Hugo Rifkind

How Alex Brooker made political interviews interesting again

Alex Brooker’s Channel 4 encounter with Nick Clegg was a model of how to talk normally to a politician – and make them talk normally back

7 February 2015

9:00 AM

7 February 2015

9:00 AM

The other night on Channel 4, I watched the best political interview I’ve seen all year. It was with Nick Clegg, and conducted by a guy called Alex Brooker. And it gave me, if only for a few moments, a glimpse of a better world.

You’ll know who Nick Clegg is. Brooker, though, might have passed under your radar: he was only just on mine. He’s one of three hosts on a comedy show called The Last Leg, which launched during the Paralympics of 2012. Disability features heavily in the premise of the show, so I probably ought to mention that he has a prosthetic leg and something up with his hands. Although really that isn’t relevant at all. What matters is what he did with Nick Clegg.

They don’t do a lot of political interviews on The Last Leg. Brooker had a practice run last week, though, with Alastair Campbell. It started off gently; bit of comedic sparring. Then a sudden glint appeared in Brooker’s eyes. ‘Chilcot inquiry,’ he said, almost out of nowhere. ‘On a scale of one to ten, how much are you shitting yourself when that comes out?’ And Campbell stopped smiling.

It was better with Clegg. There was a big red button between the two of them this time, and when Brooker slapped it, a godly voice declaimed the word ‘bullshit’. His first question was ‘Boris Johnson: statesman or twat?’ Clegg didn’t flicker. ‘Bit more the latter,’ he said. Then Brooker asked him whether he preferred David Cameron or George Osborne, and Clegg grimaced and hit the button himself. Then, amid the laughter, things stepped up a gear.

‘What Tory policy,’ asked Brooker, ‘do you most agree with?’ Clegg wriggled, and talked about the deficit. ‘On a scale of one to ten, with one being “Couldn’t give a toss” and ten being “Literally cannot sleep at night”,’ said Brooker, ‘how shitty do you feel about what you did with the tuition fees?’ And Clegg wriggled again, and waffled, and Brooker slapped the bullshit button, and Clegg shrugged, and went with it, and said ‘nine and a half’. Thereafter, we learned that he never wished he was actually in coalition with Labour, but was a bit of a fan of Douglas Alexander. Then he called a former Gove adviser a ‘wanker’, and agreed that he quite often wanted to give David Cameron a slap.

There is an art to the traditional political interview. You can be wheedling, like Andrew Marr. Or you can be savage, like Jeremy Paxman and his true heir, the emergingly brilliant James O’Brien. You can be relentless and devastatingly informed, like Kirsty Wark or Emily Maitlis, or wry and unflappable like those gents off Today. Always, though, the thing is a ritual and a dance. We might learn plenty, but true honesty isn’t quite on the menu. For the audience, the best-case scenario is the exposure of its absence.

‘Yeah,’ yawned Brooker, after one waffly non-answer, ‘I drifted off after ten seconds of that.’ Clegg giggled, as not all politicians could. Imagine Gordon Brown getting a ‘bullshit’; he’d look like a warlord who had stubbed his toe. Yet there are many others, surely, who would actually welcome an arena in which they could admit that they were winging it a bit, as well-meaning humans invariably do. Because Clegg, although the butt of every joke, didn’t come across badly at all. Normally, nobody talks to him so normally. Thus, normally, he doesn’t get to talk normally back.

A fortnight ago, The Spectator noted the voguish melding of politics and comedy. As Andrew Watts rightly noted, the trend is not wholly a good one. Politicians who trade heavily on their wit tend to be hiding something grisly behind it, and comedians who morph into activists too often betray that they have nothing behind their wit at all. Brooker’s technique, though, made me think that it’s not the politicians that the funny men should be seeking to usurp. It’s the hacks. And they could, too. Imagine if every political interview had a ‘bullshit’ button, which either side could press. What a lot of time that would save.

Betraying the Union

During the Scottish independence referendum last year, the people for whom I had the most contempt were those leftists who felt that destroying the Union was a fair price to pay for avoiding a Tory government in 2015. Where do you even start with such short-sighted imbecility? It’s like dodging a dinner date with your in-laws by burning down your house and killing your wife.

Suddenly, though they have company. This, in the shape of English Tories who feel that a nationalist Scotland is well worth it if it keeps Ed Miliband from No. 10. Which, in as much as I can make out, seems to be pretty much all of them. Abruptly, in Tory discourse, Scotland is a bogeyman; a nasty foreign place with ideas above its station. This is a tic, and it seems to come as naturally as anything. And I don’t like it at all.

Why shouldn’t the SNP end up in coalition with Labour? Where’s the horror in that? Speaking as a non-nationalist Scot, I fear the rise of the SNP not because they might meddle in Westminster, but because they might abandon Westminster altogether. If they’re British MPs then they’re British MPs; that’s what a Union means. You’d think, after fighting to save this one ‘with every fibre of his being’, David Cameron would realise this. Or was he just pretending?

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.

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Show comments
  • Pacificweather

    Or was he just pretending?

    I have been trying to think of a time when Cameron wasn’t pretending. We all pretend from time to time. It would be impossible to live without doing so but to make it almost your entire existence and not have it wear out your soul takes a remarkable mind. It wore down Tony Blair and fixed itself to his face. Cameron has only been in office five years but, as yet, he is unmarked by it. Is it the second term that takes its toll? We may yet see.

  • ajwillshire

    As a fellow London-Scot I’m happy enough that the SNP send a large contingent to Westminster if that’s the democratic decision. However, it’s obvious that the devolution settlement needs to be properly worked out such that they don’t vote on English-only matters. If the SNP merrily support Miliband’s nightmare policy portfolio which affects only England but wouldn’t pass with the support of English MPs then the Union will be severely strained on the English side.

    Obviously, that is the goal of the SNP – from their point of view they would destroy Labour in England, make a Tory majority more likely more often, and thus make it more likely that the Scots will vote to leave the Union.

    The answer is that if Labour are the largest party then they should be allowed to attempt to run a minority government and the Tories will have to be judicious about what they oppose and when in order to prevent Miliband running to the SNP for backup when he’s in a tight spot.

    No, it doesn’t seem likely to me either…

  • I caught a bit of that interview and agree, Clegg came across pretty well, in part because he was forced to be honest and a bit humble – I don’t agree with his politics, but he seemed like a decent guy, which isn’t something I’ve thought previously due to his left wing pomposity.

    It’s a bit reductive, but honestly, I don’t see that we’ve got much to lose if we scrap those traditional set piece interviews and replace them with “what would happen face to face in a pub”

  • Tony Turtle

    I wish Alex would interview all the political party leaders the same way. The only problem is the Big Red Button will be worn out when he interviews David Cameron and Nigel Farage!

  • Fantastic Cont

    James O’Brien is Paxman’s true heir? Would never have equated the two in the same sentence. O’Brien’s daily radio phone-in show which seems to feature mostly his voice either spouting a bunch of liberal nonsense along the lines of immigrants don’t get sick or commit crime and have mostly arrived and set up successful businesses. Obviously there’s no such thing as indigenous British.

    Any sign of dissent from his views is usually met with a loud polemic and swift dispatch from the show, O’Brien having the final say. He seems obsessed and really slighted by his run in with OFCOM and bashes UKIP and Farage at every opportunity. In an odd interpretation of Chinese whispers he has replaced Farage’s comment about possible concern if a group of ten Romanian men moved in next door, to a family of Romanian school children, curious to say the least.

    As he desperately attempts to enforce his views, he rather sounds sadly like a rapidly failing cult leader, who has decided that booming his twisted mantra and blocking criticism will make it appear more plausible.

    • John

      Farage is the cult leader, chap. You’re the guy who thinks the UKool-Aid Party are the one true path to utopia.

  • Mc

    “You can be relentless and devastatingly informed, like Kirsty Wark or Emily Maitlis”
    The only devastating thing about Wark or Maitlis is their vacuousness.

  • soysauce1

    You are delusional if you think James serial liar and ghastly hypocrite O’ Brien is anything anywhere near the quality of journalists like Paxman and Humphries or even Jon Snow, he is a very devious individual very good at saying what people want to hear, he is of poor intellect his only great skill is of argument and brow beating.