The Confessions of Gordon Brown

The Brown with whom I had slight journalistic dealings 20 years ago was kind. Turning him into a giant felled by demons (not all of them his own) adds grandeur to a short and undistinguished reign.

The Gordon Brown currently bouncing off the walls at Trafalgar Studios is not so much the confection of the writer Kevin Toolis and the actor Ian Grieve as their great big, sweating pudding. Usually actors fail to match the stature of the originals when they play wellknown people but Grieve is a larger-than-life Brown, whose introversion is one aspect that this powerful yet in the end unsatisfactory show fails to capture. This is the former PM as a foul-mouthed bull, caged and ranting in his Kirkcaldy home, madly plotting his return to power – so madly that sometimes he believes he is still in office, waiting for his lackadaisical staff to arrive at 6am.

The supersized approach to Brown has its pay-offs. Turning him into a giant felled by demons (not all of them his own) adds grandeur to a short and undistinguished reign. He compares himself with a deposed Egyptian emperor and the global economic collapse to a biblical plague. The play’s grand theory is that he was burdened by a sense of destiny bestowed by being born the son of a Presbyterian minister who “spoke the word of God and devoted his life to the community” – but that his origins also doomed him. The granite Scot was incapable of wooing “Southland”, as Brown apparently renamed Middle England.

Yet by playing him at one bad-tempered pitch, Grieve makes intimacy, let alone sympathy, hard to achieve. Brown’s failings are hammered home: his paranoia, jealousy, indecision, untidiness, his inability to manage his diary and his micromanaging: “Do I have to do everything myself?” To these is added, on dubious authority, xenophobia, marked in a near-racist and near-libellous speech invoking “small brown men”, “Krauts” and “feckless Greeks”. If the play has one great insight, it is Brown’s dependency on focus groups, the mirror on the wall that never tells him he is the fairest of them all.

Toolis does not explore where this insecurity came from. The accident in a school rugby match that leaves him with a detached retina is awarded a metaphorical significance – the Samson-like blinding of a strong man that leads to moral myopia. It was surely more likely a cause of his pathological caution. As for family drama, Brown almost breaks down at the thought of John Smith’s death and just stops himself calling him a “real father”. Yet his real father outlived Smith and was often invoked by Brown. To the death of his first child and the disability of another, no reference is made, though it is hard to believe such personal sorrows did not seep into public life.

Brown’s Scottish exile is explicitly compared with Napoleon’s on St Helena. Taking comfort where he can, he points out that he is considerably taller than the Corsican, as well as Tony Blair. His hair cheers him: baldies such as IDS and William Hague had as much chance of the premiership as a bald man has of reading the news on TV. Here, the BBC’s Nick Robinson, seated in the audience ready for a post-show panel discussion, laughed dutifully. Vanity is added to Brown’s sins: hair gel in his desk and a dressing mirror in the corner of the room. He is not only a tragic hero brought down by hubris, but Narcissus.

The Brown with whom I had slight journalistic dealings 20 years ago was kind. Friends tell me of his courage. Power must have curdled the milk of his human kindness. Robinson told the audience that by Brown’s final year in power, relations were so unpleasant, he found them personally upsetting. I have a horrible feeling that, like so much else, Brown brought this play on himself.

Until 28 September. trafalgar-studios.co.uk Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

Former prime minister Gordon Brown. Image: Getty

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.

This article first appeared in the 16 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The deadly stalemate

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Why do politicians keep making podcasts?

Nick Clegg is the latest to take to the internet airwaves.

“Rage is the opposite of reason. Discuss!”, Nick Clegg declares jauntily at the start of the first episode of his new podcast, Anger Management. The former Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister can now be heard on the internet airwaves fortnightly, grilling guests about what he calls “the politics of anger”. Since his show is introduced by a montage of angry politicians shouting, it’s guaranteed to raise the listener’s blood pressure before the host even starts talking.

Clegg is just the latest in a long run of politicians to try their hand at podcasting. Perhaps the most notable example in the UK is the former Labour leader Ed Miliband, whose Reasons to be Cheerful show made in partnership with the former Absolute Radio DJ Geoff Lloyd hit number two in the iTunes podcast chart when it debuted in September 2017 and was recently nominated for a 2018 British Podcast Award. Jacob Rees-Mogg, too, has a fortnightly podcast called the Moggcast, which launched in January 2018 and is hosted by Conservative Home. Where once a politician might do a phone-in show on LBC or guest host The Jeremy Vine Show  on BBC Radio 2 to show how in touch and relatable they are (as in Call Clegg, which aired on LBC from 2013 to 2015, or Ed Milibands lunch time death metal scream), they can now go it alone.

In his column in the i newspaper introducing the podcast, Clegg puts his finger on exactly why it is that politicians find podcasting so attractive: it’s all about control. “I have grown to abhor the tired and tested confrontational interview format,” he writes. On his podcast, “there is no wish to pounce on a slip of the tongue or endure a soundbite being hammered home”. There’s a freedom to this kind of on-demand internet audio, which can be delivered directly to an audience without having to get past the traditional gatekeepers of broadcasting. There’s no need to put up with John Humphrys or work with the BBC’s requirement for political balance. The politician, usually on the receiving end of whatever the interviewer wants to throw at them, is in charge.

Given this, it’s unfortunate that in his first episode Nick Clegg falls foul of his own edicts. His first guest is former Ukip leader Nigel Farage (coincidentally also the host of a podcast called Farage Against the Machine). It’s a slightly odd choice of guest to launch the show — made, no doubt, to generate controversy and a higher iTunes chart position — and it doesn’t exactly show Clegg’s broadcasting skills in a good light.

In a recorded disclaimer that plays before the interview, the former Lib Dem leader and vocal Remainer tries to pre-empt criticism that he’s giving a platform to someone with pretty unpalatable views. He explains that the first half of the 47-minute episode is meant to be about Farage’s “life, not really me cross-questioning him”, and that to hear them “locking horns more on the issues of the day” listeners must wait until the latter part of the show.

This approach results in Clegg letting Farage get away with a number of fact-light statements early on, and then later adopting the Humphrys-style tactic of repeatedly interrupting Farage before he can finish a point. As an interview style, it’s the worst of both worlds — neither spacious enough to allow the guest to explain their thinking fully, nor robust enough to provide an effective rebuttal. Hosting a podcast is a deceptively hard thing to do. It would take someone substantially more skilled behind the microphone than Clegg to completely reinvent the one-on-one discussion format in a single episode.

The lure of podcasting for politicians is in the way listeners react to the medium. The entire burgeoning podcast advert market is founded on research that points to a strong sense of intimacy between podcast host and audience — it’s a level of loyalty and engagement that surpasses many other forms of media. In politics, that can be harnessed for electoral gain: for instance, Hillary Clinton had a podcast called With Her that ran during her 2016 presidential campaign.

The trouble is that politicians aren’t necessarily that good at making podcasts. They’re not journalists, and they don’t often have a good nose for what makes a strong show for the listener, or take the advice of those who do. For those still in office (or, like Clegg, still wanting to participate in politics despite losing his seat), there are other pressures that can prevent them being completely honest on air. As Amanda Hess pointed out in the New York Times in 2017, the best episodes of Clinton’s podcast were made after she lost the election, when she moved out of campaign mode and just tried to process what had happened like everyone else.

The rise of the podcasting politician is the result of a few different factors: an increased dominance of personality in politics; the tendency for us all to gravitate towards our own “filter bubbles” of reassuring content; and an ever-more polarised media climate. For my money, the best show to come out of this trend so far is Ed Miliband’s. He leans in to the “geeky” stereotype that haunted him for his entire career and, guided by veteran broadcaster Geoff Lloyd, is seeking to make something that looks beyond the political bubble.

Podcasts are at their best when they serve a particular niche interest group: there’s clearly a community of people who enjoy listening to Jacob Rees-Mogg intoning bleakly about obscure areas of policy, and best of luck to them. Politicians should realise that it is not a form that works when you try to appeal to everyone. Otherwise, like Nick Clegg, they will end up telling Nigel Farage that he’s “very good at the high horse stuff about how the EU is ghastly” in a strained tone of voice.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.