A great big rip-off

"Unprecedented access" is wasted in the hands of David Aaronovitch

<strong>The Blair Years </stro

Advance publicity for The Blair Years, a three-part documentary based around a series of interviews with Tony Blair conducted by David Aaronovitch of the Times (Sundays, 10.15pm), suggested that it would be a damp squib because the departed PM's inquisitor had used too much of a soft glove. Well, I'm not going to use soft gloves. I'll use the gloves I favour at the gym, which are big, red and mean.

The series is no damp squib; it's a bloody great rip-off. I know nothing about how Aaronovitch came to arrange his cosy chats with Blair, conducted in the days just before and just after he left office (though I expect Aaronovitch's indefatigable support for the Iraq War stood him in good stead), but it is obvious that journalistically they didn't go at all well. How else to explain the footage of Blair having been cut into tiny bits and scattered through the film like currants in a bun? After much early bluster about Aaronovitch's "unprecedented access", Blair suffered the ignominy in the end of being just another talking head, and a pretty uninteresting one at that. Here is a sample quotation, Aaronovitch having suggested to Blair that Gordon Brown ruined his bold plans for the National Health Service: "The compromise proved to be a lot more marginal than I had anticipated." Riveting, eh?

There was only one moment that I found even mildly revelatory, and it had nothing to do with the tensions between Blair and Brown, the - yawn - subject of part one on 18 November. (The next film is about Blair's foreign policy and - hold on to your seat! - he will say of the Iraq War: "I believed in it. I believed in it then, I believe in it now.") Blair was waffling on, somewhat camply, about his beliefs and, by way of illustration, spoke of how a colleague had once come to him to make a confession that the person felt might lead to him losing his job. Blair wondered what on earth the secret could be (here, he widened his eyes salaciously). So imagine his surprise when the colleague merely admitted that he was going to send his son to a private school. "There could never be anything wrong with saying this one is better, better for my child," he announced, ever so sincere.

I contemplated this statement - I won't unpick it here, as you can probably do that for yourself - with the blood ringing in my ears, and waited for Aaronovitch to push him on it. Silence. Sometimes, of course, silence is the best weapon: Andrew Rawnsley used it to devastating effect in his infinitely superior series about new Labour on Channel 4 this summer. But Blair is not some verbally incontinent backbencher, wetting himself with excitement at the size of the soundman's boom; he is one of the most adroit political performers we have ever had. Any interviewer should have stung him like a bee.

Oh, well. There was fun stuff elsewhere. Frank Field, always cherishable in his priestly way, spoke of Brown's scary glare over the cabinet table as chancellor. He would literally "growl", rather than speak, yet Blair treated him - to Field's amazement - like an "adolescent son who was going through a bad patch". This made me laugh out loud (I suddenly had a vision of Blair quietly slipping Brown a tube of Clearasil before joint television appearances). So, too, did John Birt's appearance: before the 2005 election, the former director general of the BBC helped to put together a document that posited the breaking up of the Treasury. And what does the man sound like? It's as though Uriah Heep had swallowed a McKinsey management consultant's manual - yet Birt was a key figure entrusted with Downing Street strategy. A terrifying thought.

Such moments were mere crumbs, however - and you had to concentrate (and indulge, as I have, in surreal flights of fancy) to enjoy them fully, which tells you a great deal, given how addictively soap opera-like the new Labour project ordinarily appears from the outside. When it comes to political documentaries, my rule of thumb is this: the more castanets you can hear on the soundtrack, the fewer real thrills there will be on offer. The soundtrack of The Blair Years was a positive flamenco dance when it came to castanets.

Pick of the week

This Is Civilisation
Starts 24 November, 8pm, Channel 4
The critic Matthew Collings snappily tells the story of western art.

Monarchy: the Royal Family At Work
26 November, 8.30pm, BBC1
The series that got the BBC into so much trouble is finally unveiled.

Boy A
26 November, 9pm, Channel 4
A young killer tries to rejoin society

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, China