Just what are those teeth for?

Ian Hamilton on television’s punishing march to the polls

‘I do not come to Lilliputia with a measuring stick.’ This was Gore Vidal, a week or two ago, when asked to say which of our two main parties was the more right-wing. The British election, in Gore’s lofty view, is ‘parish-pump politics’, a juvenile charade compared to America’s great billion-dollar circuses. Even our sleaze strikes him as laughably small-scale: ‘just kindergarten stuff’. In Vidal’s native land there is no need of cash-for-questions. The deal there is cash-for-answers. And the answers are delivered in the form of ‘special legislation’. In America sleaze makes a difference.

At first, the spectacle of Vidal pulling his New World patrician stunt was pretty irritating. How dare this Yank, however posh, sneer at our little votes, our feeble bribes-machine? Since when has the sheer magnitude of a government’s corruption been a cause for patriotic pride? At the same time, though, his presence is unsettling. Too often, he seems to have a point. There have been more than a few moments when the election, alas, has seemed tailored to his scorn. Thus, when the headless chicken stuff was going on, or when the Tories wrapped the Albert Hall in a blue ribbon, it was hard not to hope that our disdainful visitor was spending the day somewhere else. But where? On every side, there seems to be some Toytown farce in progress. What, for instance, would Gore make of Christine Hamilton? What would he make of Martin Bell? Too British to be true, the pair of them, in very different ways. It was a relief to learn that several of Vidal’s hours here have been spent discussing Montaigne (so he said) with Michael Foot.

Sadly, when Vidal showed up on one of Newsnight’s election panels, Jeremy Paxman failed to cut him down to size. In fact, he didn’t even try. Vidal was allowed to preen himself at leisure. Next to him, the two British panellists – Lord Archer and Fay Weldon – seemed dwarfishly over-anxious to make points: Archer, of course, trumpeting the Tory Party line, and Weldon semi-weeping for Old Labour. ‘Where does an old radical like you go?’ Paxman asked her, somewhat rudely. He would not dare to put the same question to Vidal.

There is, after all, a touch of the Vidals in Paxman’s own approach to British politicians. Disdain is famously his TV stock-in-trade. Unlike Vidal’s, though, Paxman’s sneers come with a furrowed brow. He and his co-anchormen enjoy the needling, come-off-it stuff but they are keen also to be thought of as concerned champions of the electorate – as closer, somehow, to the common people than vote-hungry politicians are, or want to be. Their TV duty, they would have us think, is to cut through all the electioneering double-talk and – on our behalf – focus on the ‘real issues’: health, Europe, education. No easy task, this focusing, they say, since politicians at election-time are more than usually evasive. They are also more than usually absurd. Look at those silly clips of Paddy Ashdown playing hopscotch or John Major on his knees in a day-nursery or Tony Blair in his Newcastle soccer-strip. Who do these people think they’re fooling? Why don’t they treat us as grown-ups? What’s happened to the issues?

To this, the politicians might retort: where did those clips come from in the first place? As they see things, it’s TV that is to blame for the low level of election-discourse. Paxman and his colleagues never let them have their say – their ‘issues’ say, that is to say, with all the necessary parentheses and footnotes. TV’s whole cast of mind is childishly reductive: inquisitorial, gaffe-avid, scared of boredom, its and ours. If there is any silliness around, Paxman and Co will surely seize on it, and build it up. Good politics, the politicians claim, does not make good TV. But good TV, they also claim, is usually bad politics.

After a week’s TV election-watch, I’m rather surprised to find myself siding with the politicians. Yes, they are guarded, clichéprone, mendacious – but such habits are not discouraged by the compulsively hostile scenarios they are faced with on TV. Consider what tends to happen when politicians agree (as they’re obliged to) to be interviewed, or to take part in a TV panel ‘discussion’. Before any of them get to say a word, they are usually made to sit through one of those five-minute vox pop films: on ‘Poverty in the North-East’ or ‘Education Now’ or ‘Scottish Devolution’. These films are presented as The People’s View: perhaps not comprehensive, perhaps a little too italicised in places, but humanly compelling. ‘I’d like to know if that Peter Lilley could survive on £67 a week?’ enquires some grizzled pensioner. Cut to Lilley in the studio: he’s looking, natch, complacently amused. And when the film is done, Paxman or whoever will at once turn to his guest, or guests, and growl: ‘Well, there it is Minister (or Shadow Minister or Lib-Dem spokesperson for X, Y or Z). What are you/ will you/ might you be doing about that?’ And then we get the ‘Jeremy, if I may say so, with the greatest possible respect, that film of yours does not begin to ...’ And so on. To which Jeremy is likely to reply: ‘Answer the question!’ But if the answer turns out to be too lengthy, or too heavily freighted with sub-clauses, the Paxman axe will surely fall: ‘Look, I don’t want a shopping list’, ‘Spare us the speeches, please’, ‘Answer me this: yes or no’ – and then, triumphantly, ‘We’re running out of time.’

All in all, I get the feeling that TV overrates its audience’s blood-lust, or squirmlust. Take David Dimbleby’s grilling of Tony Blair on Panorama. Most of the interview was spent raking over Blair’s Old Labour past. At first this line seemed fair enough. Blair, after all, had on that very day been assuring his new City chums that almost nothing the state owns is – what’s the word? – unprivatisable. But Dimbleby went on and on. ‘Ten years ago, you – Tony Blair – said so-and-so, and now you’re saying – and I quote – the very opposite.’ Blair blustered about the need for change – ‘I’m not going to roll the clock – turn the clock back – roll back the tide’ – but Dimbleby would not let go. David the People’s Mouthpiece had turned into Dave the Dungeon Dentist. Blair soon began to sweat, and we began to ask ourselves: how much can the guy take? And this, as with a heavily one-sided boxing-match, became the chief thrust of our viewing interest. And David Dimbleby seemed to be feeling the same way, with his newly close-cropped hair and his magistrate’s half-moons. ‘So people were right not to vote for Michael Foot. Is that what you are saying?’ ‘David, please!’ Blair whimpered at this point. He was pleading not for mercy but for Dimbleby to quit the sadist histrionics, to turn back into that cuddly, sane chap who handles state occasions with such deference. And by this stage, I would guess, most of the audience was on Blair’s side. Enough’s enough. We don’t want our next PM to be a nervous wreck.

Fat chance, you may think, but when Gore Vidal witnessed the launch of the New Labour manifesto, he did detect a certain ‘nervousness’ in Tony Blair’s demeanour. ‘He’s like a kid who’s having a wonderful dream but at the same time fears that the dream might turn into a nightmare.’ In his set-to with Dimbleby, Blair once or twice seemed perilously close to cracking-which, in the politician’s style-book, means ‘betraying a few seconds’ irritation’. Poor Blair: he’s not allowed to smile; he’s not allowed to snarl. Just what – as Dimbleby the Dentist might have asked but thankfully did not – just what are those teeth for?

Politicians, it is generally agreed, must never lose their tempers. In spite of what you and I might think of as gigantic provocation – ‘Answer me this: yes or no!’ – a pol must always keep his cool. A single lapse and he is finished, as he – and Dimbleby – well know. How do skins get to be so thick? Is it congenital or do they learn it from each other? Either way, insensitivity in politics is thought of as a mark of elementary professional prowess. Paxman and Dimbleby might yearn, on our behalf, to find out what Gordon Brown conceals beneath his mask of stony moderation, or how Ash-down would shape up in a pub-brawl, but I’m not certain that the public greatly craves disclosures of this kind. Someone like Max Clifford will tell us that MPs make up for their professional sang-froid by going in for seamily hotblooded private lives. I wonder if that’s really how it works. Or is it just that MPs with hot blood ought not to be MPs? David Mellor, for example, always seemed a bit too, shall we say, impulsive for high office. Watching him nowadays, yelling at people on TV, it’s tempting to conclude that he has found his proper niche.

The most ‘human’ politicians I have seen so far have tended to be Liberal Democrats: Charles Kennedy, Conrad Russell, Menzies Campbell. But then, it will be said, politicians such as these can well afford to be themselves. From the two interested parties, Kenneth Clarke is, of course, known to be attractively ‘robust’, not to say quarrelsome, but he is always in control. Supremely so, I’d say.

Clarke has the knack of seeming both competent and flammable. So too, in his donnish way, does Robin Cook. Indeed, Cook – of all the pols I’ve been scrutinising – has been the most intriguing. He keeps his temper not just in order to be liked, nor simply to be seen as a safe pair of hands. Knowing that, in TV terms, he’ll never come across as specially likeable or charismatic, Cook settles for an image of preoccupied aloofness. For him, self-mastery has higher ends: only a calm head can cope with the grave, complex issues he has been entrusted with. ‘Don’t break my concentration,’ seems to be his plea. ‘Our country needs it’. And usually this works.

It does help, of course, that Cook is Shadow Foreign Secretary, or Shadow Minister for Europe, an area which TV has long ago despaired of as a likely source of thrills and spills. No ‘issue’ is more weighty, and yet no issue is more boring. Thus, when prodded by a Paxman, Cook can always reach for his well-thumbed copy of the Maastricht Treaty, or dawdle over a few paras from the Social Chapter, knowing that Paxman – and the rest of us – will soon be nodding off.

On the subject of early nights, I ought to mention Vincent Hanna’s Midnight Special, an after-hours ‘political supper-party’ put out by Channel Four. The show bills itself as committed to ‘accentuating the embarrassing, extolling the provocative, and venerating the destructive – that special kind of pleasure that comes from inflicting pain on politicians’. In fact, it’s a relaxed and genial affair. The supper-menu, for instance, includes lollipops shaped in the likenesses of the three main party leaders: guests are asked to ‘take your pick. A Major, an Ashdown or a Blair. Lick it or bite it, according to your taste.’

Vincent Hanna neither licks nor bites. Indeed, his massively world-weary style is something of a model for TV interrogators. ‘Speak on if you have to’ is his general line with eager pols. At the same time, though, he is smart enough to know when they are exploiting his goodwill. He listens well, prompts when a prompt is needed, and his interruptions are almost as well-mannered as they might be in real life. On the whole, he seems to quite like politicians: at any rate, he knows their game and doesn’t hate them for it. How he does brighten, though, when it is time for him to introduce his ‘special guests’. On the programme’s cleverly-constructed sleaze-night, he was glad to welcome Sarah Keays, Max Clifford and Cynthia Payne, the Streatham sex-hotelier who continues to believe that what the world needs now is love, love, love. To which Newsnight would surely answer: ‘That’s all very well. Who’s going to pay for it?’