Dumb and DumberAlthough he remains television’s premier political inquisitor, Andrew Neil – the one-time heir to Day and Paxman – has seen his stock fall somewhat in the last couple of years. He quit the BBC in a flurry of publicity in order to be the frontman for GB News when it was launched as the ‘anti-Woke’ current affairs channel, yet backstage clashes saw him vanish from the station in a matter of weeks as GB News experienced its own off-screen, TV-am-style melodrama. After a period of silence, Neil re-emerged to tell his side of the story in the press and seemed to be begging for forgiveness from the MSM; slipping seamlessly into reverse gear, he resurfaced in the very newsroom GB News was supposed to be the antidote to, that of Channel 4. Perhaps it says a great deal about the quality of younger news presenters and interviewers that even after his recent about-turn and inconsistent opinions, Neil is still ‘The Man’, and nobody has impressed as the inheritor of the mantle he’s worn for over a decade. He’s fortunate this is the case, but he didn’t take as much time out as Jeremy Paxman had when he briefly returned to the fray for one last time during the 2017 General Election; alas, an extended holiday hosting ‘University Challenge’ and leisurely Sunday evening docs had utterly blunted his precision and Paxo came across as a parody of his old self. Andrew Neil, it seems, has still got what it takes.

On Monday it was announced Neil would be presenting an exclusive one-on-one interview with Prime Ministerial hopeful Rishi Sunak on C4 this Friday; and it looks as though the ex-Chancellor will be facing a grilling from Brillo alone. Sunak tweeted the announcement with a knowing ‘Just me then?’ comment, as Liz Truss appears to have turned down the offer. Mind you, if she’s seen as the continuity candidate, she’s sticking to the same script Boris penned during the last General Election, when he repeatedly refused to be drawn into an interrogation by Neil. Whilst supporters of the PM continue to wind-up the Boris-haters with talk of 10,000 members signing a petition for him to remain in the job or at least be considered a candidate in the leadership contest, the actual battle to seize the tenancy of No.10 is between his former Chancellor and his incumbent Foreign Secretary, whether or not the latter can’t handle Andrew Neil. Mind you, Liz Truss must imagine she doesn’t need to put herself in such a vulnerable position.

With the loss of two contenders who might have made a difference – Kemi Badenoch and Penny Mordaunt – the beneficiary of the whittling down has been Truss, whose lead over Rishi Sunak at the moment leaves the one-time golden boy with a lot of work to do, maybe explaining why he agreed to be grilled by Andrew Neil; Liz Truss’s abysmal showing on the first two TV debates perhaps points to another reason why she’s chickened out. She couldn’t really bottle it when it came to the BBC debate between just her and her rival, but I suspect confronted by Neil at his best (which one hopes we get), Truss’s evident limitations would be exposed even further. Having said that, her dullness and Rishi’s blandness are such a striking contrast with the sub-Berlusconi persona of Boris that neither could illuminate the small screen nor convince anyone outside of the tiny percentage of the electorate with a vote that either was worth investing in. Indeed, watching this spectacle as it unfolds almost makes me feel like a peasant witnessing the hustings at an 18th century Rotten Borough, with the two nominees in the pocket of the local landowner making their pitches to the gentry.

A candidate who fell at an earlier hurdle – Tom ‘I used to be in the Army, you know’ Tugendhat – has pledged he will gladly work in the Cabinet of either Sunak or Truss, exhuming the ‘serving the nation’ spiel he utilised during the first TV debate. ‘I would serve any Conservative leader who asked me to,’ he said on ‘The World at One’, ‘because it’s about serving the country and serving the British people. It would be a privilege to do so.’ Having recently re-watched the ‘Yes Minister’ episode in which Jim Hacker is promoted to PM at the end, I can’t help but imagine the furtive promises of posts which must have been whispered in corridors or made in dimly-lit rooms by both remaining candidates once everyone else had been eliminated. The booby prize back then – at least according to ‘Yes Minister’ – was the Northern Ireland job, though I guess some other Ministry is probably used as a similar threat today should a member of the Cabinet not vote a particular way. I suppose Scotland would be a pretty thankless task for a Tory Minister in 2022, though Ulster is still a far-from dream posting, if for different reasons now. However, the Home Office, the Foreign Office and the Treasury remain the biggest bargaining chips available to Sunak and Truss as they seek to court the favour of colleagues.

As was shrewdly pointed out on this very blog by a certain Mr Mudplugger at the time, the unexpected second placing of the UK at this year’s Eurovision now appears to have been a premeditated effort by European nations to ensure the Contest would be hosted once again by the Brits when the foregone conclusion of a Ukraine win would preclude that troubled nation as a venue next year. It’s coming home; it’s coming home etc. Anyway, the BBC’s choice of Stoke-on-Trent to be the location for the third TV debate on Monday was motivated by similarly canny planning. Of the city’s three Parliamentary Constituencies, two – North and Central – were Red Wall seats that fell to the Tories in 2019 after almost 70 years in Labour hands, whereas the other – Stoke-on-Trent South – has been blue since 2017. So, a Conservative city that has spent the majority of its life as a Labour one – where better to host the first head-to-head between the last two contenders standing?

And those two contenders looked like their future representations at Madame Tussaud’s in the bizarre intro to the BBC debate, staring into the camera side-by-side as Sophie Raworth introduced them; in fact, I had to make sure they were indeed the real thing and not waxworks by checking their blinking – not that it’s easy to tell, to be honest. Anyway, Sunak responded to the first question from an audience member – all Tory voters last time round, apparently – by paying tribute to the former Northern Ireland First Minister and Good Friday Agreement player David Trimble, whose death had just been announced; he then launched into a defence of his economic policies as well as a simultaneous assault on his opponent’s plans for the economy. Rishi reckons his record as Chancellor gives him a grounding in economics that Truss lacks and one that will provide him with an advantage as PM; he also constantly played the pandemic card whenever his record came into question, as though that freak event was to blame for any shortcomings in the office. He played the Brexit card too, eliciting applause from a studio audience in a city that voted overwhelmingly Leave. Smart move.

China came up as an issue, with both contenders accusing the other of sucking up to the Chinese; but this was a pattern throughout the debate, each hurling allegations between their respective lecterns based on quotes they’d made in the past. The descent down to playground level has been exacerbated by tit-for-tat comments emanating from supporters of both camps on the subject of suits, shoes and earrings; Truss dismissed such trivialities by harping on about the locality in which the debate was staged as well as her upbringing on the middle-class mean streets of Roundhay in Leeds, whilst Sunak counteracted accusations of his expensive fashion tastes by constantly referring to his immigrant parents and how hard they worked to provide for him. Sunak’s near-catchphrase ‘You know what?’ had a small handful of outings again, whilst Truss’s right arm was as active as before; but the fact that Sunak felt the need to distance himself from Boris whenever the PM was mentioned seemed to suggest he was reaching out beyond the Tory faithful that Truss appears content to solely appeal to. Maybe Andrew Neil will hone in on that come Friday. We shall see.

© The Editor





Roland RatThe British television landscape today may well be something of an overcrowded shantytown, but barely 40 years ago it was still a wide open space with just a smattering of broadcasters sprinkled liberally enough not to spoil the view; when new people moved into the neighbourhood it was therefore front page news, and Channel 4’s arrival in 1982 was like a group of left-wing squatters setting up camp in a rural Tory parish, frightening the old ladies with their effing and blinding at all hours and shouting ‘Power to the people!’ at the vicar. However, within just a couple of months of the uproar and disruption the arrival of Channel 4 provoked, attention shifted to another new broadcasting venture destined to be beset with problems – breakfast television. After a handful of regional ITV experiments in the late 70s, the Beeb were first to go nationwide with a concept utterly alien to a British viewing public accustomed to being awoken by the humble wireless, with the ‘Today’ programme and the Radio 1 breakfast show traditionally attracting the largest audiences. Novelty value alone might temporarily persuade the masses to try the telly as a side-order with their Rice Krispies, but could it become as ubiquitous a feature of the schedules as in the States?

The BBC recruited one of their heavyweight anchors in the dependable shape of Frank Bough to head the team of ‘Breakfast Time’; future coke-snorting escapades in lingerie notwithstanding, Bough was a consummate broadcaster, a veteran of both ‘Grandstand’ and ‘Nationwide’ as well as a go-to man to present great sporting events such as the Olympics and the World Cup. Bough’s seniority was balanced by poaching the glamorous newsreader Selina Scott from ITN as well as promoting Nick Ross from BBC2’s ‘Man Alive’; oh, and David Icke was there as well. Anyway, ‘Breakfast Time’ was launched in January 1983 to generally favourable reviews, though many anticipated the cosy sofas and pullovers being usurped by ITV’s rival service, ‘Good Morning Britain’, produced by new company TV-am. If the Beeb had opted for a broadcasting bastion by electing Frank Bough team captain, TV-am went one better by assembling some of the most recognisable faces on British television at that time.

The so-called ‘Famous Five’ were Michael Parkinson, David Frost, Anna Ford, Angela Rippon and Robert Kee; and with a line-up like that, what could go wrong? Well, it didn’t help that the intended launch date of June 1983 was hurriedly brought forward to prevent the BBC getting too settled in the time slot. The same failure to negotiate royalties and rates for advertising with Equity that had left the ad breaks during the first couple of months of Channel 4 crammed with public information films also affected TV-am, severely reducing advertising revenue at the time of the station’s re-jigged and rushed launch date of February. TV-am were also thrown by the BBC’s unexpectedly casual approach to presentation on ‘Breakfast Time’ and didn’t have time to develop a similar style. ‘Good Morning Britain’ seemed stiff and starchy, there was little or no on-screen chemistry between any of the Famous Five, and ratings rapidly went into freefall.

TV-am off-camera quickly became a compelling soap opera far more interesting than any of its televised output, with high-profile sackings and a dramatic boardroom coup at the company making those first few traumatic months of the station a gift for Fleet Street. Although TV-am’s unlikely saviours turned out to be Anne Diamond, Nick Owen, Greg Dyke and – above all others – Roland Rat, the chaotic beginnings of breakfast television on ITV served as a lesson to any future broadcasting endeavours which imagine simply throwing together a bunch of household names assumes their very presence will ensure quality TV when that ain’t necessarily so. Am I alone in seeing the ghosts of TV-am currently haunting the latest television station to have been launched with familiar hyperbole, only to undergo similar problems both on and off-screen? I’m talking GB News.

The much-heralded ‘Anti-Woke’ alternative to the mainstream news output of the BBC, Channel 4 and Sky, GB News was as dependent pre-launch on Andrew Neil and his impeccable broadcasting credentials as TV-am was on David Frost in 1983. Like Frost before him, Andrew Neil is perhaps the premier political interviewer of his generation and one of the few people in British television with the kind of clout and CV to ensure the prospect of GB News would generate interest in anticipation of a serious, valid and much-needed fresh voice on the overwhelmingly left-leaning landscape of television news in this country. Hopes were high that this could be not so much the ‘alt-right’ UK equivalent of Fox News that its somewhat hysterical pre-launch detractors on social media predicted, but a non-partisan option for people happy to hear all sides of a debate rather than the same old hymn-sheet everyone else was singing from. The ratings on the opening night seemed to vindicate the hype but then, as with TV-am, things began to go wrong.

In its early days, TV-am suffered several on-screen cock-ups that made it appear amateurish and cheap, none more so than in its infamous coverage of the 1984 Brighton Bomb at the Conservative Party Conference. Whilst the BBC had camera crews on hand to transmit the drama to the nation, TV-am had to make do with the voice of John Stapleton on the telephone, giving the station the look and feel of an insignificant regional ITV company rather than a national broadcaster. Meanwhile, GB News has undergone its own persistent ‘technical issues’ that have made the station something of a laughing stock in terms of is ramshackle presentation; like TV-am before it, GB News was launched prematurely and, just as TV-am struggled to receive revenue from advertising at the time of its launch, GB News has had its own problems with advertising, experiencing a withdrawal of numerous Woke-friendly companies unwilling to advertise their wares on the station. And, just as the Famous Five quickly vanished from ‘Good Morning Britain’ when viewer numbers plummeted, Andrew Neil has gone AWOL from GB News, fleeing across the Channel barely a fortnight after the station’s launch as ratings often fell below zero.

Stories of backstage tensions between Neil (also chairman of the station) and the GB News chief executive (and ex-boss of Sky News Australia) Angelos Frangopoulos have abounded ever since Neil’s extended holiday; the resignations of senior executive producer Gill Penlington and director of programming John McAndrew – allies of Neil and boasting enough of a serious news pedigree to give the station credibility – have also strengthened the hand of Frangopoulos in his alleged ambition to push the station further to the right. Sliding ratings seem to have been arrested by recruiting Nigel Farage to host his own show; and whilst it could be said that Farage might turn out to be GB News’s very own Roland Rat figure, sources continue to insist Andrew Neil will be back in September.

By the back end of the 80s TV-am’s style proved successful enough for the BBC to abandon its sofas and re-launch ‘Breakfast Time’ as a televisual equivalent of ‘Today’, going down the hard news road. However, despite winning the favour of Mrs Thatcher during a notorious industrial dispute in 1987 and turning its fortunes around, TV-am still lost the ITV breakfast franchise in 1992. It’s very much early days for GB News – even now it’s only at the same point in terms of time on-air as TV-am was at in April 1983 – so rumours of its death could be said to be greatly exaggerated. At the same time, for many the presence of Andrew Neil was a signal that this station could well be worth investing in. Without him, is it merely a TV version of Talk Radio? Perhaps as long as the anchor is away, the jury will remain out.

© The Editor




The (now) late Jonathan Miller, when appearing in the seminal satirical revue ‘Beyond the Fringe’ in the early 60s, refuted assumptions he was a Jew. ‘I’m not actually a Jew,’ he declared. ‘I’m just a bit Jew-ish.’ That the multitalented Dr Miller should pass away whilst anti-Semitism continues to hog headlines at the expense of the Labour Party is, I guess, just one of those serendipitous things; but as far as timing goes, it’s pretty good. By the time I got round to watching Andrew Neil’s grilling of Mr Corbyn on the iPlayer earlier today, I’d already been given advance previews of what to expect courtesy of Twitter. To be honest, I quickly became as bored with it as a viewing experience as Jezza appeared to be in his role of interviewee. Even after four years as Leader of the Opposition, he still doesn’t look comfortable in an environment he should be used to in 2019. Stick him on a stage before a crowd protesting about something or other and he’s in his element, of course; but that’s traditionally a treat for backbenchers unaccustomed to being noticed; he should have grown out of that by now.

I don’t think I can ever recall a party in government so ready for the taking being so let off the hook by an opposition. The eccentric charm that got Boris by for a good few years, even enabling him to be twice elected Mayor of London, evaporated as soon as Theresa May made him Foreign Secretary and exposed him as a character entirely unsuited for high office; like most, I suspect that was the then-PM’s plan. But what must Mrs May have felt when her own shortcomings were to play their part in promoting him to her job within three years? One could reasonably argue she was as wrong in that post as her successor, yet here we are – on the hustings with a Prime Minister disliked and distrusted by the majority of the electorate, and he’s comfortably ahead in the polls.

Whilst not quite approaching the level of intense, vitriolic hatred in voters that the Trump/Clinton clash of 2016 provoked, the choice of Boris or Jezza – and, let’s face it, the keys to No.10 won’t be falling into the hands of anyone else – is in its own way as dispiriting an advert for the political process as we’ve ever seen in this country. The usual scaremongering on the part of right-wing tabloids in relation to what Corbyn would do if elected is familiar enough; indeed, looking back just four short years ago (yes, hard to believe that’s all 2015 was), it seems baffling now that a moderate like Ed Miliband was being sold in some quarters as a virtual Dave Spart figure. Corbyn’s past is far more of an open goal for those who delight in such things, yet even that isn’t the main cause of the despondency his candidacy inspires.

There have been past General Elections in which an unpopular PM seemed pretty much odds-on to lose office and the contender appeared highly likely to sweep to victory. 1997 is a good (relatively recent) example; I imagine many voters voted for Blair that year because they genuinely believed in both him and his party as an instrument of long-overdue change – and that includes Middle England Tories and Essex Man. Outside of the devoted faithful, however, it’s hard to believe that anyone will feel the same in 2019 about the current Labour Party and its incumbent leader. So many who do vote Labour this time round will probably do so either out of an unshakable antipathy towards the Tories or because they view Labour as the lesser of two evils. It’s hardly a unique situation, but to vote for a party not because you believe in them, but because they’re not quite as shit as the alternative, is almost enough to prompt one into abstention.

It’s difficult to picture what more the Conservative Party could possibly do to alienate voters and have them booted out of office by Friday 13th December. The blunders of Rees-Mogg and Cleverly when the campaign had barely kicked-off, the unbecoming (as Prince Andrew would say) attitude of Dominic Raab towards the parents of the young man killed by a runaway citing diplomatic immunity, ongoing accusations of institutionalised Islamophobia, the appalling state of the NHS, the broken promises over housing, the increasing influence of the ERG, Gove appropriating Stormzy lyrics – and then Boris ‘Get Brexit Done’ Johnson himself. I mean, what more ammunition does the Labour Party require to slaughter the Tories? And yet, it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.

Don’t get me wrong – the prospect of Lady Nugee, McDonnell, Abbott and Starmer in positions of power is a frightening one indeed, let alone a dithering glove-puppet like Corbyn with the hand of Seamus Milne up his arse as Prime Minister. But such is the choice awaiting the electorate. Although we’re apparently barely a month away from a completely new decade, the 2010s hasn’t really felt like one – and we’ve been governed by the Tories for all-but five months of this so-called decade. They’ve had ample opportunity to prove things can only get better and have blown it. Their sole legacy is the issue beginning with B that we’re all thoroughly sick to the back teeth of. Nice one, Dave.

I guess, as with the already-present divisions Brexit spectacularly dragged into the spotlight, anti-Semitic sentiments in the Labour Party didn’t just appear overnight. And the leadership has had plenty of time to deal with it, so it can’t complain when the Tories and their media sponsors use it as a weapon against the opposition due to the failure or – maybe more accurately – the disinclination to expunge it once and for all. Again, not much more than four years ago, the party was led by the son of one of its formidable Jewish intellectuals; the Jewish tradition within Labour was something as intrinsic to the party as the Home Counties, blue-rinsed brigade was to the Conservatives. Yet, four years of his successor at the helm and we have the remarkable intervention of the Chief Rabbi calling him and the party out.

All of which doesn’t bode well for whatever kind of future we’ve got to look forward to in the new decade to come. At this moment in time, it’s hard to envisage anything other than a depressing continuation of where we are now, but even worse. The possibility of a Hung Parliament seemed more likely before Jo Swinson bombed on ‘Question Time’ last week, but few can see either a Tory or Labour landslide deciding this Election – and after nine ineffective years in office, the Conservative Party will be (and should be) grateful for any kind of majority the opposition is prepared to hand them.

© The Editor

PS: RIP Clive James too. They’re dropping like bloody flies today.


NeilI used to laugh at the recurrence of the image in ‘Private Eye’ as much as everyone who used to regularly request it – the middle-aged man in a vest and a baseball cap arm-in-arm with a buxom beauty half his age. But the truth is that Andrew Neil, and I refrain from references to Brillo Pads, remains the best political interviewer on television, and an asset to the BBC in an age when they’ve allowed so many of their assets to cross the floor of the broadcasting house, leaving the ever-changing reporting line-up on ‘Newsnight’ often resembling the results of some latter-day YTS scheme.

This week Andrew Neil grilled Hilary Benn, George Osborne and Nigel Farage in a way that they were spared during the last General Election, when the far less challenging Evan Davis was let loose on the big players. Neil takes no prisoners in a manner that was once the hallmark of Paxman and Robin Day before him; but perhaps because he doesn’t front one of the heavyweight prime-time jewels in the BBC’s political crown, Neil seems to be short of the pompous flamboyance that his predecessors wore with such arrogant pride and is therefore liable to catch the unsuspecting politician by surprise. Somewhat hidden away both on the insomniac’s favourite twilight hours political programme, ‘This Week’, as well as the lunchtime ‘Daily Politics’ and ‘Sunday Politics’, his presence during what used to be referred to in TV parlance as ‘down-time’ means Andrew Neil could in some respects be described as television’s best-kept secret.

Even on ‘This Week’, his chummy ribbing of Michael Portillo and whichever Labour outsider Mr ‘Choo-Choo’ is saddled with can often mask his killer instinct when he sniffs blood or perhaps should that be the stench of hypocrisy. Diane Abbott was Portillo’s regular sidekick for several years on the show, yet that didn’t prevent Neil from memorably putting her on the spot when it emerged that Mrs Socialist of Hackney had sent her children to a private school. Clearly not anticipating an attack from a man she probably imagined would respectfully avoid the sensitive issue, Abbott was literally rendered dumb by Neil’s unexpected inquisition, reduced to staring at her inquisitor as he put the painful question to her, seemingly incapable of answering. I realised then that if Neil could ride roughshod over presumed immunity from interrogation on account of a long-standing association, he could tackle anyone who deserved it.

An early TV outing for Andrew Neil as a reporter for ‘Tomorrow’s World’ in a special 1976 edition looking at Scottish North Sea Oil emerged on YouTube a few years back as part of an off-air ‘Top of the Pops’ recording; but it was primarily as a newspaper man that he made his name. After a long spell at ‘The Economist’, Neil was hired by Rupert Murdoch as surprise editor of the Sunday Times in 1983; the Digger’s well-publicised hatred of the British establishment that had rejected him as an uncouth Aussie meant that Neil fitted in with the anti-Old School Tie approach Murdoch favoured. Neil often courted controversy when at the helm of the paper, none more so than when he was linked with a former beauty queen called Pamella Bordes, a relationship that climaxed with a libel case against the Sunday Telegraph, which Neil won.

A more significant relationship, that with Rupert Murdoch, eventually soured in the mid-1990s, despite Neil being prominent amongst the early figureheads of Sky Television. Rumours suggest Murdoch grew jealous of Neil’s increasing celebrity. He remained active in print media, but it was TV that gave Neil the platform to showcase his talent for asking politicians the kind of questions they’d rather gloss over. By the 2000s, Neil was a permanent fixture of the BBC’s political programming, even if none of the shows he presented were aired at a time of day when a large audience was guaranteed. It could be argued this is one of Andrew Neil’s secret weapons. Westminster wags clad in tie-less, open-necked shirts expecting a cosy chinwag on a lunchtime or late-night sofa are often caught out by the deceptive illusion of a lightweight breakfast TV ambience.

Some of his past endeavours have not been entirely admirable; even during the 2010 General Election the Beeb relegated him to a frivolous spot interviewing famous Tory supporters on a pleasure boat. But Neil’s three one-on-one grillings of key figures from both sides of the EU debate this past week have been, for me, the stand-out programmes so far screened in the recent glut of Referendum-themed shows, certainly a superior contrast with the glitzy, so-called debates starring token (if not specially-chosen) members of the public over on ITV. He might wax lyrically on the benefits of Blue Nun and Annabel’s nightclub, but politicians will receive no harder ride on TV if they’re asking for it. And let’s face it, most are.

© The Editor