True colours need time to show

Television - Andrew Billen thinks Jeremy Vine should cut out the jokes and focus on questions

''What the hell is he talking about?" was my initial reaction to the way Radio 2's Jeremy Vine introduced the first edition of his Politics Show on Sunday (noon, BBC1). In a week of transport chaos, JV told us that a commuter delayed for two years on an InterCity train had arrived at Newcastle Station and demanded the resignation of Stephen Byers. And then, as the titles rolled, I realised: My God, Jeremy had made a joke. Whereas news shows once started with the arresting headlines, The Politics Show, successor to On the Record, was starting with the "And finally . . ." The bong was dead; long live the bad-a-bing.

Trying to be funny, as is sometimes pointed out, is a crime only in this country, but we should nevertheless be grateful that earlier plans for JV to deliver a full-scale, David Letterman-style monologue were abandoned. The joke and JV's open-necked shirt, however, both point to the BBC's desire to make politics welcoming to those uninterested in Westminster, particularly the elusive young. The fact that you need to know your politics to remember who Steve Byers was, and that JV, with or without a tie, is about as hip as Jimmy Young himself does not seem to have occurred. Yet despite the joke, its silly, double-bluff title and its overlit yet gloomy set (its "windows" look out on to anonymous tower blocks), there is nothing much wrong with the new programme, or, rather, nothing that cannot quickly be fixed.

The trailers claim that it is "about the whole picture, from Downing Street to your street", a dig at its predecessor, On the Record, which pretended with gothic insanity to come from within the mechanism of Big Ben itself. Sure enough, the first item sent a reporter down to Monmouth, where she found the local MP besieged by constituents and activists opposed to war. JV oversold this when he promised that they had "uncovered evidence that once loyal supporters of Tony Blair are willing to oppose him on Iraq" - we all know that - but the report was a decent enough stick with which to club the Labour chairman, John Reid, when he appeared for his studio grilling.

The question here was not if On the Record's John Humphrys would have skewered him more effectively but whether the new ten-minute format allowed Reid to get away with what the old 30-minute interview would have forced him to confront. Instructively, it was only in the final five minutes of Jonathan Dimbleby's vigorous 25-minute quizzing of Tariq Aziz in Baghdad (Jonathan Dimbleby, 1pm, ITV1, Sunday) that the Iraqi deputy prime minister began to show his true colours and lose his rag. In contrast, Reid emerged as happy as a duck in drizzle.

Next it was asylum, and we were off to smell more grass roots, this time in Wolverhampton, where, lark of larks, the reporter found some Asians agreeing with the shade of Enoch Powell. After that , we were treated to a philosophy professor from University College London, who, sitting on Churchill's bed in the Cabinet War Rooms, told us that liberal democracies did not go to war with each other - a "fancy that!" to wow your mates down the pub.

After 20 minutes of regional opt-out, JV returned for a cursory chat with an Italian-accented European correspondent, followed by a political cartoon. This badly animated computer squib needs to go as urgently as the JV joke. Otherwise, in its first outing, The Politics Show did what it set out to: forge links between Westminster and what is known technically as the "real world". Vine, who bonded with viewers when he took the Newsnight van around the county during the election, is an asset and more authoritative now that he's dropped the Paxman impressions.

As for the other changes to the BBC's political programmes, much depends on whether you can stomach Andrew Neil, who is on thrice a week at lunchtimes on BBC2 and weekly on The Week (after Question Time, BBC1, Thursdays). The latter programme has settled down nicely into a political version of Newsnight Review with regular panellists Michael Portillo and Diane Abbott (misnamed, with inadvertent racism, Oona King, in the electronic listings). Last week, Timothy Garton Ash joined them to deliver a little lecture on the coming war. He began by asking how we would feel if Switzerland rather than the US was about to attack Iraq, which sounded terribly clever until you tried answering the question: we'd feel exactly the same, wouldn't we?

Whether Sian Kevill's alarmist review of BBC political coverage has brought improvement or merely change is another matter, but so far there is no evidence that it is worse. The programme I'm keeping an eye on is the new BBC Ten O'Clock News, which now stars Huw Edwards, who breaks the news in the voice family doctors once used to tell little old ladies that their husbands had passed away. His opening bongs are so soft that they sound like Disprins being dropped into tumblers of water. Along with the now obligatory request that we participate by sending him e-mails on "our thoughts", the programme - "the bulletin of record of BBC TV News", according to its website - has also gained a sportscaster, an artificial midway break and a news wall. It's looking dumber by the day.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times