Watching the excellent ‘Borgen’ last night reminded me of this…
The dance of Spin Doctors is a wondrous thing to watch; one of the most beautiful and terrifying things in the world, like killer whales fellating each other on icebergs, or silverback gorillas cuddling David Attenborough.
I’ve only ever seen it once close up. I wish I’d brought my camera. Or a net.
A few years back, Tony Blair had agreed to appear in a sketch for ‘Children in Need’, involving another version of himself, or to be more precise, Jon Culshaw in a wig. As head writers for ‘Dead Ringers’ we were charged with writing a sketch showing, for the very first time, the two faces of Tony Blair (ahem).
I can’t remember the details of the sketch, but I’m sure it was going to be a frightfully fun wheeze where Blair would meet Blair, there would be some jokes about how to work out which one of the two was fake (ahem), the VT would end and we’d cut straight to some Estate Agents freezing their knackers off in a Cardiff football stadium and waggling a huge cheque, or something.
The Prime Minister’s office said that Blair was up for anything. Anything, right chaps? After all, it was for charity, and ver lickle children, dontcha know.
Another Tony Blair, yesterday.
We wrote a sketch, foolishly, naively, taking them at their word. Now don’t get me wrong; we didn’t have Blair humping the body of John Smith while dressed in a Thatcherite hair-helmet and pearls, or anything like that. We weren’t eejits and we wanted this to happen just as much as anyone – for ver lickle children, you understand.
The sketch was, by and large, respectful of the office of the Prime Minister; with one or two slightly cheeky lines that we thought would be the basis of negotiation.
And we were right. The ‘up for anything’ pledge vanished as swiftly and as silently as a commitment to ban advertising in sport, and then the negotiations started. This had to be taken out, that gag wasn’t acceptable, no to this joke, no to that joke…blah blah blah. Or, if you’d rather, Blair Blair Blair.
We made the changes and sent it back.
Then there was an explosion of outrage from number ten!
Someone had LEAKED the fact that TB was going to be on CIN!
They raged. They ranted. They made poor Pudsey’s ears burn. How dare the Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation do this! Deal off, old boy! Not doing it now! Not playing! And that was it. We were left on the floor trying to put our stuffing back in.
Now here’s the thing: I’m certain the ‘Children in Need’ office didn’t leak it. The CIN people are the most honest, diligent, dedicated people you could find, and if there’s a condition of secrecy, they’d ruddy well keep it secret. They’d kept far bigger secrets than this, and there has never been any leaking from them – apart from this incident, strangely enough.
We, on the other hand, weren’t the most honest, diligent, dedicated people you find, but why would we leak the fact that Tony Blair was on Children In Need, when we’re in the process of writing a sketch that would work MUCH MUCH better if the fact that Tony Blair on Children in Need was a big, big surprise?
Of course there was a third possibility; another bunch of people who could have leaked it, and of course we realised when, after the project was pronounced deader than Harriet Harman’s eyes, they came back to us three days later with an ‘all right then, we’ve had a think, and even though you’ve been very naughty, we’ll do it, but this time we’ll do it right, and this time YOU’LL do it right’.
We realised we were being played; there seemed a distinct whiff that some well-groomed haircut had sat down at a mahogany desk, and thought silkily to himself, as he played with a silver letter opener with his long manicured fingers: ‘Okay. So if we leak it, we get publicity for being nice for ver lickle children, we blame someone else so we don’t look crass in advertising the fact, and blame the EVIL BBC so we get leverage in the forthcoming negotiations of how brilliant Tony is going to look in this sketch.’
It felt like we’d got on a tube for a nice ride to somewhere fun, but found ourselves sitting on someone else’s discarded McDonald’s wrappers. This was not our world. This was not the dance we expected to dance; we didn’t have this problem when Adrian Chiles came on the show, for crying out loud…
So we danced the dance, and did our rewrites and then thought, once again, foolishly and naively, that this was the end of the matter. And it was.
…Until the day of the recording.
Because Spin Doctors love to dance, and the music hadn’t stopped just yet.
The day of the recording was a complete ambush. Jon Culshaw turned up on the set, only to find that Blair’s spin-doctors had ‘had a bit of a think’ and had written THEIR OWN sketch, to be performed instead of ours.
Of course Jon stood his corner. Not only had he not rehearsed this sketch, stuffed into his hands with a nanosecond’s notice, he had a huge loyalty to the Dead Ringers team and the writers, and resented the way the whole thing had been handled. Did these number ten functionaries think they were comedians all of a sudden? (ahem) So up brewed a fight, an argument so synthetic you could have served it up to me in 1978 instead of Bird’s angel delight and Puffa Puffa Rice, and I would have choked on the E numbers.
And in amidst this artificial spat strode Tony Blair, the peacemaker in chief.
He was very charming, and he didn’t know what this was all about, and was sure there was some sort of mistake somewhere, and he was sure that he could sort something out. And they did.
Of course, to create a ‘third way’, both sketches got discarded, and replaced with a little bit of nothingness, and then Blair went on to do the speech he wanted to make all along, with Jon standing on the sidelines. To Jon’s enormous credit he didn’t take it lying down, and kept spontaneously interrupting the speech with helpful ‘coaching tips’ for the real Blair, telling the Prime Minister when to say ‘in a very real sense’.
It was the funniest thing about the piece, in a very real sense.
So that’s how they dealt with one charity sketch. God knows how they behaved when they came across anything resembling a policy. No one begrudges a political party a means to present themselves in the right light; but using spin-doctors as a political tool is like using a tin opener to stir soup. They have only one job; and they approach that job the same way every time. They brief against, they run whispering campaigns, they find leverage, they ambush, they trample over everything in their rush to create the ‘right’ image, and leave behind them a fine inedible paste which you would only feed to toddlers.