Playing Patball

By Hoggart, Simon | The Spectator, June 7, 1997 | Go to article overview

Playing Patball


Hoggart, Simon, The Spectator


The Chair with Peter Mandelson (BBC 2) was a disgrace. Something has gone badly wrong with the BBC's quality control. It's like the Jaguar factory used to be: they still produce a world-class product, but too many lemons come off the production line.

The Chair had all the cliches of the genre - the high-backed armchair, the jagged moody music, the camera focused tightly on the subject's face, and in this case an unseen interviewer, presumably to give the impression that the questions were being asked on behalf of you the viewer in your role as Everyman.

But what questions! I was reminded by Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition. `Cardinal Fang! Bring on . . . the comfy chair!' The pitiless interrogation elicited the fact that Mandelson had a pretty happy childhood, that he loved his father (though sometimes had arguments with him), that he greatly admired his mother, and that he could remember his grandfather, Herbert Morrison, coming round for Saturday lunch.

Sensational stuff. Now and again Mandelson was able to slip in a few lines indicating his passionate interest in a better society, so that the effect was somewhere between a Fifties political interview (`Thank you, Minister without Portfolio, for coming to the studio to tell the viewers about your plans') and a newly fashionable party broadcast in which the pol tells the same old fibs, but in extreme close-up, so you think he must be telling the truth because you can see his facial tics.

Mandelson is a fascinating figure. He is probably the second most powerful person in the new government, and some claim the most influential -- Rasputin or Richelieu, whichever you prefer. He is an arch-manipulator and control freak who finds time to do a hugely demanding job and yet write angry letters about almost every casual reference to him in a diary column. A real psychological insight would be fascinating and valuable. Why does he have to be in charge of every minute detail? Why does he become so angry whenever he is crossed? Why does he fear being disliked, and yet seems to attract hatred deliberately?

The ludicrous opening credits of the programme gave a sample of the kind of questions we could expect, delivered for some reason in a flat, menacing London accent. …

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Playing Patball
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