Steve Richards: Two cheers for the new crying game

Emotional displays will do Labour no good, but humanising moments do have their place

Share
Related Topics

When I got a call from a friend asking whether I had seen Alastair Campbell "losing it" on the Andrew Marr show on Sunday morning, my heart sank a little. Already I had read an account of Gordon Brown's interview with Piers Morgan, to be broadcast this Sunday, in which he breaks into tears when talking about the death of his daughter. My instinctive reaction was that this was getting slightly out of hand – Campbell losing it and Brown crying. Without a pause we had moved from debates about the deficit to a highly charged episode of Celebrity Big Brother, from statistics to tears.

Then I watched the Campbell interview and changed my mind completely. For a start Campbell's anguished pause, ending with a deep breath of uncertain outcome, was gripping television. Was he about to explode in anger? Was he about to collapse into a traumatised extended silence? In fact he recovered with dignity and continued the interview. But momentarily we did not know.

Interviews tend to be fairly predictable these days, especially in the run-up to an election, when politicians stick to a script like actors in a carefully choreographed West End production. Last month I saw two interviews that surprised me. One was with Peter Mandelson on Newsnight in which he declared with a revealing ambiguity that "the party" did not want the removal of Brown, implying accurately that a significant part of the Cabinet was willing to move against the PM if they had detected wider internal support. The other was the interview with David Cameron in which he announced a significant and unexpected change in his plans for spending cuts this year. Indeed I am surprised at how surprising the events of January were – ground shifting in some ways. On the whole though, political interviews tend not to go in interesting directions.

The one with Campbell was a reminder of the potential drama of a simple one-to-one exchange, the simplest form of television and sometimes the best. Like a skilful musician Marr allowed the moment to breathe. The silence was more revealing than a thousand words.

I can imagine what Campbell was thinking. "I cannot escape from Iraq ... this was seven years ago and here I am still answering questions on the dossier, perceived as a war criminal." On his blog Campbell wrote later that he was trying to control his anger. That was clearly part of it. There was Marr, political editor of the BBC at the time of David Kelly's death and the aftermath, seemingly still advancing the BBC view that Blair lied about the intelligence. There was Campbell going through it again, four inquiries later, the build-up to the dossier, the other reasons for war, the deaths that followed, including a different sort of death, the demise of Blair's reputation for integrity. He seemed anguished as well as angry.

Some bloggers thought the moment of drama was an act. If it was, then Campbell was not acting wisely. His performance led to another prominent slot in the news bulletins about Iraq and Blair, not what he or the Government wants. But he was not acting. He was being human. Sometimes this happens in public. A caricature is called into question. It happens also with tearful ministerial resignations – Thatcher in her imperious prime in tears over her son, and so, it seems, Brown breaking down over his daughter.

We shall have to await the broadcast of the Brown interview to make a decisive judgement, but my guess is that his response to the questions was genuine. The willingness to answer such personal questions was no doubt multi-layered in its calculated ruthlessness. There is an election looming. A book is about to be published that will apparently portray Brown as a hot-tempered monster. There are advantages in a few tears. But Brown cannot act in a way that Blair could, and Cameron can to a more limited extent. He is a curious mix of the devious tribal leader who is physically transparent. When he is miserable he cannot disguise the fuming melancholy. On the rare occasions when he is upbeat he smiles like a child who has won a race on school sports' day. If there is a quivering of the lip next Sunday it will be genuine.

And in quivering Brown will convey that, like Campbell, he too is human. Campbell lives with a partner who opposed the war. He is not daft. He knows the case against as well as the one he advances. But he is loyal to Blair and is passionately convinced that when he was prime minister both of them behaved honourably. A moment's pause in a TV studio evokes a more compelling and complex story than the false one in which a monster compiles a dossier about weapons that he knows do not exist. Similarly, Brown is a grieving father as well as a Prime Minister who shouts at colleagues and staff. His situation is more interesting when he is humanised.

David Cameron too became intriguing and complex as a public figure when his son died. The tragedy did not fit with the caricature of easy privilege. When politicians do not conform to type they challenge us. The breaking down of stereotypes invites a wider consideration of the human side of politics, the heightened dilemmas and nerve- wracking judgements.

Of course there are dangers of making too many leaps. I must have heard a thousand commentators declare confidently on the day that Cameron's son died that his experience had changed his views on the NHS. How did they know? Was there not a political calculation based on the perception that the Conservatives had lost elections because they were perceived as the nasty party? Similarly, Campbell's fleeting exasperation does not change the arguments against a calamitous war. Nor do a few tears from Brown remove doubts about his style of leadership.

The emotional displays will not do Labour's cause any good. They remind voters how long these individuals have been around, so long that they look back on traumatic events while still in power. But the occasional humanising moment has its place when political leaders agonise more privately over what to do with the ailing economy. To my surprise I want more tears and anguished pauses to accompany debates on spending cuts. There is a lot to cry about.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Yvette Cooper campaigning in London at the launch of Labour’s women’s manifesto  

I want the Labour Party to lead a revolution in family support

Yvette Cooper
Liz Kendall  

Labour leadership contest: 'Moderniser' is just a vague and overused label

Steve Richards
Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine