TV UK, 18 May

In the studio audience for a show with Tony Blair: 'If anybody is here to assassinate Blair, I thought, shoot me instead'

Dolan Cummings

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The night of Wednesday 16 May, Liverpool beat Deportivo Alaves in a scintillating UEFA Cup Final in Dortmund. There were nine goals and two sendings off. According to Alan Hansen, the game will be unsurpassed in modern times.

I spent the evening in Watford Leisure Centre.

I had been invited to join the audience for a special Dimbleby programme with Tony Blair. After queuing for 20 minutes to be frisked, I was led into a makeshift TV studio with 150 ordinary members of the public. We sat obediently while the sound people measured the volume of our applause. Then the editor appeared and introduced a warm-up discussion on the government’s plans to give handbooks to newly married couples.

This could be fun, I thought. But before we could get going, Jonathan Dimbleby appeared.

Dimbleby didn’t tell the story about Enoch Powell’s bladder that he told the last time I was on the programme (and, I am reliably informed, before every programme he has ever done). This programme was special. Instead, he apologised in advance for not letting everybody speak. He knew we would all be keen to pipe up, but we only had 50 minutes. ‘Is that…? No, false alarm – they’re still fixing his hair.’

Then Dimbleby ran through the agenda: sleaze, the NHS, tax, crime, possibly asylum, certainly Europe. ‘And…. Yes, here he is. Ladies and gentlemen, a round of applause for the prime minister.’ And there he was: Tony Blair in the flesh. It struck me that he looked in the flesh very much like he does on TV. But then, he was on TV.

The sense that I was watching TV rather than taking part in a live discussion was reinforced by the banality of the whole sleaze issue. As Blair and Dimbleby tussled over the Hinduja ‘scandal’, I occupied myself by watching the flashing lights on top of the cameras as the director switched from one to another.

Things didn’t get better when the audience was brought in. Several people professed to feel very let down by New Labour. Somebody even accused Blair of putting his own interests before those of the country. If only. Call me an existentialist snob if you will, but the audience seemed to be playing a role dictated by the programme rather than thinking for themselves. That’s showbiz, I guess.

There followed a less-than-scintillating discussion on tax and the NHS, and then Dimbleby announced that we only had four minutes left, so we could only do one more topic. The audience came to life. Unemployment! Education! Constitutional reform! Crime! (That was me – keen to be the only person asking Blair to do less rather than more.)

Amid the hubbub, somebody shouted the question on everybody’s lips, ‘Prime minister, how is baby Leo?’. ‘Probably asleep’, was the answer. ‘Lucky him’, said Dimbleby, as if he were in no way responsible for the general stupor. ‘We’ll talk about Europe,’ he said. If anybody is here to assassinate Blair, I thought, shoot me instead.

Throughout the programme, Blair had used the time constraints of TV brilliantly to his advantage. He always appeared desperate to go on longer than Dimbleby would let him, always on the brink of winning the argument once and for all. After the programme came Blair’s piece de resistance. Instead of being whisked off to his next press engagement, he hung around in the studio, empathising with disgruntled farmers and signing autographs for a full 10 minutes.

Meanwhile in Dortmund, the UEFA Cup Final also went into extra time. It took a burly minder, rather than a golden own goal, to bring proceedings to an end in Watford. I was left to reflect that at the end of the day, in TV as in football, it’s not the time on the clock that counts, but the standard of play.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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