Tuesday, 6 May 2008

The best way to wipe the slate clean

Alan Bennett was writing about the traitor Guy Burgess when he came up with his famous line about this country’s attitude to the elderly: “If you live to be 90 in England and can still eat a boiled egg, they think you deserve the Nobel Prize.”

His point was that age wipes the slate clean. As proof of that, one might cite the general affection now felt towards such once controversial politicians as Denis Healey (90) or Tony Benn (83). Of that generation, perhaps only Margaret Thatcher (82) still arouses strong hostility in some quarters.

We lazily accept that living to an advanced age is the way to become a national treasure. Humphrey Lyttelton (86) undoubtedly was one, as the outpouring of tributes on his recent death demonstrated. Yet last Thursday I attended a very sparsely attended show by another man I had considered a shoo-in for the category, Nicholas Parsons (84).

Just like Humph, Parsons has been hosting a popular Radio 4 panel game for decades. As he surveyed the rows of empty seats in the Alnwick Playhouse, he ruefully remarked that he had enjoyed a full house the last time he was there, to record Just A Minute.

Now, it may well be that he only had himself to blame, as his chosen subject was the nonsense writer Edward Lear, a man known to me chiefly for a series of clunkingly unfunny limericks. Despite Parsons’ rapturous enthusiasm, I continue to regard Lear as a crashing bore.

But even I could not fail to be impressed that a man of Parsons’ age had committed so much poetry to memory, and was able to recite it with such clarity and conviction. It was a tour de force by any standards.

The odd thing is that the last time I attended a one-man show at the Playhouse, expecting to enjoy a very intimate dialogue with Michael Portillo (54), I found myself in an absolutely packed theatre. His humiliation in the 1997 Labour landslide has been ranked among the most popular TV moments of all time, and Alnwick is not exactly a Tory heartland, yet the atmosphere was friendly: no-one had come to jeer, heckle or take revenge for the miners.

As an entertainer, Portillo proved to be to William Hague what Little and Large were to Morecambe and Wise. As a political pundit, he pronounced that the mountain the Tories have to climb is so huge, and the electoral system so biased against them, that the best David Cameron can hope for is to reduce Gordon Brown’s majority in 2010. That does not look like a particularly astute prediction after last week’s results.

How has Portillo short-circuited the national treasure selection process, so that he can attract a far bigger audience than a distinguished octogenarian broadcaster? Of course, he has the advantage of enjoying far more TV exposure. But I’m troubled by the niggling thought that even that great national treasure Alan Bennett (74 on Friday) can occasionally get it wrong. Maybe the Healey and Benn generation aren’t liked now because they are old, but simply because they are no longer politically active.

With politicians now held in such massively low regard, perhaps anyone who packs it in for a career on the telly automatically gains respect and can thereby wipe their personal slate clean long before they qualify for their pension. Admit it, don’t you feel much more warmly about those two broadcasters with the MP initials (Portillo and Parris) than you ever did when they had the letters after their names?

There you go, then, Gordon. The path to rehabilitation is clear. Though you may need to do something about your smile and that funny thing you do with your mouth before you go for your screen test.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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