The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold: Ann and Michael show is a prison drama too far

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The Independent Online
There must be something about politics that makes it especially attractive to members of the acting profession. I suppose one must be forced to admit that Miss (Mssss!) Glenda Jackson is the most illustrious thespian in the House of Commons today, but there are plenty of others whose contributions to stage and screen should not be overlooked.

Take my good friend John Redwood, for instance. It is by now widely known that he came to politics via a highly successful season as the temporary manager of the motel in ATV's long-running drama serial, Crossroads.

Originally picked for the series owing to his uncanny resemblance to regular manager David Hunter, it was while acting in Crossroads that John soaked in all the techniques that he brings to the Parliamentary stage today: that deceptively wooden technique, that gloriously stilted way with words, that extraordinary ability to make even the simplest bodily movement seem complex and infinitely deliberate. But it was while participating so lustily in the Welsh National Anthem that John's background came to the fore: he was, of course, using the famous post-Stanislavskian Amy Turtle Technique, whereby the actor gives the appearance of being alienated from his pre-ordained role by making rapid left-right, right-left eye- movements, as though searching for a hidden script. Dear Ann Widdecombe, too, came to the Palace of Westminster via a firm grounding in drama. For three years, she played the role of the Prison Warder Ivy Blenkinsop in the long-running television series Cell Block H.

Ann brought a marvellous gravitas to the part, and was especially good at capturing her character's kinder side. I think I will never forget that memorable scene in which Warder Blenkinsop struggles manfully with her conscience before coming to the desperately tough decision to prevent Prisoner Sitwell shoplifting again by cutting her right hand off with a humanely sharpened garden axe.

Eventually, of course, Warder Blenkinsop rose through the ranks to become the Deputy Governor, instituting an immediate crackdown on sweets, reporting all inmates found with comestibles in their possession to the Prison Doctor for electric shock treatment. Sadly, after a contretemps with the senior actor playing the Governor, Ann arrived at work one day only to find herself written out of the series in a motorway pile-up on an intersection on the link road between Perth and Adelaide.

It must have been Ann's long experience in the albeit fictitious environs of Cell Block H that recommended her to the Prime Minister as he cast around for a suitable Minister for Prisons to serve under Michael Howard. Alas, Ann and Michael never quite "clicked": I suspect Michael mistrusted Ann's theatrical background (though I once stumbled across a picture of Ann playing opposite Bernard Bresslaw in the role of the bikini-clad Susan Saucy in Carry on Camping taped to the inside of Michael's Home Office locker). Meanwhile Ann, in her turn, grew to feel a lurking suspicion of Michael's propensity for phrasing things in the nicest way possible. "I congratulate you on a job well done," he would say to this Prison Governor or that. The Governor would then smile contentedly - was not a pat on the back from the Home Secretary the summit of a career? - and at that very moment Michael would hand him his cards, glance at his watch, and give him 15 minutes to clear his desk.

The events of this week have shown that Ann and Michael lacked chemistry or, rather, that their chemistry was of the hydrochloric acid variety. My own view is that Michael's career will recover in time - personally, I think he has a good chance in three or four years of landing the plum job of Governor of the prestigious new Floating Prison moored outside Portland Bill, but I fancy that Ann's will have suffered an irreversible setback.

She should have learnt by now that the truth is an ungainly, vulgar instrument, high-pitched and shrill, a cheap horn to be blown in public as little as possible. Parliament is no place to indulge in cheap stunts involving trumpeting the truth. I now hear tell that she is putting together one of her wretched little files on the Ministerial career of my own good self (Minister for Social Advancement 1981-87).

But she will gain nothing from it save the contempt of her colleagues. I note the role of Mother Goose is coming available for a limited season at the Ipswich Gaumont. If Ann plays her cards right, I will have a quiet word with the impresario, who is a personal friend. But if she does not wish to play ball, I will see to it, in the nicest possible way, that this impossible woman will never tread our boards again. Be warned!