John O’Farrell: At last: a TV talent show worth seeing

Clegg has shot to stardom and now faces the difficult second album

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This TV talent-show craze has gone too far. First they had us choosing new pop stars, then new leads in West End musicals. Now the latest TV reality show actually expects us to vote for a new Prime Minister.

The TV format they settled upon was The Weakest Link, with the same tense atmosphere and lecterns, but with much, much longer answers. The contestants stood there frozen in fear as Alastair Stewart, substituting for Anne Robinson, shouted, "Mr Brown! Mr Cameron!" and, if they repeated a previous answer, the question was passed over to another contestant. I was surprised they didn't shout "Bank!" every time they scored a few points.

The drama of Britain's first televised leaders' debate had been ridiculously over-hyped in advance of the historic broadcast. So much acid and hot air was expected to spew forth from Manchester that all domestic flights were grounded; no planes could risk flying through the poisonous atmosphere produced by the smouldering politicians suddenly erupting down below. The reality was fairly tame in comparison; the participants were perfectly polite and well-measured, with none of the shouting and potential violence that we have enjoyed for decades on Question Time, PMQs and Prescott Meets the People.

In fact the broadcasters must be worried that more of the same might lose them millions of viewers unless they do something to increase the drama a little. Look out for the next programme being hosted by Harry Hill saying, "Hmmm I like the idea of reducing the massive deficit by £600bn, but on the other hand I like the idea of keeping money in the economy to avoid a double-dip recession. There's only one way to sort this out... FIGHT!" Or Stephen Fry asking, "Where are you going to find these billions?" and, when Cameron answers with the fatuous cliché, "by cutting waste", the deafening klaxon from QI will sound as the giant words "Cutting waste" flash on and off behind him. Or perhaps the party leaders could be joined by their other halves for a new slant on Celebrity Mr and Mrs. "Who hogs most of the duvet?" "Oh, that's definitely Nick," says the Liberal leader's constant companion Vince Cable.

Cameron was the man with the most to lose in this debate and he duly lost it. "Which family in this country hasn't had to cut back?" he repeated. "Well, yours, David," we all thought. You can only last so long playing the part of "fresh-faced newcomer", and on Thursday night Nick Clegg came on looking fresher and newer. "Hang on, I'm the straight-talking, media-friendly public-school boy," thought Cameron. "The bastard's stolen my act!"

Clegg was the only one who looked straight into the camera, thereby communicating directly with the millions sitting at home being polled on their reactions to every phrase, grimace or hand gesture. I have to confess to being surprised by the polls that showed the Liberal leader apparently doing so well. From where I was watching, it was as if an annoying sixth-former had been allowed to take part in a grown-up conversation, because it would be good to develop the youngster's interest in politics and current affairs. "Who is that kid in the yellow tie," I kept thinking. "Is he that clever one from University Challenge?"

The first question was on immigration and the Liberal leader's solution seemed to be a very illiberal version of apartheid South Africa's Pass Laws, where certain immigrants would only be permitted to stay in one region of the United Kingdom. "You are now entering Reigate and Banstead – an immigrant-free zone." David Cameron boasted that he had actually met a black man. The Tory leader has developed a habit of making up utterly unconvincing quotes from people he has encountered. Did he expect us to believe that this man actually said, "I came here when I was six. I served in the Royal Navy for 30 years. I'm incredibly proud of my country. But I'm so ashamed that we've had this out-of-control system with people abusing it so badly." No, apparently those were the immigrant's exact words.

The Prime Minister at least repeated that we are a tolerant country, but you wouldn't have thought it from all the debate's completely negative assumptions about immigration. Cameron actually attempted to link immigration to the benefits system, the subtext being "They come over 'ere and sponge off the dole", which is a shameful inversion of the grim truth that "They come over here and work really hard at lousy jobs for a pittance".

Gordon Brown was the only leader not repeatedly to tell us all the places he had been and who he had met, concentrating instead on criticising the economic plans of David Cameron and annoying Nick Clegg even more by constantly agreeing with him. The coalition in the forthcoming hung parliament was being negotiated before our very eyes.

But, at the end of it all, a leaders' debate already felt like the most normal and obvious thing that you would do during an election campaign. Television is the public gallery of the modern age and overnight it seemed insane that we have had to wait half a century for this programme. Clegg has shot to political stardom and now faces the difficult second album. Will he risk more of the same or perhaps grow a moustache and experiment with the genre, using gangsta rap and a dance-off?

Some commentators were quick to declare Brown the other loser, but, in terms of tactics and strategy, he may have been playing the canniest long-term game, attempting to help one rival at the expense of another. This particular TV quiz show has another two episodes before any contestants face the Walk of Shame. Don't be surprised if at the end of it all, the voters declare, "David Cameron; you are the weakest link. Goodbye!"

John O'Farrell chronicled the rise of New Labour in 'Things Can Only Get Better'; his latest book, 'An Utterly Exasperated History of Modern Britain', is out this week in paperback

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