Tributes paid to 'great satirist' John Bird

Former co-star Rory Bremner says British comedian was 'pillar of the anti-establishment'

British comedian John Bird became known for sketches that helped to set the political agenda in the UK. PA
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Tributes were paid to British actor and comedian John Bird on Wednesday after he died at the age of 86, with a former colleague marking the contribution of one of the country's funniest men to political and social life.

The star of Bremner, Bird and Fortune started off at the Cambridge Footlights sketch troupe, before making a career in Now Something Else, Rory Bremner, Who Else? and The Rory Bremner Show.

Sketches performed alongside comedians John Fortune and Rory Bremner in Channel 4’s satirical show set the political agenda in the UK.

“It’s an irony that one of our greatest satirists, so brilliant at portraying ministers, civil servants or high-ranking officials who exuded self-satisfaction, was himself so modest and self-effacing," said Scottish impressionist Bremner, 61.

“John Bird was, to the end, never pleased with himself, always feeling he should have done better, been less lazy, had a late period like Brahms, ‘where everything was spare and abstract’.

“The reality was that he and his friend and collaborator John Fortune, together with Peter Cook, were pillars of the anti-establishment.”

Bird died on December 24 at Pendean care home in southern England and a family funeral is to be followed by a celebration of his life in the new year.

Bremner said it was “striking” Bird died “nine years, almost to the day” after Fortune, who died aged 74 on New Year’s Eve in 2013.

“Lord knows, satire has missed them this last decade and now that loss is permanent,” he said.

“John may not have felt he got his life right, but by God he got it written.”

Bird and Fortune became household names with their "Long Johns" comedy skits, in which the double act played bumbling politicians, military figures and businessmen.

They were nominated for four Baftas and won the TV award in 1997.

Bird made appearances in fantasy comedy film Jabberwocky, comedy shows Yes, Prime Minister, A Very Peculiar Practice, Chambers and One Foot In The Grave, and detective shows Jonathan Creek, Inspector Morse and Midsomer Murders.

Bremner said that watching Bird and Fortune work was the highlight of his life and that he marvelled "at the genius of it all”.

He said Bird could be shy and nervous before the cameras started rolling, but once he had to perform he would be “shamelessly playful”.

In 2007, Bird and Fortune revived their show in a special called The Last Laugh, which was broadcast on ITV’s The South Bank Show.

Bremner said watching the sketch, in which the comedians played an investment banker and an interviewer, was a way to “understand the madness behind the 2008 financial crash” because it “ridicules the city culture that led to the crash with astonishing perspicacity”.

“They realised that true satire lay not in ad hominem attacks on politicians, but in exposing the cant behind the ‘discipline of the market’ and the culture of privatisation where chief executives were rewarded for success and equally compensated for failure,” he said.

Bird, who was born in the English city of Nottingham, went to a grammar school before going to the University of Cambridge and meeting his comedy partner Fortune.

While there, he also directed comedian Peter Cook and actress Eleanor Bron in the 1959 Cambridge Footlights Revue, an annual show by the university comedy club that has had David Mitchell, Richard Ayoade and Eric Idle among its members.

Bird joined the Royal Court Theatre as an assistant director, hosted the first episode of Beyond The Fringe, directed Austrian-American singer Lotte Lenya in a Brecht revue and opened nightclub the Establishment Club with Cook in London and New York.

He is survived by his wife Libby, a concert pianist, and his stepsons Dan and Josh.

Updated: December 28, 2022, 2:40 PM