Andrew Billen - Trouble at the top

Television - The issues of the week are hit on the head: trust and Brown. By Andrew Billen

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On the day after the general election in 1997, Bel Littlejohn in her late, lamented Guardian column gave herself barely a paragraph to rejoice at Labour's victory before declaring that disillusionment had now set in. I was reminded of Craig Brown's fabulous spoof while watching the first of Michael Cockerell's double bill of films about the dear leader (25 September). Do You Still Believe in Tony?, a faux-serious account of the crises of faith suffered by the one-time true Tony believers Richard Eyre, Antonia Fraser, Katharine Hamnett, Rory Bremner and Harry Enfield, made me worry more about what else these guys once believed in. That they'd won a Reader's Digest prize draw? Santa Claus?

"I think I've died and gone to heaven," exclaimed Melvyn Bragg, filmed by Cockerell at the election-night party he co-hosted with Michael Foot as the 1997 landslide was clarified by Peter Snow's graphics. Fraser recalled how, the first time she heard Blair speak, she found herself in the presence of "a man with a vision . . . the force was with him". Eyre, who had obviously failed to note the initials "MP" after Tony Blair's name, felt he was a man he could "take at face value". On that night, "bliss was it to be alive". And these were clever people, paid to critique and satirise the powerful on stage, telly and T-shirts. One was even married to Harold Pinter. Their later disillusionment was as ridiculous as it must have been painful: kicking yourself always is.

So Cockerell got off, I thought, on the wrong track. Outside luvvydom and the Labour Party (and even largely within the latter), surely no one took Blair at his own estimation. After 18 years of the Tories, most of us would have voted for any Labour leader. True, Blair asked us to trust that there would be no return to the Seventies or the loony left, but even at the time, most of us thought he was overdoing it. But - and here Cockerell's film scored - someone important outside Hampstead did take this sincerity shtick seriously, and that someone was Tony Blair.

Cockerell noted how the churchgoing Blair inculcated God in his rhetoric - "I am my brother's keeper . . . I will not walk on the other side of the road" - and also how the schoolboy actor and college pop singer loved the stage. At a public meeting in Edinburgh, he stopped himself mid-patter to declare: "I always wanted to do this on the stage of the Usher Hall." The combination of churchliness and staginess gave us the televangelist Tony - a televangelist who has taken himself in.

Even as domestic scandals accumulated, from Bernie Ecclestone and the Dome onwards, Blair's ambitions to transform the world grew. In his truly frightening speech to the Labour conference after 9/11, he announced that those living "in want and squalor from the deserts of North Africa to the slums of Gaza to the mountain ranges of Afghanistan" were "our cause", too. Such talk ended with the grotesque farce of a Labour prime minister scuttling back and forth to Washington to wage unprovoked war against Iraq over non-existent WMDs.

Cockerell's second film, Friends and Neighbours, on Blair's fraught relationship with his chancellor, made you glad that at least there's someone around who does not think he walks on water, and that someone lives in the flat above him. The tb-gbees, as it is known (or, more distastefully, 10/11), is the other central fact of this premiership, and Cockerell did well getting people on the record to flesh out the rumours. Geoffrey Robinson, the former Treasury minister, said the PM and Chancellor would "go for each other" in private meetings that, thankfully, were not minuted. Derek Scott, the Prime Minister's former economic adviser, complained that Blair would ask for papers from the Treasury and not get them. During one non-speaking phase, Blair finally went on Breakfast With Frost to announce more money for the NHS, provoking the Brown rant later that day: "You've stolen my fucking Budget." This was a psychodrama that had everything, including babies, a wedding and a funeral, but which turned to comedy when, after one bust-up, Blair insisted on a photo-op of the pair "sharing a beer" as they watched the footie on TV.

"It's chaos," said Cockerell's old friend Peter Hennessy, a remark that surprised me, because I seem to remember a previous Cockerell documentary about prime ministers in which Hennessy claimed that Blair's government was the most centralised and controlling ever, with ministers asked to sign personal contracts with the Blairmaster. But the programme built up nicely to convince us that something must give eventually. After Brown's barnstorming, rostrum-gripping speech at last year's party conference, Blair hit back with a Brown-free speech that the cartoonist Steve Bell noted "moved himself to tears". This was politics as Pop Idol.

Cockerell's political biopics are at their best when dealing with the dead or faded. The archive footage of ministers in old-time hats and coats is part of the fun, and there is more frankness available. Yet this brace of films certainly hit the two issues of the week on the head: trust and Brown. Cockerell's offbeat conclusion to the second was that the Blair-Brown dual monarchy has worked out rather well for the economy, and we'll miss it when it's gone. Ah, bliss was it, etc.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

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 04 October 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Muslim is not a dirty word