Good morning Lemmings and – assuming you haven’t all frozen to death – welcome back for what was quite the humdinger of a Question Time last night. Now, there are plenty of reasons as to why this was an especially zesty show but lets start with the obvious: The highly engaging spectacle of two very capable yet somewhat compromised panelists taking a big stick and applying it to the chops of the Daily Mail. I am of course talking about Dark Master of the News Cycle Alistair Campbell and the knowingly imperfect Steve Coogan. The beauty of this coupling lies not only in the fact that both men are masters of the invective who have every reason to despise the Mail but also because they themselves are in absolutely no way paragons of virtue who can claim that their integrity is beyond reproach.
Let’s start with Campbell: Now, here’s a man whose one goal while in power was to bend the media to his will and largely succeeded in doing so by dint of being the physical embodiment of terror itself. Seriously, every time I look at Campbell I think of that scene in Apocalypse Now when Willard gets on the boat for the first time and the Chief, alarmed by this turn of events, clocks him in an instant:
“My orders say I’m not supposed to know where I’m taking this boat, so I don’t! But one look at you, and I know it’s gonna be hot.”
Yup, that’s Campbell all over: A man who’s been fighting a dirty, nasty and vicious war for so long that he’s actually become the war itself. A man who knows where the bodies are buried because he buried them there. In short, he’s no angel when it comes to media ethics.
Coogan by contrast is less straight forward and harder to peg down. Anyone who is a fan of his work (and I am) can’t help but feel a certain affection for him but he doesn’t always make it easy for us to like him – the whole Courtney Love thing being the example that sticks out in my mind. This always leaves me feeling slightly bemused when I see him as I really can’t fathom out as to whether he’s just a misunderstood soul who’s been given a raw deal in the press or whether he genuinely is a bit of a dickhead (a debate made no easier by the excellent yet frighteningly post-modern The Trip… My jury is still out).
Still, what cannot be doubted is that both of theses guys know how to handle themselves in a debate and were positively relishing the chance to stick the boot in to the Mail. Now, had the person fighting the corner for Britain’s Premier Hate Rag been the likes of Melanie Phillips, Jeremy Clarkson or Richard Littlejohn then this would have been a massacre: All these guys take is a cursory winding up and boom! Here comes the crazy! However, none of the above were present last night and instead we got QT veteran Ann Leslie. This turned out to be a very canny pick for the following reasons:
- She’s actually a proper journalists rather than a lurching tangle of jerking knees.
- She is tough as old boots.
- I never know whether she’s drunk or not.
All of the above conspire to make her a much harder target than some of her flightier colleagues and the result was a show full of crowd pleasing set pieces from Coogan and entertaining spats between Campbell and Leslie – both of whom clearly despised each other. In terms of who won, well lets just say that the Daily Mail doesn’t seem to be the periodical of choice for this particular crowd but Leslie does deserve some credit for looking like she couldn’t give a toss either way. I suspect that gin may have played a part in this.
The other big news on last night’s show was how well Philip Hammond did given that he was surrounded by some pretty big beasts. I say this because Hammond isn’t exactly the most charismatic of politicians and I reckoned it likely that Alistair Campbell was going to blow his head off using some satanic powers he acquired in trade for his soul (see Fig. 1). As it happens, Hammond managed to hold his own rather well and came out relatively unscathed in what should have been a fairly torrid week for the Blue Team. Ok, so he wasn’t exactly thrilling to watch and his attempts at humour were a little on the crap side but considering the amount of trouble he could have got into on the NHS question I think he did all right. However, the thing that really wins him points for me is his role in what has become a rather rare thing in QT: A Spontaneous Outburst of Collective Agreement. This occurred on the Syria question and Hammond won his spurs by doing something I’ve not seen from a Defence Secretary for years: He admitted that there really isn’t a whole lot we can do about Syria. Having spent the last decade listening to Defence Secretaries telling us that we can bomb this or shock ‘n’ awe that I was really pleased to hear the opposite sentiment for once. If that wasn’t enough to give me a warm fuzzy glow then imagine my surprise when the entire panel echoed that sentiment including Alistair Campbell, chief cheerleader of the Iraq calamity. I nearly fell off the sofa.
So yes, Philip Hammond is still an unremittingly dull man who’s going to look terrible in body armour (I can’t wait for his first ‘In Theatre’ photo-op) but he seems pretty level-headed and that will do for me right now. And as for Shirley Williams? Well same-old, same-old really: The human personification of some of the 20th Century’s better ideas wrapped in the language of the Crimean War (it’s all “holding the line”, “powder kegs” and other such ironclad pronouncements). It also seems like she’s caused something of a sartorial stir with women of a certain age as I got a fair few search queries along the lines of ‘where did Shirley Williams get that jacket from?’ last night. Apologies to all those who were bitterly disappointed when they ended up here. I can photoshop the crap out public figures but fashion procurement is not this blog’s strong point.
Hammond: Did well
Campbell: Gave ’em hell
Coogan: “Ruddy hell, it’s Soft Cell!”
Leslie: Was a bit of a bombshell
The Crowd: Were perfectly acceptable clientele
Well would you look at that? Sevens all round. That’s it from me this week as I’m off to mentally steel myself for the prospect of the Ken Clarke/Prezzer face-off next week. You know when male Elephant Seals fight over a mate? Yeah, it’s going to be like that.
Next week Lemmings, next week…