TV REVIEW

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You couldn't help but feel for him - two weeks to go to an election and the hacks will do nothing but rubbish your opponents. Nightmare. Of course this scene might just have been genuine, but if it was we have elected the most monumental prig as our Prime Minister. I prefer to think he was putting it on.

"We're a bit worried we haven't brought the files with the jokes in," said Ed Balls, Gordon Brown's chief economic adviser. This could have been serious - the Shadow Chancellor was on his way to address the CBI conference, a crucial opportunity to present New Labour as business friendly, and here they were facing a serious gag shortfall. But then Gordon pulled something out of a private comic slush fund and his minders fretted over its delivery - was Brown too low on the bill to get the audience fresh? Would all those sober-suited directors deadpan his punchline? It used to be that the Labour party's economic policy was dismissed as a joke - now it appeared to have taken second place to one.

The impression given by Out of the Shadows (ITV) was a little unfair, naturally. All the number-crunching had been done, all the internal battles over principle fought and won. This was just the spun sugar decoration they were fretting about. Even so, the chief revelation of the film that followed was to confirm just how much politics has become the art of fine- tuning public prejudices. It didn't merely observe the great game of spin, either - it was a contribution because that title didn't only refer to the emergence from 18 years of opposition, but also to the spotlight this two-part documentary would shine on a man from whom Blair had blocked the light. It ended with a poignant shot in which Brown looked on from the sidelines - his face a mask of might-have-been - as the new Prime Minister addressed the party faithful outside the Festival Hall.

Ross Wilson cited The War Room, a backroom account of the Clinton campaign, as the inspiration for his two-part documentary. But the comparison didn't do him any great favours. Where the earlier film really got under the skin of the American campaign, Wilson's bounced off the polished gloss of the Labour machine. The illusion of penetration was occasionally quite powerful - when you saw a GMTV journalist being successfully led up a blind alley by Charles Whelan, Brown's press secretary, or during a fluster of excited activity on budget day. But if the journalists weren't exactly flattered the politicians took care to keep their best side to the camera; they didn't swear much (Ed Balls was the only offender) and their ribaldry was cautiously inoffensive throughout. Even Whelan's threats were jovially presentable: "If you write anything other than that we will be tough on public spending I will come and beat you up," he said to one reporter, chuckling amiably. The sense of a careful performance of backstage behaviour was most strikingly conveyed in a synthetic encounter between Brown and Tony Blair, during which the latter lamented the difficulty of changing the news agenda: "Tory division, Tory sleaze - it's just a nightmare getting anything else up," he said. Well, you couldn't help but feel for him - two weeks to go to an election and the hacks will do nothing but rubbish your opponents. Nightmare. Of course this scene might just have been genuine, but if it was we have elected the most monumental prig as our Prime Minister. I prefer to think he was putting it on.

There have been times in the past few weeks when Holding On (BBC2), Tony Marchant's web of London lives seemed ready for a new title - Losing Grip, perhaps. A constant shifting of registers is part of the drama's ambition - so that you switch without warning from satirical excoriation to the suburban pathos of a marriage bogging down. Sometimes this is discomfiting in a fruitful way, conveying the city's buzz of simultaneous, incompatible dramas. But there is also unevenness that cannot have been intended - Marchant is very good at the way embarrassment and awkwardness make people's speech dumb but his lines for some of the black characters have a stiff nobility which is embarrassing in itself. Sometimes he hits the metropolitan note with shrill exactitude - at other times you feel you'd have to live well outside the M25 not to notice a sudden flat. Still, if you go this far off the beaten track it's hardly surprising if you hit the odd bump.

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