ELECTION '97: THE CANDIDATE

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The Independent Online
It was, of course, a studio audience that had put paid to the Welshman. The Candidate winced when he recalled how that decent, vulnerable man had walked into the Granada building feeling fine, and walked out again hating himself, his advisers and the world. Four moments would always sum up the Welshman's leadership and only one: the Militant speech - was positive. The other three had all been disastrous: falling in the sea at Brighton, "well, awright!" at the Sheffield Rally and - finally - being laughed at by 200 ordinary Joes and Joannas, his pitiful blustering rerun the next morning at the Tory press conference.

Today's show - a hybrid interview and audience programme bearing the name of its famous presenter - had all the ambush potential of the Granada one, plus the desire of the interviewer himself to go down in history as having presided over the "moment that transformed the campaign", if he conceivably could.

On Friday afternoon, in the middle of an endless succession of newspaper and magazine interviews (many of them carried out by un-nervingly rough women, wearing chunky jewellery and chunkier perfume), he and a special team had found a couple of hours to plan the appearance. Over at the television station what Friend Bobby (a tormentor turned tormented) called a "hit squad" of brilliant Oxbridge graduates would have spent the best part of a fortnight plotting his downfall. This was a dispassionate exercise he knew; the following week they would devote just as much effort - perhaps even more - to suckering the Grey Man. But it did not make the thought of them trawling every speech and policy for logical contradictions and U-turns, devising impossible dilemmas for him to resolve, and constructing questions with elaborate, almost architectural attention to detail, any more pleasant.

So the hit squad would have its plan. For his part he had no real plan, other than to perform well. There was not particular message that he had not already given to the nation a dozen times, and there was no new policy that would be divulged on this show, rather than when he, Friend Bobby and Mr Brown had decided it. What mattered was that he looked frank, didn't lose it, and that all the plates remained spinning on top of the poles.

"You answer the questions too much," Big Al had growled halfway through their rehearsal. The young lawyer who was role-playing the famous Interviewer - complete with hand movements - had been giving a convincing terrier- like performance. The Candidate had attempted to keep up with his interjections, occasionally admonishing his pretend host with a gentle, "if I might just be allowed to reply".

"She didn't answer questions," Al went on. "She just said what She liked. Bill Boggins would ask her about poverty and She'd ignore him and bang on about enterprise."

"I love a bit of nostalgia," said Friend Bobby. "And She was very hard to interview. But I don't see anyone getting away with that now."

In the end they had reckoned on Europe, tax, perhaps some general stuff on U-turns.

Fifty hours later, and here he was, his face covered in orangey powder, sitting in that weird silence which always descends in the 20 seconds before a live show actually goes on air - a silence that never failed to clutch at his stomach. He had it in his power, even now, to throw it away. He could dry up, give an answer that got laughed out of court, and there was always that extraordinary desire (like the one you get at the top of tall buildings) to commit suicide. To say that you did not think that drugs were as much of a problem as alcohol.

After 10 minutes of tussling (on Europe and taxes) he realised that he was doing OK. The audience - put there to silence him - was even applauding. After 30 minutes he felt very good. He had weathered the worst that could be thrown at him, had got his own best lines in and, frankly, had been enjoying himself.

Five minutes later the Interviewer called a halt. "Is that the end of the whole programme? I was just getting into my stride," said the Candidate with cheeky disappointment. Upstairs in the hospitality room Big Al turned from the titles rolling on the screen, and addressed his chaperone. "No news in your programme, then," he said, with evident satisfaction.

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