Prime time

Television - Andrew Billen on how the cameras have a strange effect on our political leaders

Late in the evening on the day before Tuesday's Ask the Prime Minister on ITV (12 December, 7pm), BBC2 showed Michael Cockerell's Royal Television Society lecture, Trust Me, I'm the Prime Minister. A witty canter through the history of British PMs and the box, it made the point of how astutely Tony Blair now rations his appearances in studios. Blair favours local television, mid-morning chats with Richard and Judy and, now, the audience participation format as mediated by a Dimbleby.

What Blair is loath to do, for obvious reasons, is subject himself to the old-fashioned, one-on-one interviews that the electorate expected as of right in the days of Robin Day and Brian Walden. The one time Blair has volunteered for one, Cockerell noted, was six months into his reign, when his minder, Alastair Campbell, decided that the Bernie Ecclestone affair needed "closure". After a week of cameras being pointed at empty chairs on Newsnight, Campbell told his boss: "You need to go and get a good kicking from Humphrys." Blair arrived late from rehearsals with Big Al and then did his "I'm a pretty straight sort of guy" number. Campbell was right. The hounds of the press fell for it and returned, poodle-like, to their kennels.

Blair is Britain's most TV-friendly premier since Harold Wilson, but, as those of us in the lecture theatre noted when Cockerell fluffed his own lines and availed himself of the luxury of retakes, television remains a terrifying medium. In a remarkable piece of videotape from the 1983 election, we saw Robin Day greet Margaret Thatcher in No 10 for what he satirically called "just a short chat". The small talk on both sides was negligible. Like a queasy examinee, Thatcher wanted reassurance about what questions would come up. "General things, unemployment, but the early bit will be this business about you, er, running on a phoney manifesto." Silence. "We're not doing the Belgrano?" Day told her that he did not regard it as an issue. (In fact, he claimed at the 1984 Edinburgh Television Festival, this was also the opinion of the leader of the opposition, Michael Foot - by implication, the heroic Diana Gould, who sunk Thatcher so effectively on Nationwide by asking about it, was meddling in matters beyond her ken.)

But our prime ministers' greatest mistakes on television have been unforced errors: Wilson's "pound in your pocket" broadcast; Thatcher's "I'm always on the job" double entendre on Aspel and Company; Blair's drenched shirt at the party conference. There was much chuckling from the TV professionals attending Cockerell's talk, because they were reminded of those rare moments when the great have been humbled by their peers. "I'm sorry I have to descend to this level, but we all have to keep pace with modern improvements," Churchill growled during his 1951 screen test, but the nipple-high hitch of his trousers demonstrated that the old fellow had not even caught up with the invention of the belt. Not for nothing did Cockerell describe this history as tragicomic. However, he was surely right also to say that the public has been short-changed by the eternal deal struck between politician and broadcaster: "They want our audiences. We want their bodies."

Cockerell is not an egotistical journalist. His wit deals glancing blows, but his final judgements are always forgiving. Having watched him for years, I still cannot guess his politics. A lecture, then, is not his natural medium, and his conclusion to this was commonplace: a plea for more behind-the-scenes access and a live debate between Blair and William Hague. But the programme was a treasure trove - as Cockerell programmes tend to be - of clips plundered from archives and dusty cardboard boxes beneath beds. They really told the whole story for him: from Churchill's grumpy distaste "for this thing they call 'TV'", through Harold Macmillan's professed fear of the camera's "hot probing eye", to Wilson, Thatcher and now Blair's volatile co-dependence.

Talking of dependency, I have rarely seen a more cynical exercise than The Gambler (Wednesdays, 10.35pm, Channel 4), in which, instead of a fee, the writer Jonathan Rendall is given £12,000 with which to bet. In the hands of a sympathetic, detached journalist such as Louis Theroux, an informative examination of the gambling industry would doubtless attach itself to this narrative bone. But Rendall, rarely seen without a cigarette or a drink in his hand, and whose early-morning pallor refreshes the adjective seedy, gives every impression of being an addictive personality for real.

The second instalment is better than the first, which wasted far too much time on irrelevancies such as his back garden, because it took Rendall to Australia and Hong Kong, and thus at least contained insights into different gambling cultures. However, its own probing eye's fixation on Rendall's sweaty, grimly hopeful face as each race is run (and lost) continues to make a major contribution to the television of cruelty. I would suggest that Channel 4 gives £12,000 to a drug user to see if he spends it on rehab or heroin, if I didn't think Tim Gardam might seriously consider the idea.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London Evening Standard

See Bee Wilson's round-up of the year's cookbooks

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.