Even Andrew Neil and my drawing what I thought was a good cartoon couldn’t prevent my falling asleep around 3AM. The by-election result should have been in by then but when Neil said ‘we’re now hearing 4AM’, I knew I couldn’t last. I knew Private Eye would reject my cartoon like they reject every other so five downbeat minutes later, I was in bed and sound asleep.
I love watching by-elections, though they always leave me with the familiar conclusion that politics is ruined by the politicians. Last night was no different. Everything was set up for a good four or five hours of political cuts and thrusts and knees to the groin. I’m always searching for TV to which there’s no obvious structure. I love to watch the free exchange of ideas presided over by a host who understands the nature of debate and allows it to breathe. In that sense, I also happen to think that Andrew Neil is the best thing on the TV at the moment. Where most top presenters have a calm ease about them, they are also generally without character and rarely stray from the autocue. The best examples of that are to be found on BBC News 24. Around 5pm each weekday night, they invite some interesting individual into the studio for an interview. Things are usually reaching the point where they’ve moved past the bland introductions and into some fascinating material. Just when you’re thinking it’s getting good enough to record and watch again, the blithering suit will cut off their guest mid anecdote and hand over to the weather or sport. And you sit there thinking: why, Christ, why? Why interrupt a fascinating interview for some pre-packaged news which you’ll hear five times in the next hour?
It’s to Andrew Neil’s credit that he rarely does that. Neil retains the rough edges of a true journalist. His jokes aren’t always slickly delivered. He might not always know which camera is on but, damn it, he owns his mistakes. It means that he’s best when he’s working solo, adlibbing with his guests, and ignoring the protestations of the studio manager to follow a line of argument. To watch Neil is to enjoy the unexpected or, in a sense, a debate that grows organically from the subject at hand. It’s just a shame that, last night, he was let down by his guests.
The coverage came in two parts. The first was the usual The Daily Politics, ruined by an appearance by the always irritating and precious Ekow Eshun. At one time, my favourite show on TV was the ‘Late Review’. It was sometimes hard gnarly TV that could annoy me as much as I loved it. Then Eschun became a regular and I’d start to turn it off before the introduction. I’d not seen Eschun on TV in a long time so I was prepared to give him a chance but I was making grim mutterings by the time Eshun had finished making a point about the misrepresentation of Africa in the Band Aid single. As an argument it was stretched and predictable and, thankfully, after a few uncertain words of support from Alan Johnson, Portillo and Neil tore into it leaving Eshun sounding like he almost doubted it too. There then followed a brief but fun mike failure, nicely ad libbed by Neil and Omid Djalili, before The Daily Politics moved into election coverage and it was here that the guests proved the point I keep making about Farage.
Farage is the political equivalent of Andrew Neil. He’s another who wouldn’t work well with autocue. He laughs and sometimes makes bad jokes. He doesn’t always have a good answer or a slick line of prepared patter to deflect difficult questions. In an age when politicians seem to be at the Mark Reckless end of the bland scale, Farage is the anti-politician who appeals to people who normally switch off when they hear the same old policy statements coming from the mouths of our professional politicians. In a sense, Farage’s greatest weapon is his sheer amateurish and we British love our amateurs. We’re a nation of amateur astronomers and amateur musicians, amateur engineers and amateur artists. Yet amateur doesn’t mean unskilled or lacking polish. If America has the American Dream, Britain has the British Amateur, those backyard enthusiasts who teach the world a lesson or two. Farage is the Trevor Baylis of Westminster like Andrew Neil is the James Dyson of BBC2.
Between Neil and Farage, I was hoping for an evening of edgy politics and occasional bad tempers. I didn’t stay awake to see if Andrew managed to interview Nige or managed to get under his skin. Instead, I stayed awake until 3AM listening to the likes of Iain Duncan Smith (still that annoying cough) trot out the usual glassy eyed arguments that appear at every by-election. Bad night for the government but a worse night for the opposition. The general election will be different. Protest votes. Yaddah. Yaddah. Yah…
Neil did his best but the show only really came alive when he was chatting with the correspondent at the count, Chris Mason, who displayed his own brand of unscripted banter. Mason was the surprise of the evening. I could have watched five hours of just Mason and Neil but unfortunately there were studio guests and I fell asleep over my cartoon to the sound of a Tory spokesman attacking Labour on a trivial point of policy. I always say that I love politics but hate politicians. Perhaps I should amend that. I hate politicians but I love political journalists. You can keep your Strictly Come X Factors and Downton and Dec. Andrew Neil is the best thing on TV. I just wish we had a better calibre of politician to make his blood run hot.