Peering into the abyss

Television - Andrew Billen on why we should be sorry to lose a decrepit institution

Alastair Campbell must have done something truly terrible to Molly Dineen - confiscate the unused videotape from her 1997 party election broadcast for Labour, for example - for her to have made The Lords' Tale (Channel 4, 3 November). It proved to be the best argument for the retention of the hereditary principle that I have come across and not a bad one for the abolition of new Labour. If Dineen came to mock the crusty old peers, by the time she left, a few days after 654 of them lost their right to sit and vote, she was in mourning weeds.

Like London Zoo and the decrepit, pre-modernised Angel Tube station in London, the subjects of Dineen's most famous documentaries, the Upper House has been living on borrowed time for years, ever since, in fact, the 1911 Parliament Act stated that reform would "brook no delay". But Dineen loves anachronistic institutions in the way others love out-of-season seaside resorts. Here again, she discovered that although an institution may deserve demolishment, those who run it tend not to. Thus, the despised old nobs, the Tory "lobby fodder" "bussed in" to thwart the People's will, turned out to be in every respect nicer than the professional politicians who wanted them out.

At first, it seemed as if Dineen, with her charmingly ingenuous voice ("Have you met this heavenly bird?" asked Earl Ferrers of a chum), was deliberately picking the House's weakest relics. On their first appearance, a caption mockingly cited the year their title had been created. Yet you soon realised that the more remote the year, the less in hoc the descendant was to power in general, and the power of the party machine in particular. The inevitable conclusion was that an upper house of nominees would look more modern but be infinitely more corrupt.

Earl Stockton, Macmillan's grandson, swaggered, but then his granddad only got his peerage 20 years ago. Earl Romney, whose family had been mere riff-raff barons until 1801, did not swagger. He lived alone in a modest farmhouse without, it seemed, any party political convictions at all, save for a vague suspicion that democracy was an excuse to consult everyone and then go ahead and do what nobody wants. Reckoning he had nothing original to say, he never did get round to making his maiden speech. But he made a point of listening.

A humorous codger called Earl Westbury owed his seat to the year 1861, but turned out to be a war hero who used his access to Westminster to impress donors to his favourite charity, St John's Ambulance. He had, one felt, repaid the debt to society imposed by his birth. Lord Erroll (1452), meanwhile, was a with-it software designer and entrepreneur while Lord Gray (1445) manned his own petrol pumps in Argyll. "I'm a comparatively ordinary bloke," he said. You wonder how many pump attendants a reformed system would bring to the second chamber.

Dineen says she fears being accused of making a one-sided film and blames Labour's refusal to co-operate. It certainly did not help that there was no one there to put the case for abolition. That said, she wrung all available pathos out of the "indignity" of the 240 Tory peers having to vote for the 42 who would linger on in the chamber until a new system was decided upon. As a propagandist, she also had the luck to find that their last stand was against a cut in allowances for the disabled rather than, say, trying the abolition of fox-hunting. And how many intolerably rich and complacent toffs, I wondered, ended up on the cutting-room floor? With the exception of Lord Carrington, whose conceit appears infinite, and the canny Tory leader, Lord Strathclyde, all her peers were kindly old walruses. Who could dream of closing their rest home?

Yet Labour gloated as it set about its clubbing expedition. The war cries of Tony Blair and Margaret Beckett were unpleasant enough, but Gerald Kaufman's nastiness excelled them. If, he said, MPs supported the amendment restoring the disability payments, they would be taking the side of "two dukes, 28 earls, 22 viscounts and Andrew Lloyd Webber". As Earl Ferrers (1711) pointed out: "Who people are is not their fault and people who come, come to do a job of work." Yet Kaufman, despite himself, made the real case for the abolition of the hereditary principle in the legislature. If a revising chamber, even when it is doing good works, can be so easily discredited, it is high time it was revised itself. Elect the Lords, I say. Give them teeth. But ban anyone who has ever before stood for election.

Incidentally, just as Lords reform is taking an eternity, it is worth admiring the almost ridiculous amount of time Dineen took to make this film. To her amusement, one of her dandruffy, white-moustached favourites, Lord Romney, told her that by the time her film was shown he would long be dead. "I'm not laughing," she said, "at your early death but because it takes me so long to make a film." The earl was wrong, however. The hereditaries were kicked out in November 1999 and, although it has indeed taken her three years to edit her documentary down to 90 delicious minutes, the House of Lords database happily insists he remains extant.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times