Rupert Murdoch attack: The power of a custard pie

Tiswas' Phantom Flan-Flinger
Image caption Tiswas' Phantom Flan-Flinger did not have political motivations

A protester disrupted Rupert Murdoch's appearance before MPs, allegedly attacking the media tycoon with an improvised custard pie. Why do protesters throw pies?

All it took was a shaving foam-covered plate for an occasion of high political drama to turn into a spectacle of low comic farce.

By apparently trying to plant an improvised flan in the face of Rupert Murdoch as the tycoon appeared before a Commons committee, one activist guaranteed a place on the following day's front pages as well as his arrest.

Of course, this "custard pie", as it was invariably described, contained no custard and little else that might qualify it as a pie.

But the attacks fitted a familiar template of reducing the prominent and powerful to the status of child actors in Alan Parker's celebrated musical Bugsy Malone - or, indeed, youngsters on the set of 1970s Saturday morning show Tiswas who fell foul of the Phantom Flan-Flinger.

Such diverse authority figures as Microsoft boss Bill Gates, former Home Office minister Ann Widdecombe, TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson, economist Milton Friedman, conservative commentator Anne Coulter and philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy have all found themselves coated in viscous gloop as a result of custard pie-related attacks.

Image caption Bill Gates came face-to-face with a custard pie in 1998

One of the most notorious pie-throwers is the Belgian anarchist and anti-capitalist Noel Godin, who styles himself "Georges Le Gloupier" and has "entarted" the likes of Gates and Levy, saying he wanted to puncture their alleged pomposity.

His actions and those of Aron Kay - an American countercultural figure known as the Pieman who targeted Andy Warhol - inspired such groups as the Biotic Baking Brigade and "Al-Pieda".

According to Baz Kershaw, professor of performance at Warwick University, such stunts tap into a centuries-old mechanism for mocking those in positions of authority.

While the likes of Tony Blair, John Major, John Prescott and Michael Heseltine have had their composure dented by thrown fruit and eggs, Prof Kershaw says the use of the custard pie is different.

"It's all about the clown as outsider - like the fool in Shakespearean drama or the mediaeval court who has the licence to insult the king or queen," he says.

"You've got to get close to the victim - it's not like throwing an egg from a distance. This makes the protester stronger."

Though there is evidence of physical comedy in ancient Greece, he says, it was the Italian Commedia dell'arte, which peaked in the 16th and 17th Centuries, which popularised slapstick as a form of comedy - crucially, often involving displaced foodstuffs as the focus of humour.

Although he says the origins of the custard pie as a mechanism for humiliation is unclear, he suggests that this motif would most likely have derived from the circus before becoming a familiar feature of pantomime.

The first on-screen custard pie attack is believed to have taken place in the 1909 silent film Mr Flip, inspiring the likes of the slapstick director Mack Sennett.

Such depictions in popular culture may have entrenched the custard pie in the face as a symbol of comic humiliation. But for those on the receiving end, such attacks are not such an amusing display of the carnivalesque.

In 2001, then-International Development Secretary Clare Short was pied by an environmental activist while visiting a university in north Wales.

"It wasn't just 'splat'," Short says. "She really ground it into my hair and face.

"It was quite shocking. But most of all, I don't really know what it's all about. I don't think she ever explained why she did it."

The pie-wielder, however, is usually content to let the pie do the talking for them.