According to a recent contributor to Radio 4's Start the Week, Winston Churchill's wilderness years were punctuated by journalism of a quality that even he would have been hard put to defend. Among articles penned by the saviour of his nation was one entitled: "Are there men on Mars?" During Robert Kilroy-Silk's own wilderness years on TV he, too, scribbled. I am willing to bet, however, that Churchill at his worst never sank to the level of Kilroy's Sunday Express column on Arabs, which cost him his job at the BBC.
Emboldened by the martyrdom thus conferred, Kilroy decided to expand his range of targets from the Muslim world to mainland Europe. I happened to catch up with him in the Midlands last May, when he was campaigning as a UK Independence Party candidate in the European elections. His technique was to tell shoppers what they thought, and then agree with them. I should have seen his big win coming, although he did not look a hugely credible candidate, since he was telling everyone that, if elected, he had no intention of spending too much time in Strasburg. How he must regret he did not keep his word.
As this enterprising documentary (BBC3, 31 January; repeated on BBC2, 5 February, 8.05pm) showed, the more he turns up, the deeper the hole he digs for himself. As a portrait of how the lack of power corrupts and how the absolute lack of power - and what could be a more perfect example of that than being a Ukip MEP? - corrupts absolutely, Emeka Onono's film could hardly be bettered. Impotent maybe, but what a luridly grim lot the Ukippers are, like a local Rotary club transported to Strasburg after some mix-up by Saga Holidays, and not sure whether to enjoy the holiday or make an official complaint. There is the leader himself, the dishevelled Roger Knapman - Harry Worth to Kilroy's Roger Moore - who in one glorious moment enters and then departs from an office similar to but evidently not his own. When he tries to bollock his star recruit for speaking out of turn, he doesn't even land a light slap on his wrist, but emerges after a two-hour meeting with a statement that the two look forward to disagreeing some more in the future. Kilroy, who knows a thing or two about status, quickly sees that the real leader is Nigel Farage, the one with the official car. Smelling the ambition on each other, they are soon at each other's throats.
Initially, the Ukip MEP who gets the worst press is a cheeky chappy called Godfrey Bloom. At a press conference, he says that no boss with a brain would employ a woman of childbearing age. Even the fascists in the European Parliament are shocked - Alessandra Mussolini taking a particularly dim view. With sitcom inevitability, Bloom becomes the group's nominee for the women's rights committee. He is, however, a master of tact next to the Ukip deputy leader, Mike Nattrass, who at a rally during September's Hartlepool by-election said that the EU project was worthwhile for the Germans because it was easier for them than rolling their tanks into the Sudetenland.
Kilroy is understandably taken aback by the reality of his new colleagues. He tells Bloom that he is no longer allowed to fart without his permission. Thinking the mike is off, he tells GMTV that he doesn't know what he has joined: "Some are serious and some are nutters . . . What's been irritating is that I've been defending some of these bloody right-wing fascist groups." To his limited credit, the former Labour MP seems genuinely distressed to find that his party has formed an alliance with the League of Polish Families, which believes homosexuality is a sin.
As the saviour of his party, however, Kilroy has less going for him than he thinks. He is cleverer than most of the others, but not by a meaningful margin. Onono has to point out to him, for example, that Afghanistan is not, as he has said on TV, an Arab state. His arrogance makes it very hard for him to dissemble, a disadvantage when it comes to masking his ambitions to become leader. Think Michael Heseltine. Think David Owen. At Knapman's first press conference in Strasburg, Kilroy sits grimacing and eye-rolling like Johnny Carson in his prime.
His other problem is his huge capacity to be disliked. People mutter "creep" as he rolls past them in corridors. Neil Kinnock, a man normally with a kindly word for all, reveals reservoirs of bitterness when asked his opinion of him. To Onono, he practises a repertoire of joshing, confiding and sudden bursts of bullying. Think Max Clifford. Think Jeffrey Archer. He is consistently rude and patronising to the one decent constant in his life, his wife, Jan.
On this outing, Onono is a less intrusive Louis Theroux or Jon Ronson. By coincidence, his witty programme was aired just after an internal report accused the BBC of covering European politics in a way that is shallow and weighted to Westminster concerns. It was certainly a surprise to realise I had never before seen on TV the magnificent architecture of the European Parliament. But if we are to get interested, there should be more personality-based profiles of British MEPs, not fewer. The issues will filter through in the end. First, the BBC needs to tell us who we've voted in. We can then make our own decisions about who's serious and who are nutters.
Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times