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30 June 2016updated 03 Aug 2021 3:41pm

The good, the bad and the ugly: behind the scenes of the Brexit broadcasts

Nothing feels more artificial than doing live television, and last weekend was even stranger than usual.

By Helen Lewis

Nothing feels more artificial than doing live television. You sit there, isolated from the rest of the news, hair full of Elnett and face caked in something approaching yacht varnish. Then you’re expected to chat away with an anchor as if you were old mates under dazzling white lights, while seven crew members stand around watching you. Worse, everything has irony baked into it: TV now happens in the lively expectation that it will be instantly giffed, memed and stripped for parts on Twitter. It’s like eating a pre-chewed meal.

We live in such a media-literate culture that politics has the same sense of déjà vu. Its tropes are so familiar from TV programmes about politics that living through them in real-time 3D feels profoundly dissociative. You feel lost in the meta. I once asked a researcher what election night was like. “The only way in which it wasn’t like The Thick of It is that on The Thick of It no one runs around saying, ‘Oh, my God, this is just like The Thick of It!’”

Two days after the Brexit result, I went to College Green in Westminster to record a live version of BBC1’s Sunday Politics. The atmosphere on the muddy lawn, tramped by a thousand assistant producers, was suffused with overwrought importance and high absurdity. Spread out across the grass were tents – “Why don’t you sit in the news gazebo?” a producer told me – from which shell-shocked generals would occasionally emerge, ashen-faced, fresh from rallying the troops through an interview with Radio 5 Live. All it was missing were pillars of smoke, the whump of artillery and a man in a Hawaiian shirt with a cigar. Instead, we had a new shadow cabinet resignation every time we went off air for ten minutes.

That pandemonium compensated for referendum night, when all the channels were at their most sober. Inevitably, David Dimbleby was presiding over a stately galleon of a BBC show, on which things were so serious that Jeremy Vine wasn’t even allowed to dress up as a bendy banana. Over on ITV, Tom Bradby was doing his matinee idol thing (he always looks like someone playing a charming rotter in a detective drama)while Sky News had trapped Kay Burley at a series of parties where she couldn’t make anyone cry. It all reeked of gravitas.

Not so, the rest of the referendum telly. Take The Great Debate at Wembley, which BBC1 screened two nights before the vote. You know, the one that ended with Boris Johnson’s soulful invocation of “Independence Day” (never mind that many countries have an independence day and usually they’re celebrating independence from us). Between speeches from the main panel, led by Johnson and Ruth Davidson, the cameras flicked over to a second panel of people perched on those boy-band-doing-a-ballad high stools. For a moment, I thought that some form of panel Inception had occurred and there would be an infinite regression of panels, each marginally less famous than the last. In the best tradition of light entertainment, possibly the next one would have featured children who looked like Tim Farron and Priti Patel, offering faux-naive zingers.

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The contest for the most surreal offering ended in a dead heat. The night before the vote, Channel 4 locked Jeremy Paxman in a room with an extraordinary collection of politicians and random Nineties celebrities. (Biggest surprise of the campaign: Peter Stringfellow is for Remain.) To put it in perspective, this was a show that Nigel Farage the attention vampire blew off. Poor old Paxman isn’t used to coping with luvvies. I thought he might throttle Sandie Shaw when he asked her about security and she started talking about “spiritism”. Someone with a cruel sense of humour should give Paxo a fluffy talk show. “TELL ME A BETTER SELF-DEPRECATING ANECDOTE FROM THE SET,” he’d thunder at Hugh Jackman. “AND BE QUICK ABOUT IT.”

The joint-weirdest bit of EU telly was ­Jeremy Corbyn’s appearance on Channel 4’s The Last Leg, a show for which the pitch was surely “Top Gear but for sports”. He turned up in a white fur coat and a Bentley for the opening gag, confessed to feeling “seven and a half out of ten” about the EU and essayed a similarly nuanced answer about whether he’d rather have a knob for a nose or a nose for a knob. “You’re really stuck on this whole binary choice thing,” he said, gnomically. Then Russell Crowe turned up to exude his usual low-level petulant menace, crushing any possibility of fun.

Having watched a huge amount of television over the campaign, I have come to five conclusions: 1) our prosperity is assured if we can patent whatever David Dimbleby’s bladder is made out of; 2) no man has ever looked sadder in victory than Michael Gove on Friday morning; 3) Ruth Davidson, Sadiq Khan and Anna Soubry should get more TV bookings; 4) the Leave campaign had so many versions of the same middle-aged, bald, white man that I began to wonder if it was a trick, like three kids in a long coat; 5) Versailles on BBC2 – full of frocks and fireplaces and men with hair like Kate Middleton – is the only thing that kept me sane.

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This article appears in the 29 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies