Watching brief - Amanda Platell wants a top-up

Top-up fees? Since when was an increase from £1,100 to £5,000 or even £15,000 a top-up? Perhaps the

Great Britons: the greatest of them all proved many things - celebrity counts, lobbying works and it is possible for BBC2 to fulfil its public broadcasting mandate while still entertaining the masses. It was an excellent idea, well executed.

On the final night, 3.3 million people tuned in to watch the final vote, although almost half as many chose instead to watch that other great Briton, Robin Hood, on rival BBC1.

Amid charges of vote-rigging and very unBritish behaviour from pressure groups, Churchill triumphed, Brunel came second and Lady Diana third, proving that political parties, engineers and historians are effective lobbyists.

Great Britons said as much about the presenters as it did about the presented - it could so easily have been called Britons Who Think They're Great. Was it a coincidence that the front-runners were always those championed by the most famous presenters - Mo Mowlam, Jeremy Clarkson, Michael Portillo, Rosie Boycott and Andrew Marr?

Clarkson was passionate about Brunel in much the same way he is about an Austin Allegro. Marr on Darwin - to Clarkson's taunts, which proved right, of "no one cares" - demonstrated his skill for making the unpopular interesting. He is a political editor, after all.

Rosie Boycott, the journalist's princess, gave us a personal take on the world of a woman driven by compassion and riven by addiction. The recurring motif in Boycott's film on Diana was blood oozing out from under a door. For many of her former employees on the Independent and the Express, that image has its own memories.

Boycott's new-found admiration for Diana came as a surprise to many who have worked with her. I recall, from when I edited the Sunday Express, her displeasure that I had run a series of Diana splashes. "Who cares? She's too downmarket," was her verdict - then.

After leading Churchill to victory, Mowlam wrote a moving account of the greatest war leader ever for the next day's Daily Mirror. "War is terrible," she said informatively, and went on to argue, from personal experience that "war is hell". In her final analysis, the great war leader single-handedly "saved the peace process" - in Northern Ireland.

When the FBU leader Andy Gilchrist accidentally wandered into the Conservative launch of Nikki Page's mayoral candidacy in Westminster, the so-called Scargillite carried it off with all the aplomb of a seasoned Blairite - charming and witty, he made his excuses and left.

These union bosses have learnt a great deal from new Labour. Gilchrist's demeanour demonstrated that it takes more than a spin operation to break a strike. As each day passes, it becomes clearer that Tony Blair has no strategy, except to rally the support of the tabloid newspapers.

The attempt by Blair to demonise Gilchrist and turn the firefighters into Margaret Thatcher's miners is a spin too far, even for this government.

Thatcher had a police force prepared to cross picket lines, the Union of Democratic Mineworkers, a party that supported her (and the majority support of the people, too), a stockpile of coal, and an unrelenting PR operation.

As with the first two great tests of his leadership, the petrol strike and the foot-and-mouth disaster, Blair has been completely unprepared for a national crisis that was about as unexpected as Christmas. Thatcher was determined to smash the miners' strike and she had her party behind her. Blair may be leading a Thatcherite charge, but his party is not following. Nor are the British people.

The other fine mess the Prime Minister has got us into is what he euphemistically calls "top-up fees" for university students. Since when is a fee that increases from £1,100 to £5,000, or even in some cases £15,000, a top-up?

So when Shan Lambert returned to court to fight to increase her £7.5m settlement from her husband Harry to £10.1m, if she'd just asked for a £3m alimony "top-up", then no one would have called her a gold-digger.

Perhaps that's the mistake the firefighters made in their negotiations. Instead of asking for the same increase the politicians gave themselves - 40 per cent - they should have just asked for a salary top-up.

From the moment Danny appeared with Gwendolen in the casino scene of BBC1's Daniel Deronda, all I could hear was the chorus of the Osmonds' "Puppy Love". Why did a writer as successful as Andrew Davies place his most passionate lines in the mouths of babes? How can a viewer feel any stirrings for a male lead who looks as innocent as Donny Osmond and as experienced with women as Michael Jackson? Alas, for me, it will be forever Donny Deronda.

This article first appeared in the 02 December 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Alone they stand, against a dominant PM