Nula: Butterflies Rise is a decision-making game that explores the experience of living with anxiety.
Inspired by puzzle adventure games of the early 90s like Myst, the surreal comedy of Flann O'Brien, and the author's experience of living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Nula creates an immersive textual experience, an insight into the daily struggle anxiety can be.
Why would a man who wrote and starred in Brexageddon, a 2016 spoof documentary about Britain’s decision to leave the European Union — who also voted Remain — want a hard Brexit? Stranger things have happened, particularly where the Referendum is concerned. Once-strong ruling parties fold back into their own fundament; the old battle the young; towns battle cities; families battle amongst themselves. The opposition filibusters while the government stalls. Disgraced and proven liars return with fanfair like the fifth-day Rohirrim, stinking of horseshit, poor quality mild, but thankfully (at least not this time) salted pork. But political activist, performer, writer, and director Heydon Prowse is not an individual afraid of confrontation. For it takes a certain kind of intrepidity to fluff up the Liberal Democrat pocket square of his character Barnaby Plankton, and to ask Bill Clinton for advice on how best to escape a coalition which is leaving a permanent “stain” on his party — bemoaning in the process having to “swallow bills” being “forced down [his] throat”. From this skit of 2014, Clinton, sensibly, sheepishly, dissolves away .
Perhaps this is the least we can expect of satirists. But with no parlour game to hide behind, Heydon Prowse and Jolyon Rubinstein’s BAFTA-winning The Revolution Will Be Televised brought something of the rugged toolkit of the political activist to the silver tongue of derision. With a lot of good comic writing, and, as Sam Woolaston of The Guardian wrote, ‘cojones of steel’, this kind of show does not allow its subject the cool winking ripostes of Have I Got News For You, and a grudging round of applause for the finely tuned phrase. But as we keep hearing, the world is changed around us. And cloaked questions of a president’s infidelity seem no longer to be effective in exposing the moral mortise of a man formed by draping a long red necktie about a dollop of quivering curd.
So as iiii Magazine this month wrestles with questions about the limits of satire, about punk pranking, and holding the political class to account, who better to speak to than the man who earlier this month gatecrashed the International Petroleum Week dinner to make an announcement — Heydon Prowse himself?
¶ To what extent do you consider yourself a comedian or a comedy writer?
‘I don’t really know! I was more of a journalist originally, and then my writing became comedy because I was such a bad journalist! It wasn’t intentional. It’s a hybrid of disciplines. I was always making satirical films, but I don’t have any experience of stand-up like a lot of comedy writers. I’m just learning how to do that now. Most of the stuff I’ve made has a comic slant, but now I’m definitely in the field of writing more scripted comedy’.
¶ Looking back over your work there are a few stand-out pranks. Were there any that particularly resonated with you, or demanded an especial degree of courage?
‘Getting into the Saudi embassy was quite… interesting. I mean, someone was assassinated in their embassy in Turkey recently. It was exciting to work out ways of psychologically tricking someone into thinking that you’re legit and to let you in. I’ve developed a persona that’s really useful in those scenarios. Just the other day, not for fun, but for more activist purposes, I got into the Petroleum Awards. Putting on a suit and convincing the person on the door that you're supposed to be in there — once you know how to do it — is fun, and you can adopt that personality quite easily. I managed to get up on stage and make a surprise announcement to everyone about how they were fucking the world up.
Those situations are super exciting. You come out of them buzzing. There’s quite often a crash afterward. You’ve done all that preparation for one moment, with a number of different cameras on you: you’ve only got your props and your lines to get you through.
You’ve got some gags you’ve written taking the piss out the situation in Saudi Arabia, for instance. They’re funny lines that you’ve developed with comedy writers. But try remembering a line when you’re face to face with a security guard in the Saudi embassy. Your adrenaline’s pumping, you’re like “fuck, fuck, fuck, how do I drop this line in, but in such a way that the guy won’t notice that I’m dropping a line”?’
¶ So the sangfroid that you’ve developed over the years with experience, does that exist in your personal as well as professional life? Are you a naturally calm person?
‘No, I think I’m a naturally anxious person, but when I’m in situations like that, I can do calm. I was actually talking to a therapist about this the other day: in moments like that you’re at your most relaxed; you’ve done all this prep and it’s so hyped that there’s nothing else going on inside your head, it’s a strange release from the everyday stuff that you’re thinking about’.
¶ Have you been keeping abreast of the Brexit imbroglio today?
‘There’s almost no point getting a quote from anyone on Brexit, because the situation’s changing by the minute. I want a hard Brexit now’.
¶ Why’s that?
‘Well, even though I voted Remain and the thought of it depresses me… If you read Yanis Varoufakis’s book ‘The Adults in the Room’, it is so depressing to see how undemocratic the European Union actually is. You know, they had a referendum in Greece before the Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras decided to completely overturn the result, and undermined the population he represented — and he did so for the same reasons that we may not honour our referendum. Namely, the financial implications of it: the way the EU might punish you will be really devastating, especially in the immediate short term.
There almost is no western democracy. The whole thing is a complete joke. If you keep voting for things, then have to keep referring back to Berlin, it makes a mockery of the whole process of democracy. The EU is super-smart, and said, “Oh yeah, fantastic, let’s negotiate for two years, while you should be building international relationships with America, Canada, China, whatever, so you have something to negotiate with”. We never did any of that! We spent two years fruitlessly negotiating in good faith, then got as shit of a deal as we always knew we were going to get. Cameron was never able to get a deal, why would we suddenly be able to change that because we got a mandate? Greece had a mandate, they couldn’t get a fucking deal. We didn’t fucking learn’.
¶ I guess what we really need is a strong-willed character, someone outside of the political establishment who’s really good at making deals, y’know? Who takes no shit …
‘Haha, yeah. We’re close to that. We’ll get a Trump figure of our own soon enough.’
¶ What are your thoughts on the way the debate has been argued? There have been so many occasions when freedom of speech has been brought into question: accusations of both a liberal and a right-wing bias of the BBC, someone like Tommy Robinson and his expelling from social media. This emerging figure of the ‘snowflake’, an accusation thrown from both left and right, it just ends up becoming a blizzard. Is debate on this issue over? Is the debate only about how the debate is conducted?
‘Yeah, you can’t say anything. Not that I support a word of what Tommy Robinson says, because obviously I don’t! It’s really funny that the alt-right are so offended that Facebook won’t allow their posts to circulate. That’s the whole point about Facebook: it’s not democratic. It’s a corporation from Silicon Valley. That’s the definition of liberal elite. And yet they’re all desperate to be on it to push their views. I mean, what did you expect? In some ways you’re glad because you don’t like Tommy Robinson, but also fuck Facebook!. In what sense does Facebook have the right to take a moral position on people’s views?’
¶ Going back to what ‘The Revolution Will Be Televised’ did. It seems that UK TV comedy used to be encouraging debate about these things, revealing hypocrisy or inconsistencies in the way people would argue, or revealing what people were really like in public and in private. Now it seems the successful satirical outfits appear more in the States.
‘Well, yeah. We’ve never been able to produce those ‘Daily Show’ type formats, it’s strange. British broadcasters are bound by all manner of commitments to impartiality that American broadcasters aren’t. You really need to be doing a tirade in order to make those shows work. We have to be really balanced, in this country; you’ve got to go after the Tories and after Labour. It kind of undermines your thing. If you look at someone like Stephen Colbert, you’d never see him laying into Hillary, it’s all just Trump, Trump, Trump. Because the centreground has largely disappeared, and that’s kind of where satire lives. People just want to hear something that they really fucking agree with, to quote Stewart Lee’.
¶ There’s that cliche: “We live in a post-truth state. How effective can satire truly be anymore?” Is there something in that, though? The assumption of a kind of carnivalesque in politician’s personalities? An attempt to beat the satirists to it?
‘Yeah, completely. But I also think now, people take things a lot more seriously. It’s very hard to laugh at something if you feel it’s fundamental to your understanding of who you are, or what matters in life. There have been real changes to society in the last two years. There are huge gulfs between what people who are 30-and-over, and what millennials and Gen Yers think is funny. I think it’s because the stakes are so high. Just ‘lolling’ at stuff doesn’t seem like it cuts the mustard anymore. There’s climate change and huge decisions about Brexit and the rise of the far-right. But, of course, there are many examples of incredible satire in places like Iraq post-invasion, where things were really brutal.
But generally, I think people have become self-involved, and now take themselves incredibly seriously, and simply, they can’t take a joke. In a way, it’s actually a symptom of modern western liberalism itself. The idea that humanism and the human experience is the most important thing in the world, and the “if I experience something, that’s my truth, and it matters, and you should listen to me!” That position is totally on steroids. It’s individual freedom taken to a point where it can actually become damaging’.
¶ That reminds me of the confrontation between Will Self and Mark Francois on BBC Politics Live. Self is one of the most appositely surnamed men in the world, but is good currency. Francois repeatedly demands an apology for his offending of Leavers, when Self suggests that racists would have voted for Brexit [but not as was suggested that all Leavers were racist]. It just demonstrated how artless and cowardly the discussion has become. On a similar note, I wanted to read you some of the YouTube comments underneath ‘Real Housewives of Isis’. It’s arguably your most viral clip.
‘Yeah I think it is, it just goes to show you. The BBC felt like the jokes fell on the ISIS groomers and the institution of ISIS, not the victims of it. But it was really controversial and it did become our biggest ‘viral’ hit. If we decided not to be as careful as the BBC and just said something controversial about tinderbox issues, we’d create a viral hit every week. The only downside to that is you end up having half the country loving you and the other hating you.
Real Housewives got a positive reaction from the Daily Mail guys who said: “It’s about time the BBC did something like this!” It probably did wonders for the license fee, because the Daily Mail can’t find a sketch on the BBC that isn’t considered centre-left, liberal and all that bollocks. Just the other day, when this new ISIS Bride story came out, it occurred to me that maybe I should retweet that sketch. Obviously, it would have been in really bad taste to have done that, and I wouldn’t have wanted to, but it’s the sort of thing that Piers Morgan or Katie Hopkins would have done. And you garner instant online celebrity by doing it’.
¶ But the sketch wasn’t unfounded. As you say, it is a barbed piece of comic writing that stands against the lazy accusation that all comedy comes from the same, wilting left position. The flip-side of that, of course, is that you can’t dictate on what level somebody appreciates the work, so, you end up uniting two political polar opposites. For example, in the comments under the video, Mirror River says: “Totally fake, they’re all over 11”.
¶ Then you have someone like Ante Vuković who says:
“So many people are going to get triggered, love it”.
“I’m muslim, it’s satire. Honestly nothing to get salty about”.
“Too much PC in America, only the British could do this”.
“The only thing funnier than this skit is how angry people are gonna get”.
“Eat it. Islam is not off-limits, Islam should be mocked more than any other religion”.
¶ Many of the comments are totally contradictory in their positioning, but they tend to agree that the sketch should have been aired.
‘But this is what great satire does: it unites people. People find common ground beyond politics.
There are things all people laugh about. Everyone fucks up, everyone has awkward sexual experiences, everyone regrets things in their life. All these human things that you put into satire make them funnier. So the thing about [Jolyon Rubinstein’s character] James Twottington-Burbage and [Heydon Prowse’s character] Barnaby Plankton isn’t just that James is right-wing and Barnaby centrist; it’s about how those positions play out in their lives on a human level. For example, James being obnoxious in front of a woman that he’s trying to impress is much funnier than James saying, “I believe in cutting taxes!” People have completely ignored that universality — that there are things that connect us all. There is some connection between you and someone as unpleasant as James, there’s something you understand in his behaviour, a recognition. And you find yourself laughing at it. It’s that universality that we’ve lost in satire, I think’.
¶ Your secret taping of Alan Duncan was a unique insight into the corridors of power. It also sparked a debate about ‘on/off the record’ and journalistic standards. Do you think the ends justify the means where shaming the corrupt behavior of the political class is concerned?
‘I was really conflicted about that at the time. There was definitely a period when people were getting angry about the endless scandals, and the vilification of politicians was so widespread in everything they were doing and saying, that I don’t think it was constructive. Had I been about to do something similar last year, I might think again. It depends on the issue as well. Something like climate change I think is so important that I would justify bending the rules, allowing civil disobedience and all of that sort of stuff. Doing slightly renegade things in order to expose people who are contributing to this awful environmental disaster we are all facing. It does depend on what we’re talking about.
Journalistic laws are there for a reason. They protect people, and we see examples all the time of why they need protecting, particularly with the culture of shaming online. But at the same time, it’s because of those rules that it is so difficult to investigate the actions of big corporations, and people with vested interests and a lot of money — because they feel themselves protected. I’ve done some renegade investigations off my own back, and every time I have found some really nefarious stuff. Some undemocratic stuff, some really awful environmental stuff, some racist stuff with the BNP. Almost all of those documentaries I wouldn’t have got commissioned had I gone straight to a channel and said: “Hey, can you give me some money so I can go and do this”. Citizen journalism is erring on the side of protest and political activism, so in my opinion, you have to judge it by those standards’.
¶ Additionally it demands a lot of you personally. The minute you involve yourself in any investigation like that, particularly on your terms, you can justifiably expect an equal or an extreme reaction when subjects try to defend themselves.
'Yeah, I got slammed for that. A lot of people thought it was fantastic, but the reason I got fucking slammed was because someone from The Guardian called me up and asked: “do you feel bad about that?” and I said: “you know what, god, I do feel a bit bad about that”. The next day the quote was: “HEYDON PROWSE FEELS BAD”. I mean, if you want to use this method you need to be able to expect the repercussions. You have to deal with the sluice, take the backlash for the sake of your message’.
¶ What are your thoughts on the architecture of a good prank? How much thought goes into the planning, or do you leave space for spontaneity?
‘There’s so much planning. The structure is crucial. The shooting is hugely important: you really have to think about the message made and how it relates to the picture: those two elements are crucial. You need to understand how it lands before it happens. Otherwise your audience forgets who the subject is meant to be, and the victims can be confused. We pay a lot of attention to it, but people do it really badly, particularly online pranksters. They conduct fake robberies in the centre of London and wonder why their accounts get shut down’.
¶ Essentially the victim of that joke is the poor employee who suffers the emotional stress and has to pick up the fucking crisps.
‘We struggled with that as well. You have to take the piss out of McDonald’s, for instance, but in doing so, you have to piss off the poor people who are running the restaurant. Whose responsibilities are not to the ethics of the franchise, but the pay packet at the end of the week’.