Why nobody can give a political turkey a right, royal stuffing like Paxo can…

MORTIFIED! Will my wife or Auntie BBC – let alone Britain’s political class, which must be heaving a  huge sigh of collective relief – ever be the same again?

Jeremy Paxman’s announcement that he’s quitting BBC2’s Newsnight prog, after 25 years, has left Mrs. Ash bereft, not to say yours truly without good cause to remain awake until 23.30 (Spanish time), before dozing off in the comfort of hearing yet another political turkey suffer public humiliation by a thousand, deft, verbal cuts.

For those not privileged to have witnessed Paxman’s acerbic interviewing style, imagine the Spanish Inquisition and a Soviet show trial rolled into one, as – giving all due respect to Kipling’s immortal poem, If – he treated all as impostors deserving the same disdain.

With the possible exception of the late Sir Robin Day, who founded the post-modernist school of torture by TV, no-one but Paxman has exploded more pomposity or shattered as many overblown egos.

Media mythology claims the abrasive Yorkshireman coined his approach to interviewees by first asking himself, ‘Why is this bastard lying to me?’ He didn’t. It’s a quote lifted from Times journalist, Louis Heron, who admitted he’d heard it from a colleague.

However, what’s undeniable is the grand inquisitor was the people’s champion, answering their call to probe for truth and accountability by – preferably – steamrollering blusterers into a flat, mushy mess of angst.

So, if he cost £800,000 a year of taxpayers’ dosh, Paxman was worth every penny.

And even if the dreary mechanics of power is the equivalent of brewer’s droop to those disinterested in knowing how the wool is being dragged over their eyes, nothing quite rivalled the sight of a supercilious grandee being give a right, royal Paxo stuffing.

Probably the peak of his reign of intimidation was the demolition of Michael Howard in 1997, when Paxman asked the former Home Secretary the same question 12, successive times…‘Did you threaten to overrule him?’

ARCH INQUISITOR: But who can follow Jeremy Paxman on BBC's flagship Newsnight current affairs show?

ARCH INQUISITOR: But who can follow Jeremy Paxman on BBC’s flagship Newsnight current affairs show?

Few recall the context – the dismissal of the head of Britain’s prison service – or knew Paxman sent Howard a bottle of champagne by way of an apology. Only the interview will live on as a shrine to big, small-screen, political melodrama.

The 2005 general election saw a similar verbal punch-up, this time with Saddam Hussein sycophant, George Galloway, in which Paxman accused the now Respect MP of threatening him, which ended with Galloway walking out of the interview.

Later that year, when David Cameron was running to be the Tory’s head toff, Paxman pressed him on his directorship of a nightclub firm and left the future Prime Minister blathering to explain the ingredients of cocktails like Pink Pussy and Slippery Nipple.

In 2011, he even called a European Commission spokesman ‘Mr Idiot’.

Accused in recent years of being – in his own words – ‘clapped out’, Paxman proved detractors wrong in 2012, by shredding Chloe Smith, then a junior at the Treasury, put up to defend a knee-jerk decision to freeze fuel duty.

In fairness to the fledgling minister, of whom nothing has been heard since, she was raw meat to a voracious rottweiler and whoever threw her into Paxman’s pit – most finger her boss, Chancellor George Osborne – was guilty of heinous cowardice.

Some, however, gave better than they got on the BBC’s flagship current affairs show.

 

Disgraced newspaper tycoon, Conrad Black, labelled Paxman a ‘gullible, priggish, English fool’ when questioned about his imprisonment for fraud.

And, taken to task over his view that voting was a waste of time, gobby comic, Russell Brand, actually forced Paxman to admit he’d also failed to vote in a recent election.

Whatever the hangdog presenter’s personal politics, though, he never wore his colours in action and his quality of mercilessness has never been restrained, whether it was the Prime Minister or leader of the British National Party sitting opposite.

Even Paxman’s BBC masters have felt the sharp cut of his tongue.

To wide acclaim, Paxman was never more scornful about their handiwork than over Auntie’s monumental cock-up of a Newsnight investigation into the Jimmy Savile sex-abuse scandal, which he damned as ‘contemptible’.

Recently he even panned the output of Radio 1 and Radio 1Xtra as ‘hell’.

Meanwhile, Paxman’s remark that the organisation was ‘smug’ not only didn’t win rave reviews from top brass, they demanded he and the equally-forensic John Humphrys, of Radio 4’s Today programme, study an in-house report on ‘courtesy in interviewing’.

Andrew Marr’s Sunday show exemplifies that blandness, although it hasn’t gone unnoticed the former editor of The Independent tends to treat his Left-of-wing guests with greater deference than, say, the likes of UKIP’s Nigel Farage.

But, in their skewered judgements, what legions of the Beeb’s mandarins have singularly failed to appreciate is the public want exactly what Paxman and Humphrys deliver…the blood of political humbugs on the studio carpet.

Even when he side-stepped into the realms of light entertainment by becoming University Challenge’s inquisitor, Paxman’s withering chidings were no less barbed and it’s glad tidings he’ll continue with that show.

NO RESPECT: Outspoken George Galloway, then the new Respect MP, walked off air during Paxman's grilling

‘Come on, come on’, he demands, with undisguised irritation, as the students strain over brain-numbing questions about astrophysics or the sovereignty of South Pacific atolls.

Strangely, though Paxman is a broadcasting icon, his life’s work hasn’t had mass appeal, because Newsnight’s audience rarely tips 600,000 – including a 10% boost when the man himself hosts it – and University Challenge is hardly The X Factor.

But, earlier this year, when he grew a beard, even the social media was fizzing (for the record, my wife reckons it was to hide a nip-and-tuck job – and, believe me, she can tell a pair of bought-in boobs half a mile away).

With Panorama blown as a byword for probing journalism, the problem for news junkies like me is: who replaces the irreplaceable on Newsnight – surely not the grating Kirsty Wark or a featherweight cutie like Emily Maitlis?

But, more to the point, how is Mrs. Ash ever going to sleep tight without a dulcet ‘Goodnight’ from Jeremy, the man of her dreams?

Advertisements

How NOT to be an MP – and how Sunny Jim said I’d have to ‘smarten down’ to be one

It’s been about four decades since the politics’ bug bit deeply enough to inspire me to join a party. And, in retrospect, when I signed up with Labour I was a Blairite – socially liberal, but sympathetic to the blessings of capitalism – before Blair was even out of short pants.

The dalliance didn’t last long because, frankly, I wasn’t too enamoured at being called  ‘Comrade’ and I thought the far-Left was as inveterately potty as it is now, except in those days of beer and butties for the TUC in Harold Wilson’s Downing Street, the leadership had to pay it lip service.

Wilson’s ‘White Heat of Technology’ revolution energised me; clearly he could walk and chew gum at the same time, a feat that was rumoured to have defeated US President Gerald Ford.

By default, I nearly – well, almost nearly – became an MP, because James Callaghan, who followed Wilson as the UK’s Prime Minister (briefly, thank providence), took a shine to me when yours truly and a fellow hack prised him out of a tight spot.

Tall and avuncular, but the craftiest of operators, Sunny Jim was Foreign Secretary at the time and due to address the faithful at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall, until an event of import erupted and caught him off guard. So momentous was it, it’s completely slipped my memory, but, with no spinmeister on hand, we were drafted in to fettle a few words.

So we banged away on a portable typewriter in his hotel suite at the Midland Hotel until four in the morning, trying to fashion an immortal slogan as the room trembled to Jim’s stentorian snoring.

Work prevented me from witnessing the speech, but he invited me for a drink later and thanked me with a five-bob bottle of Cyprus sherry (whatever happened to Champagne Socialism, I wanted to ask).

Instead Callaghan enquired, ‘Have you ever thought of standing?’

‘I am standing,’ I replied stupidly, leaning against the bar.

‘No, I meant standing for Parliament,’ he corrected me. ‘I think you’d make a pretty fair MP and I’m sure we can find you a winnable seat somewhere. But you’ll have to do something about your attire.’

Clad in one of Cecil Gee’s finest blue mohair creations, crisp white shirt, black knitted tie – a la James Bond – I thought I was the cat’s whiskers or some part of a canine’s anatomy.

‘What’s wrong with the way I look?’ I demanded, a tad irked.

‘Too…er, smart,’ said the Foreign Sec. ‘You’ll need to dress down a bit. Get yourself to John Collier and find something grey, the duller the better. And dump those pointy Italian shoes. You’ll need to be more conservative – that’s conservative with a small C, of course.’

For various reasons – including a word to the wise from an MP friend, who warned, ‘You don’t want to be at the mercy of the public; they’re all b******s’ – I decided to stick around Grub Street and pursue the wordsmith’s trade (besides, way back then, the pay was better and MPs hadn’t cottoned on to being as ‘creative’ with their exes as we journos were).

What prompts me to recall the Callaghan incident is that, according to a new study, reported in the Journal of Public Economics, the electorate prefers good-looking, well-dressed election candidates to dowdy, old frumps, like Jim and pipeman Harold were.

So, regardless of how intellectually shallow they may be, the more attractive someone seeking office is, the more trustworthy, intelligent, likeable and able they are perceived.

MP MATERIAL? A flashback to way back when Callaghan had high political hopes for me

MP MATERIAL? A flashback to way back when Callaghan had high political hopes for me

The study – based on a survey of 2,000 candidates and 10,000 voters in Finland– followed in the wake of revelations that a poster photo of David Cameron had been digitally enhanced to make the Prime Minister look a smarter alec than he is (which, given the self-inflicted lumber he’s currently in, wouldn’t seem too challenging even for a Photoshop novice).

However facile this seems, the authors of this report insist, ‘Attractive people are seen as more successful in general, which is as true of politics as it is of showbusiness.’

Clearly, the Finns hadn’t heard of Britain’s roly-poly Communities minister, Eric ‘Double Chicken Tikka Masala & Chips’ Pickles and UKIP’s Nigel Farage, done up like a distressed turf accountant.

Nonetheless, it might explains why super-smoothie Blair could sell fridges to Eskimos, why hunky Nick Clegg leads the Lib-Dems, not baggy-trousered Vince Cable, and why all freshmen/women MPs are packed off to a ‘style consultant’ to be cloned in a make-over before they’re even allowed a sniff of Parliament.

And you’d better not be follicly challenged in British politics. Churchill was the only baldie in over 60 years to be elected Prime Minister, but he compensated for his shiny pate with charisma, cognac and trademark stogie cigars. Helping win WW2 might also have counted.

By the by, just in case political history geeks think me remiss, hair-free Alec Douglas Home was never elected to the job. He was imposed on No.10 by the Tories to oust Harold ‘Supermac’ MacMillan, whose party chums convinced him he was dead or dying.

Therefore, if you’re partial to the chimes of Big Ben, like long holiday recesses, adore the sound of your own voice and can stomach an hour a week feigning sympathy for bleating constituents, your country needs you.

It helps if you’ve never done a proper job – if you’re not an Old Etonian, straight out of uni and a year or two’s apprenticeship as a party HQ dogsbody or political researcher to an unctuous backbencher will do – and you’re half way to being elected.

Don’t forget, either, to dress appropriately…classy, not flashy and something subtle, like a tie or scarf in the party colour, is a useful addendum to demonstrate loyalty (until you join the back-stabbers).

Get your teeth and acne sorted, too, because high-definition TV is a real image-buster and you don’t wanted to be caught out looking like a spotty, buck-toothed loser on Newsnight, while getting a verbal stuffing by Jeremy Paxo.

In short, then, remember: youth and image are cheered, age and experience just jeered.

And me? Obviously, I was way ahead of my time. Today, though, I could have been a contender…but heaven help the electorate if I was!

By gum, it’s ‘ats off ter Yorkshire – gradely done, reet champion!

Much as it ill behoves me as a proud Lancastrian, albeit with a grandfather born in York, I find myself forced to take my hat – sorry, ‘at – off to Yorkshire (‘Wash mouth out with carbolic soap’ – Ed, a Liverpudlian) for their outstanding Olympic endeavours.

As a Leeds sportswriter Tweeted, with the four gold medals won by Games Golden Girl heptathlete Jessica Ennis from Sheffield, Huddersfield cyclist Ed Clancy (who also bagged a bronze), rower Andrew Triggs Hodge, from Hebden Bridge, and oarswoman Katherine Copeland, who hails from Stokesley, in the North Yorks Moors – plus a clutch of silvers and bronzes – if Yorkshire was a nation it would rank 11th in the world.

That would place the county ahead of Japan, South Africa and even Australia in the medals table.

At the risk of sounding churlish – and without recourse to mention the various successes of competitors from my side of the Pennines – what pleases and somewhat surprises me about the Tykes’ triumphs is, so far, there has been a distinct absence of crowing about Yorkshire being ‘God’s Own Country’ and erroneous claims to winning the 15th Century War of the Roses (which the Lancastrian Red Rose shaded, even if a Welshman, Henry Tudor, usurped the English throne).

However, I predict it won’t be long before some ‘professional’ Yorkshireman hoists the flag of nationalism and calls for self-rule of the tripartite shire, that it quits the UK – urged on by Scottish smug-in-chief Alex Salmond – and declares UDI in the face of any Westminster opposition.

GAMES GOLDEN GIRL: Yorkshire’s Jessica Ennis, queen of the heptathlon

I could even envisage a Yorkshire cabinet of worthies: Prime Minister – Geoff Boycott; Foreign Secretary – Jarvis Cocker; Home Secretary – Jeremy Paxman; Defence Minister – Brian Blessed (with his stentorian voice to scare off invaders, Yorkshire wouldn’t need an army); Culture Minister – Alan Bennett; Minister of Agriculture – Alan Titchmarsh; Minister of Food – Eric Pickles; and Leader of the House of Lords (to be based in Barnsley, of course) – Michael Parkinson.

You’ll note I’ve no nominee for Chancellor of the Exchequer, since, knowing Yorkshire folks’ ‘reverence’ for money (or ‘igh regard fer brass, as they say in ‘Ull), they wouldn’t need one, which would save a fair few bob, by ‘ek.

Yorkshire could even have its own flag, featuring a pudding and a frothy pint of Theakston Bitter, plus ‘On Ikley Moor Bah T’at’ as its national anthem. Genteel Harrogate would become its capital and Betty’s Tea Rooms the seat of Parliament (‘every t’other Thursday, o’course…no use wastin’ precious time b*ggering abaht gabbin’).

I can also foresee a Yorkshire language taught in Yorkshire schools (i.e. ‘Blathered oop’ = dirty; ‘cake ‘ole’ = mouth; ‘Reet clemmed’ = very hungry; ‘Ey-up’ = Hello; ‘Gradely’ = nice looking/well done; ‘Mash’ = to brew; ‘Mithered’ – bothered or stressed; ‘Summat’- something, not to be confused with a hilltop; ‘Think on, lad’ = remember, my son).

Yes, there’s a 194th member of the United Nations just waiting to be appointed and no longer can we Lancastrians deride our northern brethren from the wrong side of the Pennines with the mickey-take, ‘I’m from Yorkshire born and bred / Strong in’t arm and think in’t….er’).

So well done, Yorkshire.

Meanwhile, can anyone kindly lend me a bar of carbolic soap and a toothbrush?

PS: Apologies to any non-Brits if you find this confusing – but, if you’re a New Yorker, think of Texas.