Mr Smiley and the Crisp trick

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The Independent Online
I have been thinking about the problem of John Major, and I wonder if the answer lies somewhere in the direction of Quentin Crisp.

The problem of John Major can be stated briefly as follows: how can someone who consistently turns up in opinion polls as the most uninspiring Prime Minister of all time possibly remain so cheerful and unaffected by it? How, indeed, can he seem to thrive on it? How can someone come up looking like a smiling daisy where you and I would add to the suicide figures after being criticised the way he has been criticised?

So much for the John Major problem.

Now for the Quentin Crisp solution.

Mr Crisp used to stage a one-man show during which he would solve people's problems. The main message he preached was that we each of us have the power to become exceptional in some direction as long as we spot the direction in time which is right for us.

"Don't fight the flow," was his message. "If you are going bald, don't spread the remaining hair across your scalp. Cut it all off now!"

During the second half of each show he would invite questions from the audience, and I remember at one show at the Mayfair Theatre a man near me got up and said: "Mr Crisp, it's all very well telling us to develop our own special attributes, but I am beyond help. I have realised in my life that my most notable attribute is being boring. I just bore people. How can you help someone like me?"

Crisp got up and said: "Don't rest on your laurels! Don't be content with being mildly boring! Go into training and become stupefyingly boring! Become the most boring person, or pair of persons, that anyone knows, so that when guests lists are being written out, people say, 'We must have the so-and-sos, there's nobody quite as genuinely boring as them!' "

One of the odd things about that show is that at the end, when everyone was milling about ready to go home, I found myself standing next to Kenny Everett, the late regretted Kenny Everett, who was standing there in a daze saying over and over again, "He's wonderful! He's just wonderful!"

You can see why Kenny Everett would like Crisp. But suppose, just suppose, it had not been Kenny Everett but John Major standing there. Suppose John Major were setting off on his career, and had been told by advisers that if he wanted to get anywhere he would have to be more dynamic and charismatic. Suppose that, on the verge of going to charisma classes, John Major had gone to the Quentin Crisp show and had seen the light.

"I must be more buttoned up. not less," he would have said. "I must develop my own potential. I must be the greyest, most uninspiring, blandest, most honest and trustworthy politician yet seen! Not only will it make me different from all the other Flash Harrys, but it will annoy the media like mad. I will never let anything get under my skin. I will become Mr Smiley and get under their skin."

And it worked!

And now Mr Major is poised for the next turn in his career. He is ready to become one of those smiling, oh-so-trustworthy middle-aged men who walk through open-plan offices in television ads to advertise direct insurance or mortgages, talking to the camera as they go.

"Do you really honestly and sincerely want to cut down all your insurance premiums and get the best service?" he says, looking at you honestly and sincerely. "Just gives us a phone call here at Ring Direct. We'll do the rest."

The reason all these men are always walking through offices, of course, is to reassure those of us who think that at the other end of these firms called Ring Direct there is only one man and a phone. But when you see him on television, you can see he has a big back-up system.

So why not John Major?

"Hello," he says, walking through a big open-plan office full of actors working on screens pretending John Major isn't there. "I'm here to tell you how Government Direct can work for you.

"Do you sincerely want lower taxes? Do you feel you are paying too much to the state each week? There is a very simple set of policies which can stop you doing that. They're called Tory policies. All you have to do is ring us here at Government Direct and register your vote. Alternatively, if you don't feel like it, don't. Just let us get on with it.

"Government Direct. People you can trust. I'd better stop now, because I've walked to the end of the office and there's nowhere else to go. Bye."