Archive for September, 2011

Questionable Time #4


questionable time 4 david dimblebyGood morning Lemmings and welcome to another instalment of Questionable Time, this week brought to us by the seemingly sunstroked denizens of Liverpool. Now, I realise that our national character leads us to become a little giddy when faced with the prospect of unseasonably clement weather but I wasn’t quite prepared for just how unhinged we can be in the face of elevated temperatures until I watched last night’s show, seething pit of madness that it was. I also can’t help but feel a little sorry for the Labour party who (much like the Lib Dems last week) found their conference thunder stolen by a villain no less mundane than the possibility of driving 10mph faster on the motorway. Seriously Britain, have we not bigger fish to fry? Anyway, I’m sure we’ll come to that a little later on so in the meantime, let’s get this show on the road (at the current speed limit of 70mph).

Right, first victim tonight is Grant Shapps, Housing Secretary and a man whose constant, low-key gesticulation makes him look like he’s forever playing with an invisible Rubik’s Cube (see Fig. 1). Although relatively new to Question Time, Shapps seems to be getting the hang of it rather quickly and actually looks quite comfortable nestled between his mortal enemies/esteemed coalition partners on the panel and this, it would be logical to conclude, can only be a good thing, right? Well, yes and no. On the one hand it means that he doesn’t feel the need like some of the newer intake to stick his oar in to absolutely any two-bit point going (as is the case for many a Question Time rooky) but there’s something else I noticed about him this week that takes the sheen off this otherwise virtuous trait: He’s already getting a taste for applause.

grant-shapps-rubiks-cube

Fig. 1

Now, the very fact that a fresh-faced Tory minister can garner a few claps in Liverpool is an achievement in itself and one that was usually the result of skirmishing with Caroline Flint (who is quite a tough cooky when it comes to Question Timing), but it’s what he does with those claps that bothers me as his primary response to applause seems to be to look a little, well, pleased with himself in a ‘Look Mum, didn’t I do well’ sort of way. I realise that sounds churlish as after all, he earned those claps but he is sailing very close to the Line of Smugness right now and unless he starts to crowbar some humility in there (however faux it may be), he will run the risk of becoming annoying. So how should he respond? Well, there’s a few schools of thought here, ranging from the Warsi-esque Continue To Shout Relentlessly Over The Applause approach to the Look Wild Eyed And Visibly Pissed Off manouevre favoured by the likes of Mehdi Hassan. Personally speaking though, I’m a fan of the Shirley Williams technique: Look Unmoved Yet Regal and Imposing. Granted, this is a tricky one when you look so young that you’d get asked for ID when buying paracetamol but the blueprint is fundamentally sound. It’s worth a punt Grant as while you may well have the right to look tickled pink, too much self-satisfaction can only lead to people wanting you to look punched black and blue. Not a bad performance though.

Right, Red Team next and here comes Caroline Flint, Shadow Communities Minister and someone I feel slightly sorry for on account of the number of search queries I get for the term ‘Caroline Flint naked’. Let me assure you, she’s pretty unique in this respect and I’m not exactly drowning in a sea of ‘Ken Clarke naked’ searches. Ickiness aside, Flint was quite interesting last night as for the first half of the show she looked genuinely at ease and I’m chalking this up to the fact that following Miliband’s conference speech she no longer feels the need to unconditionally defend every aspect of New Labour’s time in office. For example, had this been a year ago she would have been all a-bristle and jumping down the throats of anyone who dared question the merit of the Blair/Brown government’s yet last night she seemed much more mellow and even hinted at that New Labour might have got some stuff wrong (shock horror). This isn’t to say that she wasn’t without edge and she did use pretty much every opportunity to have a go at the Tories, but it wasn’t quite as visceral as it has been in the past.

So, it was all well and good, right? Flint no longer feels haunted by the ghosts of Labour’s past and can stride confidently into the sunlit uplands of Militopia without even breaking a sweat? Erh, no. Going on last night’s performance she’s having real trouble getting her head around exactly what New Old Purple Blue Labour is and it was actually left to Peter Oborne of all people to do the heavy lifting on Miliband’s behalf. And that’s the problem with Flint: She’s very good tactically, tough as nails and capable of sustaining damage that would destroy other panelists. However, when it comes to the strategic picture she’s all at sea and often seems incapable of fully articulating what it actually is that she stands for. Still, she could always go on naked. From what I hear, there’s a market out there for that sort of thing.

Moving on to the Yellow Team we have Tim Farron, President of the Liberal Democrats and a man who last night popped his QT cherry. Now there’s something I instinctively like about Farron in that he’s clearly a born trouble maker who’s making absolutely no effort to disguise the fact he really can’t abide being in coalition. That makes a nice change from the usual earnest hand wringing we’ve seen of late and the fact that he has no problem in nailing some fairly crimson colours to the mast is also refreshing. However, like Shapps, he also suffers from an undercurrent of latent smugness and despite the fact that it should be fairly easy for someone bigging up the virtues of social housing to turn a quick applause buck in Liverpool, the going for him was tougher than it should have been last night. Most of this was down to his unrepentantly pro-European stance but he also threatened to drag the show into the realm of farce at one point when he tried to make a convoluted and not entirely brilliant point about “sheep tagging”. I’ll leave it to your imaginations to figure out how that was interpreted by the audience but needless to say, it didn’t go quite the way he intended. So bad luck there Tim. Next time try bringing up a reference to ‘snow jobs’ or the importance of ‘rowlock safety’. That’s bound to work.

Ok, that’s the politicos done but it is with heavy heart that I introduce the first of tonight’s civilians: Janet Street-Porter, a woman whose sole aim in life is to scream the reason out of any debate. Last night we had the dubious pleasure of her railing variously against Europe, Labour and (of course) men, but it was the crowd’s reaction that vexed me as they heaped applause on her despite the fact that nothing she said made a lick of sense. You see, I’ve been exposed to such repeated and heavy doses of JSP in the past that I can deal with the fact that her vocal chords are only capable of making white noise and that her proposed solution to most problems is to line the male population against a wall and shoot them but what I can’t get my head round is why anyone else would go along with it. It just puts me into a flat spin of anguish and shakes my faith in humanity to its very core. I really hope I’m not alone in thinking this because if I am, then the game is truly up and the end is nigh. Surely I am not the only one who looks upon her works and despairs?

Ughh… Enough on JSP as I can take no more. Happily though, our final panelist is a doozy and one that I was secretly hoping would be on the roster after his wanton display of unreasonableness on Wednesday’s Newsnight. Ladies and gentlemen, I give to you Peter Oborne, columnist-of-note and all round mentalist. Never one to shy away from controversy, Oborne lost no time in taking the seemingly innocuous speed limit question and turning it into a call to arms for the repeal of pretty much every law and the dissolution of Europe. But he wasn’t done with Europe yet, not by a long shot and he was soon able to piggyback on the anti-EU comments of an audience member, denouncing the project as “brutal”. The crowd went totally bananas with that comment, applauding him to the rafters and showering him with praise. However, none of them were prepared for what happened next and I’m pretty sure that it was the most comprehensive reversal of fortunes I’ve witnessed in nearly two years of covering Question Time. The first indication that his star was on the wane came when he effortlessly segued from damning Europe to calling Thatcher “a great woman”. As he happened to utter these fateful words in Liverpool it came as no surprise that the mood turned from one of jubilation to that of lynch mob but what was surprising was how little he cared about this turn of events. No, instead of backing off he then went on to describe Thatcher as “compassion itself”, a phrase that can get you sectioned if you’re north of the Severn-Wash line. Predictably, this lead to a torrent of heckles and the most comprehensive booing I’ve seen for some years but did he care? Did he cobblers.

So that was pretty exciting, but it was also very much in character as we all know that Oborne is a man who goes in for Euro Damning/Thatcher Venerating. What I wasn’t expecting however was his answer to the Miliband speech question. So far as I was concerned, this was going to be a pretty standard exercise in scorn pouring but in actual fact it turned out to be quite the opposite: He loved Miliband’s speech! Well, that pretty much finished me off and by the time the credits were rolling my whole world had been turned upside down. So well done Peter Oborne, you may be pathologically contrary old hack who couldn’t give two hoots about who you offend but by golly are you entertaining. Big marks for you and your complete disregard for social approval.

Alright, so that was the panel and all that’s left is the audience, odd bunch that they were. My first reaction to this lot was one of unmitigated gloom when it turned out that the first question was neither the existential financial crisis nor the seismic shifts currently taking place in the Labour party and was in fact all about the speed limit. Unsurprisingly, that made for the most tepid of debates and I was on verge of writing them off on the basis of that folly. However, they did pull things around and when it came to the meatier issues they did prove to be a vocal – if mercurial – lot. Like Birmingham’s audience last week, they went in for an awful lot of random clapping (so much so that I couldn’t really figure out which of the politicians actually won the day) but at least they had the saving grace of seeming to actually believe in something, even if that something was that they still very much hated Thatcher. They were also rowdy enough to provide the ideal foil for Oborne’s panto villain and to that end, I’m grateful. However, I would like to address the question raised by one lady as to whether you “can be a Eurosceptic and Pro-European?”. The answer to that is ‘no’. Because it would be stupid.

Schapps: 6/10

Good enough

Flint: 6/10

Tough

Farron: 6/10

Up to snuff

JSP: 3/10

Duff

Oborne: 7/10

Gruff

The Crowd: 6/10

Acceptable stuff

And that’s you’re lot. I’m off to continue torturing myself with the Battlefield 3 Beta: There’s a great game in there somewhere but I just wish the damn thing would stop lagging so I could at least have a chance of finding it. Ah, the joys of beta rage…

Next Week Lemmings, next week…

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Questionable Time #3


questionable time david dimbleby pot smoking hippy

Morning Lemmings and welcome to what really should have been the Question Time special on the Lib Dem conference but actually turned out to be just a plain old, common garden episode and not a great one at that. The fact that it wasn’t really focused on the conference is a shame as for once, it has actually been a semi-interesting autumn jaunt for the Yellow Team and one that could have made for an interesting show. Usually, the annual Lib Dem get-together is an exercise in wanton kookiness where a bunch of hemp clad peaceniks compare the bushiness of their beards, debate the merits of tax breaks for yurts and put forward motions to outlaw bad vibes. This year however they’ve gone all ‘spike’ and it was all the better for it, what with actual ministers making all sorts of thinly veiled threats to their partners in government while the rank-and-file puffed out their chests for a collective hollering of ‘Don’t Tread On Me’. It was almost as if the school chess club was in open rebellion. Anyhoo, that was the backdrop but going on this episode, you would have hardly known and what we actually got was a pretty random clutch of questions backed by what was the most easily led audience I’ve seen in years. But more on that later.

Ok, to kick off last night’s proceedings we have Vince Cable, Business Secretary and Fearless Dissident/Sullen Looking Lickspittle (who, incidentally, occasionally likes to dress like Gandalf… See Fig. 1). Now, I don’t know about you guys but I’m pretty much Vinced out at the moment, what with having spent the last 18 months living in the hope that all of his treasonous chunterings might actually turn into some form of action and yet having to cope with the reality that with every call-to-arms also comes a through-gritted-teeth-climbdown. Thus it was that he started the night on thin ice and if he were to have any hope of keeping a dim flicker of hope alive in me he’d damn well better come out fighting. So did he? In a word, ‘no’. The areas where Vince had an opportunity to win me round were on the IMF and Palestine questions, both of which would have allow him to demonstrate that he hasn’t been entirely consumed by the mirage of coalition. The pre-show portents for the IMF question in particular looked promising as much of his conference performance was dotted with lines to be read between and looks of the knowing variety. Last night’s show presented him with a chance to come good on that implied mischief by at least hinting that he wasn’t entirely in agreement with driving the economy off a cliff but in the end, he didn’t. Instead, Vince did what he’s done for his last few Question Time appearances and sat on the most splintered and jagged part of the fence possible whilst trying to pretend that he was actually incredibly comfortable. It didn’t work and his insistence that we can have our Deficit Reduction Cake whilst gorging on Slices of Growth just didn’t look credible and amounted to nothing more than a feast of crumbs.

 

gandalf vince cable

Fig. 1

Similarly, the Palestine question was one where he could at least have given a nod in the direction of his Lib Dem providence but instead chose to play dumb by insisting that he’d have to see the resolution before venturing an opinion on the matter. Now, I do have a smidgen of sympathy here as he is in the Cabinet and has to walk the line to a certain extent, but a nudge and wink to the effect that he’d like to see the government support the Palestinians really wouldn’t have killed him. So come on Vince, stop pratting about because I’m tired: Tired of having my hopes raised by off-the-record whispers of conspiracy only to have them dashed by on-the-record and repeated use of the phrase “It’s very complicated”. Buck up your ideas Mr Cable as there’s only so far a halo can slip before it becomes a Health and Safety hazard.

Alright, next up we have Harriet Harman, Deputy Leader of the Opposition and bête noire of the Daily Mail. Now, prior to the show, I was prepared to cut Harriet a little slack as while I’m not exactly a fan, I do think she’s had a raw deal at the hands of the mid-market papers and I tried very hard to give her a fair innings. On the face of it, this didn’t prove too difficult as her actual answers were all pretty decent and the crowd seemed to agree with her on most subjects, but there was still something niggling at me. At first, I thought it was down to her faux shock when an audience member took her to task about the deficit figures but I later discovered that it was actually something else: Her posture. Now, Harman’s a pretty tall woman and when this is combined with her commendably straight back, she tends to have several inches on the other panelists and consequently has to look down her nose at them. I caught this in a wide-angle shot when Justine Roberts was saying something and Harman was looking in her direction. While her facial expression was pretty neutral and innocuous, the very fact that her head was slightly tilted back gave her an air of condescension that wasn’t exactly flattering and made her look like a bit of a pious snob. Ok, so I know it sounds petty, but it’s things like this that inadvertently work their way into people’s brains and tarnish what was otherwise a perfectly reasonable appearance. So Harriet, if you want my advice, carry on saying what you’re saying but for god’s sake, slouch.

Slouch woman, slouch! Sorry for shouting. I get that way sometimes. Anyway, moving on and we come to Priti Patel, MP for Witham and Question Time virgin. My first impressions of Patel were that she isn’t exactly the most cuddly politician, what with her forthrightly bandying about debt-per-second figures as if they were going out of fashion, but this feeling was soon superseded by a suspicion that something fishy was going on, a state of affairs prompted by the asking of the death penalty question. Now, I know that Question Time have a policy where only the audience get to submit the topics for debate, but I was struggling to believe that the burning issue this week has been the Troy Davis case as it’s only been marginally covered in the news and the water coolers of the nation haven’t appeared to be rife with clamour over the matter. No, I have a feeling that this question was cherry picked and the reason behind it is that the only thing anyone knows about Priti Patel is that she bloody loves the death penalty. Questionable Question Time ethics aside, I am sort of glad it happened as it’s rare that you get someone going quite so off the hook about their desire to see people killed in the face of overwhelming opposition and to be fair to Patel, she is a tough cooky who gave it a decent shot. However, I can’t get away from the fact that people under 40 who support the death penalty with such dogged vigour frankly scare me and it’s also fair to say that her relative lack of political experience did rear it’s head from time to time. Oh, and the way she draws out random syllables also irks me a little: “What about the raaaapists and paaaaaaedophiles”. Hmmmm.

Right, time for the civilians, this week represented by Ian Hislop and Justine Roberts. In the case of Hislop, I’m inclined to arbitrarily knock a few marks off as I always think it’s just a little unfair to let a man whose job is basically to gather enormous piles of mud to sling at politicians on to the show. That’s not to say I don’t like him or disapprove the fact that politicians need mud slinging at them, it’s just that the dice seem a little loaded. So yes, Hislop did well at holding power to ridicule and it was a good performance, but only in the way that lions tended to put on a good show when they had Christians thrown at them. It’s just what they’re built to do,the outcome is never in any doubt and the overall effect is one of amusement accompanied by a twinge of guilt.

Moving on to Justine Roberts and I find myself pleasantly surprised by an appearance that I had every reason to fear. I say this because Roberts’ day job is to be Commander-in-Chief of what I consider to be possible the most frightening entity the internet has spawned to date: Mumsnet. While some may welcome our new cyber-matriarchs with open arms, I for one find the idea of a digital phalanx of organised sharp elbows to be the stuff of dystopian nightmares and have lived in near constant terror since its inception. Happily though, Roberts went quite a way to quell these fears by putting on a well-rounded performance and while I won’t be setting up a fake Mumsnet account so that I can get in on the action, I will sleep easier in the knowledge that the internet probably won’t be overrun by a tutting horde of Dido fans.

Ok, that’s the panel, now time for the element that I hold to be largely responsible for a sub-par show: The audience. My first and biggest beef with these guys is that no matter what a panelist said, they would clap as if their lives depended on it. Seriously, the only way you could tell if a point was contentious was to try to pick out the boos in the sea of applause and this lent the show all the validity of a Stalin era Party Congress. Second beef: The guy with the wig who whittered something about how “we need to grow more food”. The food thing is by-the-by but what most certainly isn’t is the wearing of a jet black toupee over near-white hair. That, sir, simply isn’t good enough. And finally, just what the Dickens happened to the black guy wearing a full suit and bowler hat? I caught him in the opening shot, slap bang in the middle of the crowd and decked out as if he was on his way to sell a large quantity of bullion. “Hello”, I thought “here comes trouble” but alas no! Trouble never came and we heard not a peep from him. In my opinion Birmingham, this was an inexcusable mistake and one you pay dearly for in the final reckoning… The final reckoning which is just about to happen NOW!

Tl;dr

Cable: 3/10

Pah!

Harman: 6/10

Ha!

Patel: 4/10

Gah!

Hislop: 7/10

Rah!

Roberts: 7/10

Ta-dah!

The Crowd: 3/10

Bah!

So there you go. A roundly rubbish episode of which we shall never speak of again. My only hope is that next week’s crowd come all dressed in bowler hats and suits. I would consider that to be adequate compensation.

Next week Lemmings, next week…

 

Questionable Time #2


questionable time 2 david dimbleby guinessGood morning Lemmings and rejoice for a new record has been set! That’s right, I managed to fully comprehend around 68.2% of last night’s show which is by far and away the most clarity I have ever achieved with an episode from Northern Ireland (I usually manage 20 or so percent). So yes this bodes well, as to be honest I didn’t really have the highest hopes for last night’s show and was fully prepared to give it only a cursory write-up. However, as things panned out, it turned out to be a bit of a good ‘un (if a little weird in places) and I certainly learnt a thing or two about our Northern Irish brethren, but more on that later.

Right then, kicking off with the Blue Team we have Owen Paterson, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and unknown QT quantity, this being his first time on the show. I have a suspicion as to why he’s never been on before and that’s because he’s been in deep hibernation in a cupboard somewhere in Tory HQ since the mid-90’s. As is clearly evident, the primary effect of having spent nearly two decades in such a deep sleep is that his speech has suffered to the point where sentences move at the rate of a treacle glacier and his words have all the brilliance a of stuttering fluorescent tube, but on top of that he also seems uniquely ill-equipped to deal with the rough-and-tumble world of Question Time. This is odd for if his suspiciously fawning Wikipedia entry is to be believed, this guy has been widely held up to be some sort of paragon of media savviness by a right-wing press that’s developed something of a crush on him, but as to why this is the case I have absolutely no idea.

Let’s start off by quickly recounting how thoroughly he ballsed up the pensions question: First off, he went straight into ‘chuck some deficit numbers about’ mode but did it at such a staggeringly slow pace that it seemed as if he was reading out a list of random phone numbers. Then, when confronted by a disgruntled and articulate audience member who was having his public sector pension cut he lurched into possibly the worst rendition of ‘We Are All In This Together’ that I have ever seen. Now for a start, this is potentially the most ludicrous and self-evidently absurd political slogan since ‘The End of Boom and Bust’ and the fact that it was delivered with all the verve of a soggy tissue didn’t help matters much either. But the more fundamental point is this: What, in all that’s holy, could possibly possess a man to deploy such a line when the reforms to MP’s pensions indicate that we clearly are Not All In This Together? He deserved every boo he got.

So that was probably the nadir of Paterson’s performance but he did come close to running a repeat of it when he refused to take a clear line on Catholic priests getting married. Now, I do have a little sympathy here as no one likes getting involved with the internal arguments of someone else’s faith but when you’re Northern Ireland Secretary it does pay to at least form some sort of opinion on the matter. Ok, so I did like his line about Libya not being a “rinky-dinky Scandinavian democracy”, even if I’m not entirely sure what the ‘rinky-dinky’ part means, but by and large he was super weird and not in a good way. I think it’s probably for the best that someone coaxes him back into a hay packed cardboard box, seals the lid and lets him hibernate for another ten years or so.

Red Team next and oh my gosh/what a surprise, we have Diane Abbott, an MP who might soon have to register the Question Time studio as her second home. Given that I’ve pretty much said all there is to say about Abbott in previous outings I shall keep this short and just say that it wasn’t her best performance. The only issue she really got stuck into was the pension question but that soon went sideways as she got cornered on whether she thought Ed Miliband was right to condemn strikes and her attempts to wriggle out of it looked somewhat shifty. She also go a little lost on the Libya question (lost to the point where Dimbers had to confess that he didn’t “have the slightest clue” what she was saying) and like Paterson, she too ducked on the celibacy question. All-in-all a bit sub-prime. Never mind, I’m sure she can make up for it next week. And the week after that. And the week after that.

Moving on and we come to Nigel Dodds, Deputy Leader of the DUP and a man I know precious little about, other than that he has a distinctly weird mouth (very wide and underbitey… see Fig. 1). What I could glean from last night’s show was that his outlook seems fairly Unionist as he hates the EU and likes to use the word ‘scripture’ a lot but he doesn’t seem to be at the hyper-mad end of the DUP and can put a sentence together without showering everyone with hate infused saliva a la the lovely Dr Paisley. That’s not to say he doesn’t appear to have a taste for Unionist red meat, it’s just that the bar that marks the point of insanity is set quite high in the world of the DUP. In short, it could have been worse.

nigel-dodds gif

Fig. 1

Unfortunately the same can’t be said for Sinn Fein’s Martina Anderson, a women who’s giving Owen Paterson a run for his money in the race to become Weirdest Panelist of The Week. Like Paterson, Anderson also has a very odd line in verbal communication and one that is largely characterised by talking like a ventriloquist. Weirder still, she seems to have different modes when it comes to answering questions. The first is where she looks so disinterested and bored that she can barely bring herself to move her jaw while the second is where she starts talking really slowly and decides to upset people in detail. This first occurred when she had the world’s slowest rant about the Catholic Church but it really got into gear when she plunged into a right to-do with Nigel Dodds about the peace process. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what it was all about as it seemed very Northern Irelandy, but what I could make out was her winding people up at an excruciatingly slow pace. Predictably, it all ended in tears as Dimbers finally moved to shut her but it was quite the spectacle to behold and aroused much ire from the crowd. So yes, Anderson was fully weird and I’m struggling to find any redeeming qualities other than that she’s got a very jaunty fringe. It’s something I guess.

Right, time for our final panelist of the night, investment fund manager Nicola Horlick. Now, I had never heard of her so I gave her name a quick google and was annoyed to find that she’s been described as ‘Superwoman’ on account of her being able to juggle a very large family with making stacks of money (so that she can then go and lose a whole chunk of it Bernie Madoff). My annoyance was largely due to the fact that I really can’t abide the super-busy and the knack they have for making me feel like a slothful wretch, but I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised by how normal she was. Sure, I might not have agreed with her on all the issues but she did deliver her answers in a refreshingly straight forward manner and never got preachy, all of which leads me to conclude that she’s probably a Reasonably Nice Person. In an episode such as this, that’s not bad going.

So that’s the panel done, now it’s time for what was probably the most interesting component of this week’s show, the audience. The first thing that struck me about this lot was just how bloody earnest they were and how they went after the big points rather than the ‘let’s just have a pop at politicians’ shenanigans that we usually see. When these guys got the bit between their teeth (as they did with the pensions and celibacy questions) they were dogged and passionate, something that we have not seen much of late. On top of that, I was also surprised to discover that everyone in Derry works in the public sector, people in Northern Ireland seem to care deeply about something called ‘religion’ and that they don’t seem to appreciate politicians who talk very slowly. Audience Members of Note this week include the woman who was really, really pissed off with the Catholic Church (using phrases such as “heinous desperation” and “catch yourself on” in close proximity of each other is always a point scorer with me) and the drunk looking guy who demanded that the world’s debt slate be wiped clean… It’s good to have a dream.

Tl;dr:

Paterson: Weird

3/10

Abbott: Sketchy

4/10

Dodds: Not as weird as he could have been

5/10

Anderson: Weird and sketchy

2/10

Horlick: Neither weird nor sketchy

6/10

The Audience: Hardcore

7/10

Ok, there we go, that’s your lot. Well done Derry, you almost managed to make me believe I had the faintest idea about what’s going on in Northern Ireland and that takes some doing. Well done also to my band’s bassist, Beefy, who I’ve just discovered has gone and broken his finger by trapping it in a van door. Considering that the last time we had to cancel a gig was when our guitarist caught his thumb in a taxi door, I hereby decree that all members of Achtung Everybody may only travel in doorless vehicles. It’s for our own good.

Next week Lemmings, next week…

Questionable Time #1


questionable time 1 dimbleby mission accomplishedGood morning Lemmings and welcome back. Welcome back from the non-summer where the world of politics decided to give up any pretence of rationality and instead took it upon itself to run around screaming gibberish with its hair on fire. Obviously, this turn for the surreal bodes well for the new series of Question Time as there’s currently an extensive backlog of barely comprehensible events to get our collective heads’ around, but before we can get stuck into that business we must first deal with a certain maudlin formality: The 9-11 10th anniversary special. Now, if I’m completely honest, I can’t say I’m thrilled with the prospect of writing up last night’s show as a) Question Time is at it’s best when dealing with fresh issues that could go any number of ways rather than the tragic events of yesteryear, b) this topic has already had the most thorough of QT airings over the last decade (seriously, they could have just put Claire Short on and got her to do a 180 on every single question if they wanted a slightly more succinct summary of events) and c) 9-11 isn’t the easiest of subjects to cover on a supposedly ‘funny’ blog. Trust me, it’s not exactly a comedy goldmine and every time you do come up with a good line you have to spend the next half hour going through the endless list of who it may offend. Still, here we are and I don’t make the rules. I just work here, ok?

Right, so first up we have Liam Fox, a man who’ve I’ve been keeping quite a close eye on of late as he seems to have undergone quite a transformation since become Defence Secretary. For example, back before the election you could always count on Fox to bring a certain grimness to proceedings, what with his moribund pallor, dead eyes and generally depressing take on the world (which can be summed up as “We’re all doomed unless we bring back the workhouse, the birch and Teddy Roosevelt”). It wasn’t a particular entertaining schtick, but at least it was consistent and I always felt safe in the knowledge that no matter how good the news was, I could always rely on Fox putting a downer on it. These days though, I’m not so sure. Take for example the results offered by a Google Image search in his name. If I’m not mistaken I think I can actually see a genuine smile pass the lips of Dr Death in any photo that involves uniforms, pieces of military hardware or desert landscapes. Scroll down some more and also take note of how the wearing of a flak jacket seems to enhance his mood by several thousand degrees of magnitude to the point where he actually appears to be ‘happy’ (see Fig. 1). Now, this in itself is hardly news as politicians generally get weak at the knees when given the opportunity to knock about with squaddies, but given his actions of late I think it may run a little deeper with Fox. First there was all that leaking of letter to Cameron where he refused to back substantial cuts in the military and then there was the subsequent leak where he outlined his disdain for International Development spending, probably on the grounds that it was the preserve of cotton picking hippies. On top of this, he’s somehow found the time to describe Afghanistan as a “broken 13th-century country”, wind up the top brass by hinting that there may be too many of them and drop a few thousand bombs on Libya.

liam-fox-defence-sec-gif

Fig. 1

Now, if I’m not mistaken, this is all starting to paint a picture of a man who’s gone completely native and not just in your more traditional “Cher-cher-cher-check out my poppy!” way that most politicians succumb to. No, Fox is going all the way up the river, guzzling industrial quantities of Kool Aid and he fears no man, least of all his own leader (who may pretty soon have to dispatch some Martin Sheen-esque assassin/errand boy in the hope of containing this one man insurrection). So that’s where he’s at and all of the above pretty much encapsulates his approach to last night’s Question Time which largely hinged around his belief that blowing up terrorists is a basically sound idea, Iraq was all a bit ‘meh’ and that if all else fails, big up the troops and ride the wave of obligatory applause. That’s not to say that he’s got a completely tin ear to the chatter of reality as there was the odd mention of un-Fox like words such as ‘negotiation’, but by and large it was fairly straightforward: Terrorists are bad, unless they’ve been blown up. Then they’re not so bad.

So did it work? Well, sort of in that while he may not have had the whole audience behind him, the ones that were were pretty enthusiastic in their approval and that while he clearly has gone a bit loco over the last year and a bit, he did manage to present himself as an actual politician rather than a rogue Special Forces operative who’s fallen out of radio contact. Still, I think I prefer the new Liam to the old one as while I admired the morbid certainty that used to enshroud the Fox of Yore, there’s nothing like the whiff of Dengue Fever and napalm to spice things up a bit.

Ok, moving on and wait a minute, I think I recognise this bloke. Isn’t that the guy who had whole world laid his feet before getting gazumped by his congested sounding brother? That’s right, it’s David Miliband, former Foreign Secretary and Great White Hope of Old New Labour! So yes, Miliband D has finally emerged from wherever he’s spent the last year hiding (and most probably weeping) but to what end we might ask? On the face of it, this appearance could be construed as largely innocuous as he is an entirely appropriate pick for a panel that’s going to debate 9-11+10 (=8?) but the cynical side of me (and that’s totally the side of me that has the most fun) isn’t entirely satisfied with this assessment, particularly given the way he played his hand. Let’s have a look at what he said.

  1. We should never have called the post 9-11 response ‘The War On Terror’.
  2. Hindsight hindsight hindsight.
  3. Torture is bad.
  4. We haven’t exactly played a blinder in Iraq or Afghanistan.
  5. Need to sort the whole Israel/Palestine shebang.
  6. I totally ballsed up when I voted for the Iraq War.

Now most of this is pretty unremarkable, common sense stuff but number 6 stands out as it marks the point where he’s finally ripped the thorn of Iraq out of his side. When questioned in the past about why he voted for the war and his views on the conflict, you could tell that Miliband was acutely aware he must at least look like his trying to defend his decision (and his party’s… let us not forget the Scolding of the Clapping Harman) but he never looked comfortable in doing so. That stance melted into thin air last night and by the end of the show he was in full mea culpa mode, admitting that it had been a mistake to vote for the war and driving the crowd into a frenzy of applause. This is important as while there are many reason as to why Miliband lost out in the Labour leadership contest, the fact that he was a very visible part of the New Labour foreign policy machine and that this put him off-limits to certain sections of the party was a big one. What he did last night can be construed as a concerted (and effective) attempt to detoxify that part of his legacy.

The other thing that Miliband did last night was to remind us that he’s actually quite good at this politics lark and that in terms of delivery, he’s a tough act to beat. In some ways this is quite surprising as if you really listen to him, he uses a lot of words to say not a great deal (not usually a good sign) and there is something a bit head boyish about him, but the overall effect is mainly positive and makes him sound grown up without being overly stuffy. All of which is in sharp contrast to his brother who hasn’t had the best time of making himself heard and if I was in his shoes right now, I’d be starting to worry. Time’s ticking Ed… You’ve not done a bad job to date but unless those polls start moving upwards soon I wouldn’t put too much stock in the virtues of brotherly love.

Right, given the absence of the Yellow Team (which is a shame as they’re the only mainstream party who can point to a pretty good record on post-9-11 foreign policy calls), we’re going to have to make do with grumpy looking geo-political pundits Richard Perle and Tariq Ali. Now, had this show been filmed five years ago I reckon we could have had a right old to-do on our hands as panelists don’t come much more polar opposite than this pair and back then they were both mouth foamingly crazy. However, it seems the passage of time has somewhat soothed their otherwise febrile mental states and what actually took place last night was less bare knuckle brawl and more Queensbury Rules, much to my disappointment.

Now, in case we’ve forgotten Perle was the ultra-realist neo-con who acted as a cheerleader for the Iraq War and generally took it upon himself to berate the rest of the world for being wusses and not American enough (he also, with the addition of comedy eyebrows, hair and cape, looks like a passable version of Grandpa Munster… See Fig. 2). As expected, he used last night’s show as a venue to claim that the world’s a much better place when it’s being carpeted with US ordinance, but not as emphatically as he would have a few years back. Instead there were hints here and there that he may not have been entirely happy with how Iraq turned out and that some things could have been done better, but generally speaking it was business as usual. In terms of performance, it wasn’t brilliant, what with him reminding us that more people died on 9/11 than 7/7 (as if it was a competition) and a couple of jokes fell flat, but yeah, it could have been worse.

richard perl grandpa munster

In contrast, Ali had a great innings last night and quite probably in spite of himself. I say this because while I generally tend to agree with his point of view, he’s had a habit in the past of annoying me by dint of getting overly agitated and jabby-fingered. However, last night was different and while he did manage to build a reasonable head of steam every now and then, you got the impression that he’s probably quite tired of going through the same arguments for the ten millionth time when it never seems to change anything. That gave his outing a more leavened quality than it’s had in the past and it was all the better for it. Sure, at the start he did get a little hot under the collar with Perle about the WMD issue but it didn’t turn into a full-blown rage fest. Instead, he just carried on hammering away with some pretty well-reasoned arguments and a semi-resigned look on his face, all of which garnered a very respectable haul of applause from the audience. So yes, I thought that was a solid effort and worthy of a good few points. Well done to you, Mr Ali.

All of which leaves us with Bonnie Greer, a person who I am still struggling to find the purpose of and have yet to forgive for her bungling of the BNP episode. That sounds harsh but I think it’s justified on account of the fact that she has a highly recognisable (and highly annoying) Question Time Tic that I like to call ‘Greering for Time’. Allow me to explain: Stage 1 of Greering for Time is that art of covering your lack of a valid answers by embarking on a series of wild goose chases that more than likely contains references to how ‘real’ your life is in order to cover the fact that you don’t know what you’re talking about. A good example of this would be all of last night’s response that started with lines such as “When I was making a film”, “I know people”, “I Iived near Ground Zero” and “I’m from a services family”. Stage 2 of Greering for Time then involves folding some nebulous and ill-defined concept into the spoils of Stage 1 in the hope that if you repeat that concept enough, it might sound like a valid argument. Examples of this would be when she repeated the word “homicide” about a thousand times or her extended rambling about how “You can’t be a muslim”. Finally comes Stage 3 and all you have to do here is wrap up the previous stages with something involving ‘peace’ or ‘the people’ or even better, a mixture of the two (‘peacy people peace’ is ideal) to convey just how compassionate you are. If you follow thoee guidelines it seems that you can totally get away with loads of applause for having said nowt of any import.

Ok, so I’m sounding bitter now but that’s because I really don’t get it. Everything she said last night was at best tenuous and at worst flat-out bollocks, but everyone still lapped it up and she was rewarded handsomely for her dubious efforts. That’s not to say that I think her intentions are bad or that she’s up to no good, it’s just that she’s, well, a bit crap.

Alright, that’s the panel done so let’s have a quick look at the crowd before I take off. Now, the first thing is that I’m going to have to knock a point off their score on account of their falling for the old Greering for Time trick. Sorry, but that’s how it works around here. Other than that they seemed a pretty decent lot who although not electrifying did manage to bring a little oomph to the show and posed some genuinely interesting questions. A special mention goes out to the special lady with special teeth who made the following special statement: “There’s a problem of increasing the problems”. That there line is very special. Also, a mention is warranted for the gentleman who seemed to be sleep talking when he asked his question and took about an hour to remember that it was Iraq and Afghanistan that we had wars with. Nice work there Sir, feel free to return to your slumber.

Tl;dr

Fox: 5/10

Colonel Kurtz

Miliband: 7/10

Major Revival

Perle: 4/10

Corporal Punishment

Ali: 7/10

General Competence

Greer: 3/10

Private Grief

The Crowd: 6/10

Innocent Civilians

Ok, we’re done here. I’d like to say that next week’s Question Time will see us on a more familiar footing but I can’t as it’s taking place in Northern Ireland and I never have the faintest idea of who/why/what is going off on those episodes. Given the above, don’t be surprised if I engage in a certain level of Greering for Time in next week’s report. You have been warned.

Next week Lemmings, next week…


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