The Sketch

Top-class talker loves going the extra mile for his sport
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The Independent Online
SOME OF the decisions in a sketch writer's life are no-brainers. Yesterday, for example, there was a choice between agriculture questions, in which the estimable Nick Brown would be answering questions on the Common Fisheries Policy and food hygiene standards, or the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, before whom Tony Banks, one of the House's most reliable entertainers, would be giving it large with the verbals.

I think "no-brainer" may be understating the case, actually - even the possession of a spinal cord wouldn't be a requirement to work this one out.

As I went into Committee Room 16 Mr Banks was listening attentively to a somewhat philosophical question from the Labour MP John Maxton. Which did he think the more valuable form of participation: the involvement of 33,000 runners in the London marathon or the attendance of 70,000 football fans at Chelsea? Mr Banks looked momentarily nonplussed and stuttered something about it all depending on what you hoped to achieve. But after this hesitant emergence from the blocks he soon found his stride. He had certainly felt in good shape when he arrived at the finish of the London marathon, he told MPs: "I did the whole course," he said, and, after a perfectly timed pause, he added the punchline. "I have to admit that I did it on the back of a milk float, so I was going backwards all the way." He paused again. "Not unknown in the Labour Party in the past."

Now, let's just have another look at that on the slow-motion replay, because this is a game at which Mr Banks is an international-class player. His sport is talking and his favoured distance is long. He was in his element yesterday because although the chairman occasionally murmurs dutifully about the pressure of time, select committee hearings are actually marathons of gab compared with the carefully refereed sprints in the chamber. This is a forum in which questioners often take three or four laps to warm up for the race ahead. Only when you hear a phrase along the lines of "but that's not the point I want to make", can you be sure that the starter's gun has actually gone off. And what characterises Mr Banks' performances in these events is that he is all acceleration and no brake. Top- class athletes rarely waste much time training to slow down or stop, and Mr Banks is no exception, even though both of these skills are rather more important to career politicians than they are to runners.

So, long after he has breasted the tape in answering a question about government money for sports bids, he keeps on going: "There are times," he says cheerfully, "when I think the Chancellor regards it all as his own personal property - and counts it every night before he goes to bed."

A diplomatic reply about the importance of keeping Brent councillors involved in plans for the new National Stadium flows seamlessly into a faintly insulting explanation of how easily tempted they are by publicity: "We've all done it. If we get the opportunity for 15 minutes of fame we go for it," said Mr Banks. "I'd rather they had generations of credit than 15 minutes of fame."

Even the threatening flash of a press card doesn't slow him. Criticising some newspapers for undermining the 2006 World Cup bid, Mr Banks clearly decided he had not been provocative enough, hurdling a perfectly acceptable full-stop to attack the Daily Mail by name: "If they aren't working for the Germans," he said, "they certainly give a good impression of it."

Some observers view this excessive candour as sloppy technique, but I prefer to think of it as a kind of sporting generosity on Mr Banks' part. A joke pops into view just ahead and he can't bear not to go the extra mile to share it with the crowd.