When did the British become so uptight about mocking the monarch?

Taking physick – or – the news of shooting the King of Sweden!, by James Gillray (died 1815), published 1792. Wikimedia Commons

When did crude jokes about a reigning monarch become a no-go area for satirists and comedians? The BBC recently announced that it had axed David Baddiel’s Radio 4 panel show Don’t Make Me Laugh. This after an episode broadcast on the Queen’s 90th birthday that included jokes about her sex life. Apparently it’s not the done thing to go there.

But jump back some 200 years and satirists did go there. Regularly. The above cartoon of 1792, by James Gillray, shows King George III and Queen Charlotte on the loo. Both are in the middle of evacuating their bowels – a process accelerated by the entrance of then PM, Pitt the Younger, who bears news of the King of Sweden’s assassination. This is an image of the royal runs and of royal rumps, royally exposed.

The BBC received around 120 complaints about Baddiel’s show and its trust, rapping the comedian and writer over the knuckles, found his panelists’ remarks to be “personal, intrusive and demeaning”. I teach and write about satire and, for me, the BBC Trust’s words offer a pretty good working definition of it. Isn’t satire supposed to be personal? Isn’t it meant to demean? Why are these qualities necessarily bad or wrong?

Back in the 18th century the monarchy still had, and exercised, some power. George III was involved in cabinet appointments. On at least one occasion, he actively brought a government down. He was also highly respected by many people.

‘Temperance Enjoying a Frugal Meal’.

But there was general acceptance that room had to be made for irreverence and mockery alongside (and perhaps because of) this respect. Gillray’s cartoons took aim at the King and Queen again and again. They mocked George’s poor eyesight and frugality. They imagined him on the chopping block. In one eye-wateringly nasty cartoon Gillray even went so far as to caricature Queen Charlotte naked from the waist up.

George III’s son, later George IV, came in for a still harder time. A notorious player with the ladies, he has good claim to be the most mercilessly lampooned monarch in British history. And his sex life was fair game. Cartoonists showed him thoroughly enjoying himself under his mistress’s skirt, spanking a lady in public, and even having sex with his secret Catholic wife.

These cartoons caused offence, of course. That was the whole point. But we know that they were looked at and bought by lords and ladies, members of parliament and the well-to-do. And also by the royals themselves. Gillray was even granted a government pension (though, at this point, the mockery of the monarch did come to a halt).

The Georgians are sometimes regarded as having invented the idea of “polite” society. But their sense of humour was unashamedly crude and decidedly vicious. For them, the body was grotesquely but also joyously comic and they were utterly obsessed with its urges, fluids, and processes. The body’s functions were seen as a social leveller. Whether a king or a beggar in the street, we all eat, we all crap, we all have sexual desires.

No longer fair game. Robert Perry/EPA

The decision to axe Baddiel’s show suggests how precarious the BBC feels its own position to be as it navigates the choppy waters of charter renewal. But it also shows just how much resistance there is in 2016 to treating the Queen like everyone else. To laughing at her.

This isn’t because satire or comedy have stopped being cruel or crude. The truth is that British society takes monarchy far more seriously than it did two centuries ago. Far too seriously. In the 18th century the fact that the king suffered at the hands of satirists reflected the degree to which the idea of monarchy – what it meant, how it made sense for a “modern” Britain – was genuinely up for debate.

But in the 21st century this debate is no longer being had, at least not publicly. The monarchy has arguably never been more popular. The Queen is held in a reverence that’s driven and carefully policed by the very media that should be asking meaningful questions about the monarchy. Imagine that, tomorrow, a cartoonist chose to follow in Gillray’s footsteps and show Elizabeth II on her porcelain throne, clutching her bowels in discomfort? He or she would face a digital lynching.

In the 18th century Britons saw such satire as a healthy sign of the freedoms they enjoyed (and this in an age that was, in many ways, very far from free). For them, irreverence was the necessary flip side of reverence. They recognised the real danger that comes when we place anyone, even the monarch, beyond personal mockery. Shouldn’t we too?