When Homer met Tony
Television - Andrew Billen applauds the PM's judgement in agreeing to appear on The Simpsons
To add to David Cox's impressive list in last week's New Statesman of jobs Tony Blair would be unequal for, should anything happen to his nice little earner at No 10, along comes voice-over artist. In the latest episode of The Simpsons (8pm, 9 January, Sky One), the family flew to Britain and was greeted at Heathrow by Blair himself. Nothing, as they say, unusual in that. The iconography of The Simpsons is notoriously eclectic. Indeed, part of the intent of the show's satire is the joke it makes against television's tendency to reduce all its participants, from B-movie actors to world leaders, to the primeval sludge of celebrity. When Blair, who sports a James Bond jet-pack on his back, shoots off after their encounter to greet "a lovely Dutch couple at Gate 23", Homer wondrously exclaims: "I can't believe I met Mr Bean."
In this case, however, the British prime minister connived in the joke and accepted the invitation to play himself on the show, following in the grand tradition of Mel Gibson, Michael Jackson, Paul and Linda McCartney and Elizabeth Taylor. Last April, Al Jean, the Simpsons man from Burbank, slipped into Downing Street, held a microphone under the prime ministerial chin and listened as Blair recited: "I want to encourage all the world to see the beauty of 21st-century England." Officially, according to Downing Street, this was "an opportunity for him to promote the UK tourism industry", and Euan and co presumably regard this as the coolest moment of their father's premiership, but even they must have blushed at the blandness of the lines he was given, as well as at the stiffness with which he delivered them. (Not, it should be said, that everyone can be Ellen DeGeneres in Finding Nemo.)
As war clouds lowered last year, Blair apparently fretted over this moment of joie de vivre and made it clear that he would consider it infra dig were the episode shown before the Iraq war was proclaimed a famous victory. He need not have worried. Just because it is impossible to imagine any other British prime minister participating in anything similar (Alec Douglas-Home as the visiting toff in The Flintstones; Jim Callaghan being interviewed by Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show) does not mean we can condemn Blair as a nerd or lightweight.
Our PM is a genuine Simpsons fan who gets the programme taped to watch later with the kids. He shows taste and judgement. A dozen years in, The Simpsons has maintained a popularity, quality and integrity rivalled only by the benign reign of Franklin D Roosevelt. It may be made under the aegis of Rupert Murdoch, but its politics have remained impeccably enlightened and, indeed, informed: an episode a few weeks ago, a glorious musical skit on Evita, contained references to Richard Nixon, Eleanor Roosevelt, Geraldine Ferraro, a walk-on by Michael Moore and a moronic grumble by Homer against "the liberal media". While Blair will have said yes for a lark, Alastair Campbell will have pondered and advised, "Yes, we'll have a slice of that."
The Simpsons episode 317, The Regina Monologues, was far from a classic but no dud either. It conformed to the usual recipe of confecting a plot as light and nebulous as a blancmange and then somehow inserting into it shafts of satire sharp enough to make your tongue bleed. It began, as all American fairy tales should, with an unexpected gift of money, in this case a $1,000 bill that flies out of Mr Burns's ATM machine and into Bart's bedroom. The note is eventually reclaimed, but not before the family has made three times its face value by charging the gormless poor of Springfield to look at it (note the commentary on America's obsession with money for its own sake).
The cash is then used to take the family to London, partly as a treat for Marge, who craves for once an incident-free vacation, and partly to fulfil Grandpa's hope of meeting a wartime sweetheart he seduced on the eve of D-Day. Once arrived, Homer crashes the hire car through the gates of Buckingham Palace, rear-ends the royal coach, is locked in the Tower of London ("as seen in King Ralph") and escapes by secret passage into the Queen's drawing room. He begs for mercy in a fine speech that precises the current specialness of the Anglo-American relationship: "I know that I, like many other Americans, have behaved like a total buffoon, but we Americans are England's children. I know we don't call as often as we should and we aren't as well behaved as our goody-two-shoes brother Canada - who's never had a girlfriend (I'm just saying) - but please find it in your jewel-encrusted heart to forgive me."
And, through all this nonsense, we in Britain are informed of the information the American mind currently retains about us. England (the term is synonymous with Britain) is Mary Poppins, black cabs, Ian McKellen (who voices himself), J K Rowling (who does the same), Judi Dench, My Fair Lady, homosexual toffs, fish'n'chips, the tabloids, Hugh Grant, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Queen and, of course, Tony Blair. It's as if Cool Britannia never happened. Perhaps next year Ricky Gervais will personify Britain on the show. Until then, I fear, most Americans will smugly conclude that Homer drunk is a better man than Blair sober.
Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times