Politics and TV: the odd couple

No modern political chat show, including ITV’s new one The Agenda, has a patch on The Wright Stuff.

David Bowden

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I’m fairly certain that part of the appeal of recent Danish dramas The Killing and Borgen is that they feature fictional political chat shows that, in contrast to their real-life counterparts, are actually interesting. The personal intrigues driving the characters’ political machinations give their media appearances a dramatic set-piece quality that is often at odds with the banal setting of TV studios. If real politicians’ personal lives were half as intriguing, it would probably help liven up programmes like Question Time.

Watching broadcasters trying to find adequate ways of producing engaging current-affairs discussions can be bewitching, although for dispiriting reasons. In-depth debate and ratings-driven television are less like strange bedfellows than like drunken strangers fumbling their way around a sexual encounter. Both sides know what they’re in it for and hope it will work out for the best but, ultimately, they also know that it’s best not to give too much away to one another. Political chat shows can veer between the old-fashioned courtliness of Question Time and the in-out quickie-style of Channel 4’s 10 O’Clock Live. At their worst, as with the late-night Westminster Village review, This Week, news programmes can kinda sound like your parents going at it.

These shows are in a difficult bind, as they try to generate the free-flowing intensity of real-world political debate while being bound by all manner of broadcasting codes and regulations: they have to be careful not to display bias, for instance, and not to include foul-mouthed or libellous outbursts. Throw in the smooth media-training of your average contemporary ideas-lite politician and showbiz’s understandable love/hate relationship with audience participation and you start to wonder why the worlds of politics and television don’t just settle for a nice cuddle instead.

Recently, programme-makers have tried to spice things up with a few gimmicks. In the case of Question Time, you can now follow the often stilted discussions in real-time on Twitter. This has certainly added a fresh dimension to the show as it captures some of the yaa-boo hiss quality missed by the supposedly representative public in the studio, though it tends broadly to reflect the Guardianista prejudices of the Twitterati.

The BBC’s two alternating Sunday morning shows try something similar. Sunday Morning Live gets commentators to appear via webcams, which could work if the notoriously unreliable technology was properly developed. Also, regardless of what’s being said, it’s difficult to escape the underlying associations of such vox-pops with kidnap videos, or with the threat somebody may be about to expose themselves, Chatroulette-style. The other Sunday show, The Big Questions, has a reasonably sensible format – a panel of ethical commentators, including a religious figure – but then takes deranged pleasure in firing abstract questions off in a deathly serious manner. ‘Does the devil exist?’ was one of my personal highlights.

Stepping into the arena this week was ITV’s The Agenda, which at least gives the impression of having gone to the effort of putting on a fresh pair of undercrackers and a winning smile. As formats go, it’s fairly straightforward: leading political correspondent (Tom Bradby) chairs 20-odd minutes of chat on the week’s big events with a panel of talking heads. The selection for the first instalment was safe and solid – celebrity London mayor Boris Johnson, trade unionist Brendan Barber, Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson and token celeb, actress Jenny Agutter. And fair play to her. She made the sensible point that having a free press far outweighs the more tawdry aspects of the gossip sheets, and she made a plea for serious journalists to stop obsessing over the goings on at News International. Agutter doesn’t seem to do much political campaigning outside of fundraising for research into cystic fibrosis, but she seemed to reflect the public mood more than anyone else.

Still, the undoubted star of the field is the most tabloid-like show of the lot: Channel Five’s weekday morning discussion programme The Wright Stuff. Presented by Matthew Wright, a former writer for the Sun, the Daily Mirror and the Daily Star, the hectic discussion programme reminds you that there is a certain skill in presenting broad topics in a savvy manner. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but there’s a certain knowing honesty to the proceedings here. One edition caused a stir by speculating on whether viewers would consider having sex with Amanda Knox, which Wright fairly countered only mirrored most of the tawdry media speculation on the topic – but in blunter terms.

It may be heavy on the celebrity gossip and light on the economic theory, but in a climate where tabloid culture has become the whipping boy for every hack with an axe to grind, The Wright Stuff has quietly built an enviable public profile and an appetite for discussion. And it has done so on lowly Channel Five for well over a decade. While politicians and TV producers alike scratch their heads trying to appear intelligent and worthy while providing little of substance, the morning hour with Mr Wright provides an oft-overlooked window on the contemporary world.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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