February 20, 2010 12:47 am

Prime minister’s question time

A growing school of thought has it that making comedy, satire and celebrity from politics and politicians is the way to engage us with the public sphere

Time was, and a good time too, when a prime minister asked by an interviewer how much sex he had at university; what he thought about being called a “plonker” and a “one-eyed Scottish idiot”; and how he felt when his first child died would have said: “Mind your own damn business.”

Now, in 21st-century Britain, we have reached a time when that answer is impossible. For Piers Morgan, faced with Gordon Brown ( Piers Morgan’s Life Stories, ITV1) last weekend, these enquiries were his business.

And it was Brown’s business, for his time on air with Morgan, to assist him in making it his business.

No matter that Morgan has done much damage to journalism – that he was found to have bought large amounts of the stock of a company just before the city pages of the paper he edited, the Daily Mirror, tipped it; no matter that he was forced to resign when he printed hoax photographs of British soldiers urinating on Iraqi prisoners. No matter that Brown, in his leadership address, said: “I have never believed presentation should be a substitute for policy. I do not believe politics is about celebrity.”

No matter! The logic of contemporary leadership – governing at a time when media and politics have become increasingly fused – makes that irrelevant. There were Brown and Morgan, doing the business: Brown giving Morgan a week’s worth of publicity, Morgan giving Brown a human face. A face that smiled and chortled over “plonker” and university sex and seemed about to crumple when he talked of holding his first, newborn, child in his arms a little before she died – while the camera cut to his wife, Sarah, seeming to wipe away a tear.

Previewing the show, the Radio Times noted that “this could be fun” since “Morgan [is] a man best known for asking Katie Price about her boobs”. A growing school of thought has it that making comedy, satire and celebrity from politics and politicians is the way to engage us with the public sphere. Yet at what damage to the Browns’ psyches, this calculated display of grief (for the calculation must have shaped and trained its sincerity)? And to ours, watching it? How could we not think, now, of the planning there had to have been – the rehearsing, the reckoning of the upsides and downsides of putting the man on, and having him emote?

Thus it is a relief to see celebrity shows in which we are not being asked to weep for Labour or quiver for the Conservatives. Friday Night with Jonathan Ross (BBC1 Fridays) will end when he leaves: jaunty press releases talking of moving on, and an opaque interview with Alan Yentob, the BBC’s creative director, spread a veil over what were, one hopes, sulphurous exchanges round Ross’s suspension last year, presumably the cause of his break. A small shame, that: Ross does the job well, bearing occasional comparison with the US master, David Letterman. In last week’s show Ross galumphed with Westlife, the pop group, his jesting smoothing over their self-regarding gaucheries; he left the Liverpool comedian John Bishop space to be (very) funny; and he fed worshipful lines to Jeff Bridges, a Hollywood prince plugging yet another movie, serenely insouciant about having nothing to say.

A relative newcomer, though, is in some respects better. Alan Carr, who presents himself as Chatty Man (C4 Thursdays), is a camp butterfly with a permanent grin. His revealed biography shows him born to an ex-footballer and team coach who was “disappointed” in his gay son. But he wishes to be no icon: “gay and get on with it” is one motto; “celebrity obsessed, aren’t we all?” is the other.

He is seductively good: there is no irony but much wit in his show, as he enthuses over Katie Price, Vinnie Jones, Nicholas Hoult (the rising star in A Single Man) and EastEnders’ Patsy Palmer and Sid Owen – sliding over to a piano to do the “Anyone Can Fall in Love” song based on the EastEnders’ theme with the duo. He’s best when the show gets into the agreeably surreal – as when the actress Darryl Hannah, all coy giggles and sly wit, said that she once had four alpacas on her farm but one had been killed by a mountain lion, while a chicken had almost been slain by a coyote.

“Blimey,” said Alan, “this is the Farm of Death!” Darryl giggled: no tears for alpacas.

A new series, Great Offices of State (BBC4 Thursdays), reminds us of the world of politics which is central to our world, and which neither comedy nor celebrity will help us understand: only paying close attention to it will do that. The complexities it allowed us to glimpse show that governance at the top is a matter of ceaseless strain, with baited traps round the corner of every departmental corridor. Michael Cockerell, whose life’s work has been to chronicle British political power, shone some light into what the late Roy Jenkins called – after some personal experience – “the dark department”: the Home Office. It showed that both Thatcher-era Conservative home secretaries and their Blair-era successors struggled to convince resigned-to-decline civil servants that crime could be brought down, in face of departmental certainty it could not. The politicians, as we now know, were proven right – not that tabloid journalism would credit them with that. Not, that is, unless they had successfully turned themselves into celebrities, as they are studying to do.

john.lloyd@ft.com
More columns at www.ft.com/lloyd

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