Margaret Beckett walks into a bar...
Morning Lemmings and welcome once again to the weekly trawl through the bowels of televised public opinion. I make it sound so glamorous. Anyhoo, it was a funny old show this week, one of those one with a panel that looks great on paper but doesn’t quite cut it when confronted with the horror of reality. Enough of this. Let us proceed into the aforementioned bowels.
In The Red Corner: Margaret Beckett, MP for Derby South and equine looking lady.
Margaret Beckett is the archetypal survivor. Over the last 26 years she’s been in and out of parliament, on the front benches, on the back benches and even became caretaker leader of the Labour Party after John Smith’s death. That’s not bad going for someone who looks strikingly like a Windsor in the (supposed) party of the working classes. However, this rather eventful career has not been without its downsides, the most apparent of which is that she looks absolutely knackered. I don’t mean that in a mean spirited, catty sort of way (I’ve already got that base covered by taking the piss out of her exceptionally long face), it’s just that she strikes me as someone who’s had decades worth of rocks thrown at her and is now so battered that the pain no longer registers. Somewhere along the line, the internal justification for putting herself through all this seems to have been lost and whatever motivated her to carry on going has been buried under an accumulation of scars and bruises that will not heal. She started out ok with the Unite/strike question (which I’m chalking up a non-issue that the Tories are desperately trying to inflate in order to cover the can of worms that is Ashcroft), getting into a few scraps with ever-beligerent Starkey but generally muddling through. The second question was a different kettle fish though (did Big Gordy get his sums wrong or was he lying about spending?) and looked ominous for her as (for the second week in a row) a parent of a soldier got in on the action before it was her turn to answer. Considering that parents of serving soldiers are the Question Time equivalent of atomic weaponry, there wasn’t a great deal she could do except waffle about stuff that no-one was particularly interested in while the audience embarked on a rising chunter. This in turns led to accusations from the crowd that she thought they were “stupid” and a sudden outburst of arm flapping rage from Starkey (who was promptly told off by Dimbers). Faced with a complete no-win situation, she did her best at damage limitation by deploying a lot of “concerned”, “I understand” and “it’s complicated”, but it was all too late. Dems the breaks, kid. Question 3 (was the Children’s Commissioner right to talking about raising the age of criminal responsibility?) wasn’t quite as cataclysmic, but it was hardly a victory either as she tried to support the principle but damn the opinion. This largely resulted in waffle and tumbleweeds ensued. Things picked up slightly for her in Question 4 (is the reduction in unemployment vindication for the government’s policies?) as she spotted the trap (if you say it is a vindication then you open yourself up for attack from all sorts of angles), exercised restraint by simply calling it “good news” and then got in a quick swipe at the Tories. The audience seemed content with this and she was given a fair few claps for her efforts. However, it started to look shaky later on as an unemployed audience member pulled her up and she had a brief scuffle with Lansley while the final question (is the Lib Dems new porn director candidate a good thing?) only allowed her to fire off a brief sentence about the “private grief” she felt over the matter. So that was her. It was a bruising encounter, not a disaster but still a million miles away from a triumph. What was most upsetting was how resigned she seemed to the hammering she took. I always have a certain level of admiration for people on QT who take their licks, but there didn’t seem to be any dignity in it and she appeared to be simply going through some over-familiar and rather unpleasant motions. Margaret my dear, I think it could be time for a very long caravan holiday.
A tired and despondent 3/10
In The Blue Corner: Andrew Lansley MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Health and regular controversy magnet.
Andrew Lansley has a strange capacity for never effectively lodging in my memory, despite the fact that he’s been in parliament since 1997, on the front benches since 2004 and regular gets caught out for saying some pretty stupid things. With this in mind, I made a conscious decision to pay attention to him this time round, hoping that something about would finally stick in my febrile brain. As it happens, something has stuck and that is just how damn angular and jagged he is. I don’t mean that in any particular physical sense (although he is somewhat pointy in his features) but it certainly shows in the way he carries himself. On this episode, you could always see him in the background, looking predatory and waiting for someone to a mistake so that he could pounce on them and give them bally-what-for. His face seems to have two modes: That scrunched up, listening hard for any sign of weakness look or his suddenly alert ‘I’ve just heard the calls of a wounded antelope and the intoxicating whiff of the blood of the feeble’ pre-assault look. I’m sure that amongst his peers, this peace-through-superior-firepower posturing is a positive attribute and marks him out as the sort of man you wouldn’t want to tangle with, but it doesn’t go down so well with the public, especially if you happen to be Shadow Secretary of State for Health (while the parties may want their health ministers to be fairly tasty in a fight, the public tend to like them a little softer around the edges. A good example is the difference that those working in the NHS felt after Hewitt was replaced by Johnson. I was one of those people and although policy didn’t change dramatically, we didn’t feel so picked on. That counts for a lot). On this episode, he kicked off by aggressively milking what little he could from the less than fertile Unite issue. That line didn’t seem to produce any real gains for him and by the end of it he was on the backfoot, getting ribbed by Dimbers for not knowing who Pinocchio was. Question 2 (The ‘Stan) should have provided much easier pickings, but he didn’t manage to press home the advantage and got mired down in the regular ‘kit for the boys’ Tory line that seems to be rapidly losing its potency while the Children’s Commissioners number bought forth a somewhat predictable outpouring of ‘kids should know right from wrong’ and a delicate confrontation with a very reasonable sounding women in the audience. He did get a few loud but solitary claps when he accused Labour of having it in for small businesses on the economy question and I must say that he sounded surprisingly reasonably on the final, blurted LibDem/porno matter (“It takes all sorts to make a world so it must take all sorts to make a parliament”. I quite liked that), but mass appreciation was certainly not on the cards. So all-in-all it wasn’t a great performance. I do accept that it was a tough brief as Starkey had all the ground on the right and the freedom to really exploit it, but I think his technique also has something to do with it. Looking like you’re constantly about to pounce on whoever’s talking at the time and then start feasting on their still-warm-body may be a beneficial attribute in the gladiatorial rough-and-tumble of Westminster, but when employed in front of the public it makes you look like a bit of a dick who’s spoiling for a fight.
An overly keen (and not in the enthusiastic sense) 4/10
In The Yellow Corner: Charles Kennedy, MP for Skye, Ross and Lochaber, former Lib Dem leader and self confessed lush.
Yay! Chatshow Charlie’s back! I’ve always had a massive soft spot for Charles Kennedy (which only grew when he came out as a committed booze hound) and he will always represent one of the big ‘what ifs?’ of modern British politics. Like many other regulars on the show, Kennedy has built a modus operandi that has served him very well in the past. It goes like this: Upon receiving a question, either a) dissipate any heat with some light humour (which he excels at) or b) soften up the audience with some folksy charm, usually involving namedropping some regular people or with an earthy anecdote that relates to how he’s ‘just like you’. After that, it’s a simple matter of gently ramping the pressure on the opposition with softly spoken but reasonable sounding criticism before finally delivering the knockout punch with understated passion and a hint of only-just-submerged anger. As a game plan goes, it’s right up there with Ken Clarke’s ‘damning with faint praise’ manoeuvre or Shirley William’s ‘righteous but harnessed indignation’ ploy. However, the plan has a couple of weaknesses. In the first instance, it needs a willing audience to conspire with and bounce off. Secondly, he needs to be deeply invested in the point he’s trying to make, otherwise the killer blow (the ‘understated passion’ component) comes out all limp and cockeyed. The plan swung into action straight from the get-go as he reigned in the tempo, told of how he’s chummy with many BA cabin crews (and managed to get a joke in about his carbon footprint), highlighted their plight and then socked it to the Tories and Labour for electioneering on the issue. Unfortunately, the crowd didn’t go for it and the initiative passed to Caroline Lucas. He had a little more success on the ‘did Brown tell porkies about the defence budget?’ question as he quite cleverly managed to turn it in to matter of the Lib Dems bringing up the issue in the first place, which was pretty well received, but again, he didn’t quite manage to sink his teeth in. In a similar vein, he managed to convert the Children’s Commissioner debate into a love letter to the Scottish legal system but it didn’t really work, probably because he wasn’t in Scotland. He did get to have some fun on the economics question when Starkey accused David Blanchflower of being “eccentric” and thus set himself for a hearty dose of pot/kettle pisstaking from Kennedy. The audience may not have been massively impressed with it, but I quite liked it and I think Dimbleby (who looks like he’s thoroughly sick of constantly having to babysit Starkey) did as well. Even on the porn question, he wasn’t at his best and although though it was a potential joke factory he only managed to cultivate a few polite titters. As I said before, Kennedy is at his best when he builds some audience momentum and he’s talking about something he genuinely feels strongly about. On this episode the crowd simple weren’t in the mood to go along with his usual game and he seems to have lost the fire in his belly (no vodka related pun intended) he showed back in 2005. He still came out looking like a perfectly reasonable and nice bloke but it was a real shame that the old magic I usual associate with him just wasn’t there. So come on Charlie, buck up your ideas matey, because the Lib Dems desperately need someone with more charisma than a cup of service station tea and there’s only so many seats you win on the back of Vince Cable being generally right.
A sadly underplayed 5/10
In The Independent/Brainy Corner: Caroline Lucas, Leader of the Green Party and most definitely called ‘Caroline’, not ‘Carol’.
Lock up your baby seal furs and CO2 collection because here come the Greens! Actually, that’s a little unfair of me because one thing that Caroline Lucas is good at is not coming across as a dirty cotton picking hippy or a Croc wearing guilt monger. In fact, she regularly does very well on Question Time and is a central plank in the pompously named Loudrib’s 1st Law of Question Time Dynamics (there is yet to be a 2nd law. Give me time though). Unfortunately for the Greens, the above named law refers to the inverse relationship between applause and votes and while she’s been very popular with past audiences, this rarely translates into support that you can take to the bank. Nevertheless, she’s a very competent panellist who performs a deft balancing act between offering idealistic visions of how things could be without spilling over into pie-in-the-sky fantasies about a world where cars are made of hemp and run on petiole oil. She’s also not afraid to stand up for herself, as was wonderfully illustrated by her numerous “it’s Caroline, not Carol” spats with Starkey. Right from the off, she got straight to the heart of the Unite issue by calling bullshit on the Tories for their Ashcroft monkeyshine and making it clear that no only did she support the right to strike, she also had (shock horror) “socialist” principals. One bucket load of claps please. The Afghan question garnered some reasonable applause as well as she declared the whole messy business as “not right” and had various entertaining tête-a-tetes with that night’s Queen of the Ball, David Starkey. The age of responsibility issue was slightly more fraught and although she did make some good points, the audience weren’t as vocal in their support for what they thought might be a controversial opinion (even though it wasn’t that controversial) and similarly her call to scrap Trident and ID cards didn’t get as much love as I was expecting. The final micro question looked in danger of becoming a mini-lecture on the evils of porn, but she luckily ran out of time before really alienating anyone and thus managed to round off the show without any major mishaps. Given that the crowd were quite a mardy bunch that night, that’s pretty good going.
A solid and well deserved 7/10
In The I’m The Funny One/Just Like You Corner: David Starkey: Insistent historian and panto villain.
The David Starkey Story: When Flounce and Crazy Right Wing Opinions Collide
As regular readers may or may not have figured out by now, it is not uncommon for me to end up avidly endorsing panellists who I completely disagree with and David Starkey is pretty much the embodiment of this tendency of mine. On the one hand, he’s like a cross between a petulant child genius who’s bored with teacher and a full blown drama queen who does a cracking trade in over-reaction and intemperate finger pointing mixed with high camp. Taken in isolation, these tendencies are pretty wearisome, but when put in the context of an episode that was in danger of becoming a rather dull stalemate they provide some much needed action that kept me from drifting off in a drunken haze. Clearly, David Starkey is a pretty right wing sort of guy which should have been pretty good news for Andrew Lansley. Unfortunately for the Pointy One though, Starkey is far from sold on the Cameron brand of conservatism so no one was getting a free ride on tonight’s show. As has now become standard with blabbermouth panellists, I won’t go into the near endless details of everything he prattled on about as I want to get this out before next weeks show, but here are some snippets.
Britain is doomed to “national bankruptcy”, “desolation” and blighted by “rampant trade unionism”. Really?
‘Carol’ Lucas is “a Socialist with green paint”, something she happily admitted to.
Gordon Brown “Preened and pranced” around Afghanistan, for which he should be forced to “kneel down and apologise”. I like that mental image.
25% (?!?) of British youth are “wild, feral children” so lets sack the Children’s Commissioner.
Ill-advisedly called David Blachflower eccentric whilst spending most of the episode contorted in various eccentric and angry poses.;
Said that Dimbers “envy’s porn workers”
Amongst all this, he found the time to butt in on nearly everything and get red around the face with everyone. The stuff coming out of his mouth was largely bollocks but he’s a good showman so the crowd lapped it up and according to my notes, he was easily the biggest recipient of applause. Given that he agrees with absolutely no-one other than himself, I began to wonder what kind of world David Starkey would be happy with. From what I can gather from his previous appearances, it would be a Georgian era utopia where the worthy would traverse the skies in huge, Union Jack emblazoned blimps, throwing pennies from aloft to the huddled masses of wretched poor. Our collective will would be enforced by the laser rifle totting ranks of The Very Royal And Splendid British Army, all clad in dapper red jackets while those of ill repute and lefties would be deported to Her Majesties Moon Colonies to dig up Moon Cheese in the Mines of Correction and better themselves through the merits of hard labour. Or at least that is what I like to believe. So yeah, what he had to say was of little nutritional value but was bloody tasty.
An oh-so-wrong but somehow right 7/10
The Crowd: Wythenshaw
As I’ve said throughout this instalment, this was quite an odd crowd. None of them had any time for the politicians and were more than happy to take anyone to task about more or less anything they uttered. In terms of viewing, that’s not great as it means that no one gets any real momentum behind them and the whole thing becomes a series of inconclusive altercations without any defining narrative. However, I think that this audience were very reflective of what’s going on right now in that no single party is really in the clear. Labour have just about stopped bleeding all over the place, the Lib Dems are still stuck around the 20% mark and although the Tories seem to have the advantage, they haven’t quite got the oomph to finish the job. In many ways, we’re now entering the Western Front period of the election where the opposing sides simply can’t break the deadlock and end up fighting over wanky little things at huge cost to themselves and their opponents. From that point of view, they did their job so although it wasn’t great telly, it was good politics. I’ve half a mind to knock off some points on account of the guy who had his beard in a mini-ponytail (something I really can’t abide) or the bloke with a strange shaped head, Elvis T-shirt and braces, but now that I’m nearly finished writing this and can go and have a beer I feel overcome with a sense of mercy and forgiveness. For that, Wythenshaw, I leave you these points….
A slightly dull but quite instructive 6/10
So there we go. More again next week…providing I haven’t been disembowelled by a roving pack of savage, feral children. They account for 1 in 4 of the blighter’s, dontchaknow?