Not wanting to be mean, I waited a week to get stuck into Peston on Sunday (15 May, 10am, ITV). I knew that none of the big things would have changed by its second outing. There would be no getting rid of its theme tune, which is like the three-note jingle that Ruth Madoc used to play on a glockenspiel in Hi-de-Hi! as reworked on a Casio organ. Ditto its faux-loft set, which looks so much like it belongs to a comedy spoof of an early-Nineties breakfast show that you half-expect Victoria Wood to stroll in, talking loudly of ladies’ troubles and Battenberg cakes.
But I did assume that the programme’s host would at least have ceased referring to the big screen that is a central feature of the show as “Screeny”, a diminutive of – ho, ho – “Screeny McScreenface”, and, perhaps, that Allegra Stratton, the national editor of ITV News, would be allowed to do rather more than stand in front of this seemingly pointless bit of technology. (It is used mostly to display tweets. The show is obsessed with Twitter, even as the rest of the world falls out of love with it.) Surely by now it would have occurred to someone other than me that, in 2016, it’s a bit much to expect an intelligent and highly capable woman reporter to play, however gamely, Anthea Redfern to Peston’s Bruce Forsyth?
It goes to show just how wrong you can be. Screeny, it seems, is staying and Stratton continues to be marooned beside it until the programme’s final minutes, at which point she hotfoots it to a strange, teardrop-shaped table loaded with croissants and orange juice to join the guests. Last Sunday, the guests included Liz Kendall, the Blairite Labour MP, and Jacob Rees-Mogg, the fuddy-duddy Tory who longs for Brexit. Poor Jacob. He is the kindest man you could ever meet – truly, he is – but chirpy Sunday-morning television is not his forte. Halfway through his long disquisition on European history (“Philip II of Spain, blah, blah . . .”), Peston had to tell him, in effect, to shut up.
I was surprised by this. His technique thus far as an interviewer has mostly been to let politicians ramble on and to interrupt his “civilian” guests every other word. (Louis Theroux and the brilliant neurologist Suzanne O’Sullivan, who appeared in the first episode, were barely permitted to finish a sentence.) The overall effect is to suggest that Peston respects politicians – “I’m sorry to press you on this . . .” – much more than he does other species of human being, which is unfortunate. I would be willing to bet him a large carton of Tropicana with bits that his audience doesn’t feel remotely the same way.
The “big” interview was with Jeremy Corbyn, who refused – when Peston admitted that he had been gazing at pictures of the Labour leader’s gorgeous childhood home – to admit to being middle class, preferring to describe himself as “an owner-occupier”. The obvious response to this would have been a question along the lines of “What’s wrong with being middle class?” or “Why are you acting like it’s a dirty word?” (Also, why didn’t the show display the relevant page from PrimeLocation on its screen?)
Peston, however, had other fish to fry – namely, Nigel Farage – so the saga of Yew Tree Manor and Corbyn’s halcyon boyhood was left to lie. Farage? A wholly predictable interviewee, albeit one whose facial expression on this occasion strongly suggested that he was trying hard not to release a loud blast of wind. Peston got him to reveal that he thinks Donald Trump will win the US election, an insight into his fantasy world that I could probably have done without at 10.40am on a Sunday.
And so to the end. Farage was followed by Tim Samuels, the author of a book about masculinity, which is apparently in crisis. Alarmingly, the words “penis” and “testes” were mentioned – though thankfully no one was tempted to demonstrate their meaning using a pain au chocolat and two croissants, or by nodding naughtily in the direction of Farage. Meanwhile, the camera focused for a few moments on Peston’s face. What did his basilisk stare reveal? Hmm. He looked palely delighted to me, still high on having his name above the door, but perhaps aware, too, that the goods inside are not yet up to scratch.
This article appears in the 18 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster