TELEVISION : Messages from the beige conservatory
Sunday 15 December 1996
David Aaronovitch His lips are sealed: John Major remains obstinately evasive on the subject of Europe, despite a grilling from John Humphrys during last Sunday's `On the Record' (BBC1)
If you're the Prime Minister you can ring programmes up and say you'd like to appear on them, and they let you. Gary Rhodes will happily incorporate you into the fashioning of a bouillabaisse and Eamonn Holmes will ask you how you do that. But however much your secret self yearns to co-present Gladiators with Ulrika, in practice you are most likely to choose one of the politics shows that has been badgering your office all year for an interview. But will it be chatty Breakfast with the emollient Frost? On the Record with the fearsome Humphrys? Or the big one - a prime- time Panorama in the company of Dimbleby D? Which one you choose indicates just how much shit you're in.
Mr Major's decision to perform for On the Record (BBC1, Sunday) revealed a medium-to-high shit factor. The calculation had been made that more was to be gained from going five rounds with the Welsh Fox on Euro-splits than was likely to be lost. Usually such an interview would be done from a room in Number 10 boasting a spectacular fireplace and plush red rococo chairs. But the PM - who has been pushing his homme du peuple image for everything it's worth - tilted the balance of advantage slightly in his favour by having the whole thing done in his Huntingdon conservatory.
This room, with its beige floor-tiles, cushioned cane furniture, ferns and glass-topped coffee-table, looked as though it was furnished right out of the middle of the Middle England Mail-Order Catalogue. Many Sunday- lunchtime viewers will have experienced the odd feeling of seeing the room that they were sitting in, on the television that they were watching.
Major himself was seen against a weeping willow; his strange double upper lip emphasised by the lighting. First comes the one that looks like a cat's lip, or moustache, curving up on either side - lending the PM a rather affable mien. But below it is a teeny-weeny petulant lip, which quivers slightly when its owner is annoyed.
Major did well. He did well because some of his arguments seemed quite reasonable. Why was he evasive about Europe? Because he was involved in hard negotiation. "If I sometimes seem opaque, if I don't respond with utmost clarity" ... then it's not because he is terrified of being jumped yet again by the gang of xenophobes on his back-benches, but because he is involved in a "game of poker". And in poker, of course, you don't show your hand till the end. You see? Furthermore all this stuff about him and Clarke disagreeing was media rubbish - just the latest silly "fetish".
How could you disagree with a man on a chair like that? But those who switched over immediately to Around Westminster (BBC2, South East only, Sunday) will have heard the maverick Tory MP, Terry Dicks, recount how Mr Major told him personally that he would like to change policy on Europe, oh yes, but was prevented from doing so by Kenneth Clarke. Not a silly fetish at all then, but God's Own Truth.
The next day I got a message to phone someone from the BBC on a number I didn't recognise as a BBC exchange. All was explained when I returned the call and was told that I was through to Kilroy. Kilroy (BBC1, weekdays) is not made by the BBC directly, but is the only child of Kilroy Productions. Lacking the necessary courage, I didn't tell the clever young gopher on the other end that I had appeared on the show once and would never do so again; that it was horrible; that it took the best part of a morning; that Kilroy himself shoved the mike in your face to start you off, dug you in the back to shut you up again, pushed you along the seat with his own bottom so that he could find purchase in your area and then - to cap it all - no payment ever arrived; that I felt thoroughly done over.
Was I being fair? On Thursday I tuned in to watch a show full of shoplifters and their critics. "Basically my Mum was left on her own with nine kids," said Kim, who - like all the other shoplifters, male and female - had a stud in her nose. "And I have five children myself," she went on, depressingly. "Well, I was a single parent and I had one child and I didn't steal," yelled a pensioner. In their midst was the tanned, handsome, oleaginous Kilroy, still shoving, tapping, pushing and patronising.
But wait! There was an alternative! For at exactly the same time in the other place was ITV's Kilroy, The Time ... The Place, presented by another tall, craggy Northerner, John Stapleton. Stapleton was into car crashes and death. Much less creepy than the egregious Kilroy, Stapleton nevertheless managed to make some of the most appalling statements. One woman was weeping over a terrible accident. Said John, "I'm going to give you a chance to get over it. [How? Find her a new husband? Negotiate a million- pound compensation package?] We're going to take a break now. When we come back we're going to meet a man who knocked over and killed someone three weeks ago." Does this man watch his own programmes?
Obviously not, for after the ads came this: "Welcome back. How would you feel if you knocked down and killed someone?" Now, is this, or is this not the stupidest question you have ever heard? Do I need someone to come on a show and weep and groan in order to convince me that knocking pedestrians over is not great fun? Do you? What kind of people do they take us for? Well try this Stapletonism, aimed at the weeping driver. Stapleton (sombrely): "It's a horrible thing to happen - particularly at this time of year." I won't even attempt to decode the synaptic process by which this gem was formed.
I now started to cut from one show to the other, taking a surreal journey through Shit Britain. Click. "I was on unemployment benefit. I went out cleaning. I had an alcoholic mother." Click. "It's been devastating. I wish I could bring him back for three minutes to tell him I'm sorry." Click. "I was on the dole. I had six children. I was on the streets for a month and a half, so why don't you shut your mouth?" Click. "It devastated my family and it devastated my life." Click.
At the end of the shows, the Stapleton studio full of bereaved parents and killer-drivers and the Kilroy one heaving with yelling shoplifters and shrieking shopkeepers, both burst into sudden enthusiastic applause. It was, you would have thought, the ultimate in cannibalism; these shows eat people and then get applauded by their dinners! But no, there was yet another twist. Hardly had the end-titles finished than the ads went up. "He'll Never Marry" and "Relationships With An Ex-Partner". If you had tales to tell, of romance and revenge, then you could phone researchers on these numbers and tell them your heart-rending story. If they liked it, they'd invite you on.
Seems fair enough? Except these were 0891 and 0990 numbers, and you would have to pay up to 49p per minute to tell the story which would provide Kilroy with his X hundred grand a year and the audience with its brief vicarious fix. What a total rip-off! Let me be clear, Messrs Kilroy and Stapleton are doing something very difficult in holding a live studio and 70 volatile guests for 45 minutes. But the thing is, it's a tough job, and no one has to do it.
At the other end of the broadcasting spectrum is that honey-voiced veteran Mark Tully, who is two programmes into his Lives of Jesus quartet (BBC1, Sunday). Tully is the man, you may remember, who quit the BBC complaining (from afar) of an "atmosphere of fear" and of "Big Brother". Since then, paradoxically, he has never been off the screen or airwaves. This is puzzling, for, judging by his input into this latest series, Tully was not chosen because of his knowledge of - or interest in - things theological. The confidence and originality - the "voice" - that marked his dispatches from the Indian sub-continent are entirely absent from this totally conventional look at aspects of the life of Jesus.
So why was he chosen? Perhaps the producer - Angela Tilby - is a kamikaze anti-Birtist, plunging her programme into the flight-deck of the New BBC, and being consumed in the flames. Or perhaps there is no climate of fear at all, but that sensitive and creative folk at the Beeb like to talk that way. Perhaps they should give Kilroy or Stapleton a ring, and tell all while being pummelled and patronised. It might be salutary.
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