Why actors give Blair the bird

Observations on political performers

It takes one to know one. As an actor myself, I can't help testing the stage skills of politicians. It is said that they are all actors. Not so. Most are histrionically challenged, and many media commentators haven't much of a clue about what makes a fine performance.

Take Tony Blair. He gesticulates out of sync with his mouth. This probably came from watching Magnus Pyke when he was a boy. What his trainers did not realise is that mad professors are meant to come across as TV eccentrics, but prime ministers are not. And beware the smile. He's been told it's an asset, got so used to falling back on it that it springs up by itself. The effect can be ghoulish. Actors smile in that sudden terrifying way when they are doing insanity, or to signal to the audience that what they've just said is meant to be hilarious. Watch how many laugh at their own punchlines. Think Tommy Cooper.

And Blair must stop taking his jacket off. David Owen used to do it a lot, too. I remember seeing Owen and a youngish US secretary of state getting out of a helicopter. They ran towards the camera, grinning and removing their jackets. The action hopes to signal: I'm young, relaxed, dynamic, informal. Whereas it shouts: I'm pretentious, imitative, insincere and (for now) a little bit silly.

The best performer of recent times was William Hague. True, he made slips. Baseball caps were for Hague what jackets-off are for Blair. But up there on his feet, four-square on his script, or improvising, he was a genius. Perfect vocal. The half-smile showed control, whimsy. Labour was having trouble with the London elections. "Perhaps the Prime Minister should have two mayors," he said, dead serious. "Frank Dobson for his day mayor." (Short beat.) "Ken Livingstone for his night mayor."

Gordon Brown is a solid enough performer, though Peter Brook could help him with emotional miscalculation. He did the "Labour, Labour" speech at last year's conference like Richard III doing "a horse, a horse", whereas it should have been Hamlet doing "O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I". And yet the smile is so unusual that you register it each time with a sudden burst of joy inside you, as if the daffodils had come too soon or you'd heard a bluebird.

Michael Howard used to seem in the throes of concealed stage fright. There is a timid little glint behind those glasses. Jeremy Paxman noticed it in the notorious repeated question interview on Newsnight. But he does better in performance now that he's no longer understudying.

Margaret Thatcher always delivered her lines as if she wasn't sure she'd get them out in the right order: ponderous, with that forward lean we all do when we are about to dry up. In "the lady's not for turning", she looked so blank you knew she hadn't a clue what it referred to. Master classes with Pru Scales would have helped.

Good performance requires consistent characterisation. Ken Clarke has it: the crumple, the washed-last-week hair, the hyper-confidence. Glenda Jackson, not surprisingly, makes an ace shot at the hurt but defiant and determined rebel. She gleams dangerously in the political dark.

Alastair Campbell in his latest show? He should try limbering up at the bar and doing his vocals before he goes on. It's stiff, Al, wooden, a tad charmless. Victoria Wood's the one to go to.

Finally, there's a new face who will definitely never be short of work. Perfect typecasting. The BBC should sign him up at once: props, make-up, wardrobe, comic pronunciations, the lot. Nobody can do a judge like Brian Hutton.