How Tom McLaughlin uses laughter to tackle serious topics

Published on: 13 September 2020

Author Tom McLaughlin was inspired by the likes of Spitting Image and Blackadder growing up - but he never guessed that writing a comedy story for children might have led to getting his readers thinking about politics. He talks about how laughter can help us talk about serious issues, and how his own interest in politics began with a sausage.

The cover of The Accidental Prime Minister and author Tom McLaughlinThe cover of The Accidental Prime Minister and author Tom McLaughlin

The last sausage

When I think about it, I’ve been involved in politics my whole life. And do you know what, I can even remember the day and where it all started: it was a Saturday and the place was around the dining room table.

Saturday mornings were the best in our house, firstly, there was no school, which meant hanging around in your PJs watching Saturday morning kids’ TV followed by Airwolf. It was aces. As if that wasn’t enough, the day began with a cooked breakfast. The most exciting of all the breakfasts. We had sausages, bacon, beans, eggs and even fried bread, I think this was in a time before cholesterol had been invented.

But like any buffet situation, what starts out as frivolity and carefree laughter inevitably evolves into a tense stand-off as my sisters and I began to eye-up the last sausage, or that leftover straggly bit of bacon. Deals were cut; promises made as the shove and thrust of negotiation were fought out before my eyes.

“Okay, you can have the last sausage, but you have to do my homework!”

“I’ll go halves with you on this egg, but it comes at a price my friend.”

It was politics at the very sharp end. The dining room table was where some of the most important family battles were fought. I’m sure it was the same for most families, word would reach me via a yell up the stairs, “come quickly, mum’s called a family meeting” and we’d all have to drop what we were doing and head down like the UN had being called into special session — would it be good news or bad? Was a distant relative ill, should we plump for a two week holiday in the UK this summer, or go for a single week in France?

Mr Bean and a cat

It doesn’t really matter whether we’re talking about big decisions or teeny tiny ones, whether it’s national politics or the sort around the kitchen table, they all affect us in different ways almost every day. They can thankfully provide plenty of laughs too - I used to hoover up Blackadder as he poked fun at institutions such as the aristocracy and church, as well as Spitting Image and Have I Got News For You. Those were the shows that got me through my childhood.

I once heard someone say that it’s often better to judge history not by newspaper headlines, but rather through the eyes of the political cartoonists.

I think there’s some truth in that. Comedy is a release valve to a sometimes unyielding world. I decided pretty young that I wanted to be involved in comedy in some way or other. My first thought was that I wanted to be an impressionist, like Rory Bremner. I have no idea why, I could only do two impressions, Mr. Bean and a cat, which didn’t seem an obvious path to fame and fortune. I think I just admired the mimicry.

A better plan was to use what artistic talent I had to become a cartoonist. Art was really the only thing I was good at at school so I thought I could get a job working for Spitting Image. My plan was this: I’d learn how to be a master caricaturist and then I’d get to go and design the big rubber puppets and once I was in, I’d try and write a few jokes for them, and maybe, if they ever needed a scene with a cat and Mr. Bean I’d get to live out my impressionist dream too. Sadly, Spitting Image finished once and for all on my last week before leaving art college. But my caricaturing skills did pay off when I got my first job working for a newspaper as a political cartoonist. I was there for nearly 10 years, drawing the good, the bad and the ugly sides of politics.

Illustration from The Accidental Prime Minister by Tom McLaughlinIllustration from The Accidental Prime Minister by Tom McLaughlin

The Accidental Prime Minister

Reducing a story down to a single drawing or joke was, in retrospect, the perfect training for being a children’s author and illustrator. It seemed only natural that these two worlds should collide at some point and so The Accidental Prime Minister was born, a book that changed my life. It was my first ever chapter book, something that as a dyslexic kid growing up was something that I could never imagine - it took me an eternity to read one when I was small, so the thought of writing one would have completely blown my mind (and still does!).

The book centres on the story of Joe, who is determined to keep his local park open so he and his friends have somewhere to play. Good fortune lends a helping hand when he finds out the Prime Minister is visiting his school, and Joe hopes he might be able to explain the problem to someone who will listen and understand. However, the Prime Minister doesn’t want to hear from children, especially complaining ones like Joe. Fed up of being ignored, this proves all too much for Joe who unleashes a volley of anger at the PM; the whole exchange goes viral and, before he knows it, Joe unintentionally finds himself in charge of a country.

For me the story was just a bit of fun - I wasn’t trying to introduce kids to politics!

I think if I had tried to write that book it wouldn’t have worked one bit, but then accidentally, The Accidental Prime Minister started a conversation about politics for children. From looking at the way the institutions are run, to coming up with their own ideas if they were PM and drafting their own manifestos.

Inspiring readers to change the world

I’ve just finished writing the sequel, The Secret Prime Minister Returns, and readers will get to vote on what they would like to happen next! So far some of the laws kids have come up with have been inspired, from replacing pavements with trampolines in order to liven up the commute to school to the invention of the 99p coin - no doubt Britain will be happier place once these policies have been introduced. But in the same way that comedy got me interested in politics, it’s fair to say the opposite is also true - my funny little book has inspired children to come up with ways to make the world better. It's got children talking about the environment and diversity and a million things in between.

Comedy has led to serious conversations, engaging with and listening to each other.

Whether any of these children will run for office one day, who knows - but learning to understand, negotiate and communicate with others is probably the most important lesson we’ll ever learn. It’s something that we carry with us from the rest of our lives, from school to work, from the dining room table to the board room, whether we’re dealing with how to save the planet or eating the last slice of toast. And if we can do it while being kind and having a right good laugh, well, that gets my vote every time.

Tom McLaughlin's book, The Accidental Prime Minister, is reviewed here. The latest in the series, The Accidental Prime Minister returns, is out now.

Here's how you can win the entire Accidental series

Topics: Features

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