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If UK Politics are Pure Theatre, Politicians are the Performers


Blair Playing The Straight Guy - World Economic Forum
There are political performances, theatre as politics and the politics of theatre. But there is also politics as pure theatre, good value entertainment.

Roll up, roll up for the greatest piece of taxpayer-funded performance theatre outside the West End or the three-ring circus. It’s the arena, the bear-pit that is the British House of Commons and other small stages in and without the village of Westminster, so beloved of politicos through the ages. Usually without the singing and dancing, such performance leads some people to wonder about the wisdom of both allowing and paying for public ‘torture’.

In 1978 British parliamentary sketch writer Norman Shrapnel published The Performers: Politics as Theatre, in which he said: ‘Parliament as theatre is a conception some find distasteful …. even the most histrionic of our politicians find it necessary to maintain that politics are vastly more important than personalities…’ Shrapnel’s point is that politics and personality cannot be separated, personalities dominate the political stage.

He wrote about the aged, mobility-impaired Winston Churchill, long past his prime, even entering the Commons to take his seat as ‘a performance of great complexity’. Churchill revelled in put-downs till the end, especially against Labour giant orator, Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan; and both men ‘stabbed and clubbed each other with parliamentary language’.

Shrapnel described ‘the masks of Macmillan’; the ‘seeming ordinariness’ of Harold Wilson; the amateur orchestra conductor Edward Heath; the controversial Enoch Powell, the Labour MP/actor who denounced him the most, Andrew Faulds; and ‘clowning Hamlet’ George Brown, among hosts of 1960s and 70s parliamentary performers.

Actors, Luvvies; Elected Politicians

Since Shrapnel identified the phenomenon, the media has taken up the styling of performances in the House of Commons, in television studios, on the impromptu, alfresco studio of College Green opposite the Commons, or on the street, as various kinds of theatre. John Major’s 1992 General Election campaign saw him produce a ‘soapbox; at every stop, to raise him above the crowd and allow him to hold forth, although his voice was not gifted for public declamation. Laughed at by the media as mad, it proved successful in the 1992 election, but flopped in a rerun in 1997.

Ian Flintoff writing in the New Statesman Feb 2004, observed that as an actor himself he ‘couldn’t help testing the stage skills of politicians. It is said that they are all actors. Not so. Most are histrionically challenged, and many media commentators haven’t much of a clue about what makes a fine performance’. Flintoff pointed at William Hague as the best performer of the time, ‘perfect vocal, half-smile showed total control, whimsy’.

Other politicians are praised or damned by journalists as too dramatic, too timid, too reliant on script, poor improvisers, bad deliverers of jokes, too intimidating, too whatever. Some come into politics already thespians, like Glenda Jackson, Labour MP and formidable actress. Some go on to have public arena lives after the Commons, such as David Mellor, Edwina Currie, Michael Portillo, Gyles Brandreth, Matthew Parris from the Conservatives and Brian Walden and Robert Kilroy-Silk from Labour into radio/TV/media punditry, commentating, quiz programmes and game shows.

Some do it while they’re still in Parliament, despite very heavy workloads in Parliament and constituencies, such as Charles Kennedy on Have I Got News For You and George Galloway who excruciatingly made a fool of himself on a celebrity version of TV’s Big Brother in 2006, and. Sebastian Coe entered the House of Lords after a Commons stint and headed up the London 2012 Olympics.

Tony Blair, Consummate Actor

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair 1997-2007 has a special place in the pantheon of British politico-actors. There is a sketch played by Catherine Tate in which she portrayed a stereotypical teenage work experience student, and Prime Minister Blair played along as himself. It’s very funny and confirmed what many people suspected, that Blair would have been at home on the stage all his career.

In 2007, Fiona Mountford of London’s Evening Standard described a new show Tony! The Blair Musical, as ‘the always-welcome genre of political satire making something of a comeback’. A Prime Minister more famous/popular in the USA than his time after office has been judged in the UK, is going to be the subject of many spoofs, documentaries, plays, dramas, musicals and other forms of political entertainment and exaggeration, but Blair didn’t perform in it.

Publishing a biography of the man in 2007, Earth Times London said he ‘combined natural charm, rebellion and zeal to become one of the most powerful and controversial figures on the world stage’. He was ‘a talented actor at school’, who went on to study law, front various music bands, stood for Parliament and developed personality traits that served him well for most of his time in Downing Street.

Andrew Rawnsley of The Observer, May 2006, described Blair as ‘another actor-manager of a Prime Minister who is wearing greasepaint that has worn thin’. The Daily Mail, January 2010, after his appearance at the enquiry into the Iraq war, called him: ‘a fantasist living in a parallel universe. Polished, slippery and unrepentant as ever, the most accomplished actor-politician of our time adjusts the facts of history to fit the Gospel according to Tony Blair’.

British author and journalist Mark Simpson, said: ‘He’s an actor – an actor of the Stanlislavsky school: the emotion he shows us is ‘true’, it’s just usually attached to something that is not. This is why he’s such a great performer and politician – we appreciate and are flattered by the energy and the psychosis he puts into his performances. He is a great manipulator…’.

Really, though, why shouldn’t the worlds of politics and entertainment overlap, if not actually collide? For both professions/art forms, admiration/applause/approbation is the lifeblood, publicity the oxygen and fame the spur.

First published on Suite 101, 28 September 2010.

Photo: Blair Playing The Straight Guy – World Economic Forum

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