Anal fissures, man boobs and domestic violence - it's Men's Hour on Radio 5 Live

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Men’s Hour
Radio 5 Live

The first edition of a new series of Men’s Hour (Sundays, 9pm) promised “a Brighton man on his third jaw implant and a cosmetic surgeon who outlines just what steps presenter Tim Samuels needs to take to improve his looks”.

Possibly the third jaw implant was still too accentuated by rows of pus-yellow stitches to make it into the studio, because on the day of the programme Samuels was joined instead by Tristan, who solemnly admitted to having the soundly less exciting Botox and fillers but was opposed to the whole boiled egg look in general. “I’m not a wax candle. That’s key.”

The cosmetic surgery segment was pointedly non-judgemental. There can be absolutely no place for scorn or incredulity on Men’s Hour. No Jenni Murray shading her voice with bottomless pity or helping herself to calves liver and fried sage while the latest dolled-up sharpie of a TV chef frantically paws for answers.

(I once, years ago, saw Nigella sitting outside the Woman’s Hour studio patiently waiting to be interviewed on air, holding an enormous, seething baking tray packed with chicken legs and wings emitting clouds of crisp BBQ smoke. This was 10am. But what Jenni wants, Jenni – quite rightly – gets.)

Samuels is too keen to be liked and lets his guests get away with murder. “I did feel I just wanted to have the injections because I just wanted to have the look,” concluded one guy, after zero thought.

Samuels nodded at this pearl and let it pass, in that slow-blooded way of his, as though he left home for a short walk once and just lost track of time, which is, I guess, how many of us feel about life, but now and again one wishes Samuels might get excited about something.

Anal fissures, man boobs, domestic violence – it was all discussed in the underpowered tones of a hairdresser who’s letting you sit with a post-shampoo towel on your head while they distractedly gather their tools. I’m not saying that presenters continually need to sound like inmates of the gulag stunned by the goings on in the remote libertarian hinterlands (you injected your face with a mixture of your own blood and a numbing agent? Tell me again!) but give it some welly, Tim. Give it some Jenni.

Filler night. Photo: Getty Images.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories