25 MARCH 1995, Page 7


JAMES NAUGHTIE old lion is losing his roar; another national institution is crumbling. Disgusted of Auchtermuchty is not what he was. Sir John Junor himself did me the honour last week of accusing me of being an irritation, an ill-spoken hogger of the airwaves, a hec- toring pest. At last, the purple rage turned on me. And then the disappointment. The crowning evidence, said Sir John, was a dis- graceful interview with Michael Portillo in which all my failings were amply displayed. The trouble is — he'd got the wrong man. I had done no such interview. Clearly all Sir John's obsessions are getting mixed up or he needs a new ear trumpet. The man he is after on this occasion is my friend Mr Humphrys. So next time you read Sir John excoriating Kenneth Clarke, have pause. He may mean Virginia Bottomley.

When politics gets exciting, one of the consequences is a bizarre notion that takes root about interviews with people in the news. Programmes like Today are accused of an obsession with politicians, as if a press gang were roaming the streets of Belgravia and the poky corridors of Dolphin Square, snatching Cabinet ministers and bundling them into radio cars. You'd think they were chained to the microphone to listen to unwanted questions. This theory (peddled in the radio column of the Daily Telegraph and even by a BBC political correspondent in print) might have been invented on the planet Pluto, so remote is it. Believers often go on to assert that if an interview ends in what seems a draw (Heseltine 2, Agitated Presenter 2) the exercise was demonstrably worthless. If you think back-to-front like that, you have no difficulty in moving to the next stage, Interviews somehow 'create' things that wouldn't otherwise be there, So, interviewing Michael Portillo the day after Kenneth Clarke talks about European inte- gration becomes suspect because it perpetu- ates the story by means of interview rather than by reporting an event. How odd it is to be criticised for asking the Prime Minister about his Chancellor's views on Europe, as if it were a question which should have been submitted in writing beforehand or, better still, not asked. Yet this theme is becoming an obsession in some quarters, and I have been wondering why. It can't be because there is more politics on the air. On pro- grammes like Today there isn't. The politics quotient has often been higher than it is now. It can't be because we're turning the screw on politicians to come to the micro- phone: keeping them away is sometimes more difficult. And interviews are arranged because there is going to be news in them — would anyone want it another way? The alternative explanation is obvious, and a better bet. If there were no national debate

on Europe, which Lord Tebbit and some in the Cabinet consider the most important issue of their political lives, there would be no more interviews about Tory arguments. If Labour's manifesto were already pub- lished (two years early) there would be no reason to say so often, 'But what would you do?' and get the repetitive dusty answer, If the Liberal Democrats weren't being sub- verted by Mr Blair they might sound better- tempered. Sorry, but politics is like that just now. Julian Critchley once wrote a book, recycling many of his best stories for the second time (or was it the third?) in which he compared himself to a pianist in a whorehouse, But we broadcasters don't write the tunes, so aim elsewhere.

he forthcoming French presidential election may be the one that will at last put an end to the historic lack of interest in French politics in Britain, and the lack of effort at explaining what goes on. There have been noble exceptions over the years not all as harmlessly frivolous as Sam White's encyclopaedic descriptions of the bedroom secrets of the rich. But when have we been really interested? Now there is a stirring story. An ancien regime passes, physically fading before our eyes, and the pretenders challenge each other with their egos, like a pair of haughty stags locking horns. Each tries to prove what the Gener- al himself said was impossible — that you can unite a country that produces more `Ronnie Kray wants to see you in his office ...' than 300 kinds of cheese. M. Chirac strides across France with a deliberate Gaullist arrogance, to the unlikely strains of Jimi Hendrix. And M. Balladur has been persuaded into strange ways to dispel the greyness that is said to envelop him. At his rallies he trips elegantly on to a stage lit in a fetching peach colour, to strains of a most unlikely song. It is 'Two Tribes Go to War' by the band Frankie Goes to Hollywood (regularly censored by the BBC), and the video released with this song, I am assured, featured a faked wrestling match between Ronald Reagan and Constantin Chernenko. And you thought French politics was boring. A les- son for Conservative Central Office: there are ways of making prime ministers inter- esting that haven't yet been tried here. But of course M. Balladur may well lose. And then Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber will be pressed into service yet again, much less fun for everyone.

confess it. I am watching The Choir. My fascination has little to do with the story, which seems tame compared with real life in The Close these days, or indeed with James Fox playing James Fox very well again. One question keeps me awake: are we going to have a new fad, choir school mania? No matter that moral perils confront the little angels in this choir. Can't you see dreamy- eyed mothers looking at those robes, those Gothic arches, the innocent little proces- sions — and wondering? I make this predic- tion. Within a few weeks there will be a queue of well-scrubbed little devils being entered for every choir school in the land. It will be like Dr Finlay all over again, when doctors had to warn chemists after every episode that there would be a sudden surge of prescriptions for balsam or little liver pills or whatever had popped out of the black bag the night before. Those who watch will be irresistibly attracted, parents and children. And I have a particular problem here. Chil- dren, I discover, develop cunning ways of watching television. Last week I came home to find the following scene. One small child asleep. Another upstairs being protected by her mother from the euthanasia film whose sound had been turned off and replaced by the subtitles (which she can't yet read). But a very upset seven-year-old boy. He'd crept downstairs unseen to watch Arachnophobia, being fond of creepy-crawlies (they remind him of dinosaurs). We were alarmed at his distress. Did he think these deadly spiders were everywhere, about to take over the world? No. He was upset because the moth- er spider and her eggs had been killed. Not scared, but moved. Perhaps he can take The Choir after all. And come to think of it — he can sing. Aha!