phoning distressed migrants. How’s the comparatively refined Andrew Neil going to beat that? Sit in his bathchair with a howitzer and shoot aircraft flying in Afghan interpreters out of the sky, filming himself laughing at the exploding planes and falling clumps of human flesh? There is no dignified exit for Neil from the public stocks he has carved for himself. Here come the cabbages, smashing into Andrew Neil’s human face – for ever.
GB News hangs in there, like a monkey surfing on an ironing board in a torrent of raw sewage, reports of its demise proving exaggerated, to gagging liberals’ dismay. Farage provides inflammatory content that draws satisfactory crowds of onlookers four times weekly, gawping like superstitious peasants at the ecclesiastical trial of a donkey. And quietly it poisons the discourse a little more each day. Meanwhile, under lockdowns, and in the 1970s Sunday afternoon quiet of Covid, I’ve been getting papers in order and discarding unnecessaries, in readiness for the someday soon when my cheque is cashed. Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me. For me. For meeeee. But it looks from my vantage point as if old Nick is enjoying letting Andrew Neil wiggle, like a little worm, on the barbed hook of his vanity.
Profits from the New Year No 1 single Comin’ Over Here, by Asian Dub Foundation featuring Stewart Lee, went to Kent Refugee Action Network; rescheduled 2022 dates of Stewart’s 2020 tour are on sale