The Lady’s Not For Spurning (BBC4, Monday) was ostensibly about Margaret Thatcher and the baleful influence she had on the Conservative party after 1990. It was actually about Michael Portillo’s long quest for redemption. This has been going on since May 1997, when he lost his seat. As he pointed out in this documentary, which he scripted and presented, ‘Were you up for Portillo?’ became a national catchphrase. It was, as he said with grim relish, later voted by viewers the third favourite TV moment of the century. What most people said was, ‘Did you see the look on Portillo’s face?’ Seeing it again, I thought the look was rather dignified. When he originally won the seat, at a by-election 13 years earlier, the look on his face really was rather unpleasant — smug, self-satisfied, a little sinister.
Most politicians are largely unnoticed and forgotten when they go. A handful become national treasures, such as Denis Healey. Others are generally detested, like Portillo. But few, like him, are afforded seemingly endless television time to beg forgiveness and be shriven by the cleansing light of cathode rays. (And get paid handsomely for it, too.) So we have had Portillo the hospital porter, Portillo the single mum, and a month ago Portillo the humanitarian seeking a painless way of putting people to death.
We trotted through the often now familiar memories. There was the way Thatcher offered John Major support in public while doing all she could to undermine him in private. (A television reporter I know told me that she had said to him, with evident glee, ‘and I hear the ratings for Prime Minister’s Question Time are much lower now’.)
But we didn’t go for long without Portillo taking the whip and chastising himself again. (Is it his Spanish background that makes him behave like a member of Opus Dei?) He recounted how he had considered running when John Major stepped down as Tory leader in 1995, installing phone lines to his campaign headquarters. ‘I appeared happy to wound but afraid to strike — a dishonourable position.’ Then his party goes on to be humiliated in the election. ‘I was shaken by the public’s obvious delight in getting me out; evidently I personified the arrogance they disliked in the Tories.’
Lady Thatcher endorses William Hague then chips away at him, too. But the real story remains The Agony of Portillo. He admits to having experimented with gay sex at university — ‘big mistake!’ He has become a reformer, but that only makes things worse and he loses to Iain Duncan Smith. ‘Too many MPs disliked me, and/or my uncompromising programme of modernisation.’ He’s not finished yet: the Tories are ‘loathed’ and this is largely due to ‘people like me’.
Will some kindly priest put an end to this man’s unhappiness, and tell him that there is forgiveness for us all? He could probably get 12.5 per cent of the fee for the next programme, too.
There was a classic 90 minutes of showbiz schmaltz in Happy Birthday, Brucie! (BBC1, Sunday). This was an 80th birthday tribute to Bruce Forsyth, and it was like eating a Nivea Cream sandwich with extra lard. I could stand it only in very small doses. I switched on to see Brucie telling Jools Holland, ‘We’ve never met before, and we’ve never worked before.’ So why, I inwardly screamed, have you got him at your birthday party?
Brucie reprised his famous gurning faces: the fake smile, the fake alarm, the fake affront. All those endlessly tedious catch-phrases reappeared, endlessly. I had to keep leaving the room. I returned to see a clip of him singing, 35 years ago. He didn’t appear any younger; the nose already looked as if you could shape roof timbers with it. He sang Barry Manilow’s ‘I Made It Through the Rain’, the ultimate self-congratulatory show-business anthem, which translates as ‘I Made It Through Some Bad Reviews’. He concluded, ‘It has been almost too much, almost too much!’, and I thought, ‘What’s this “almost”?’
Lewis (ITV, Sunday) was a very classic couple of hours — not surprisingly with a script written by a real playwright, Alan Plater. The plot was as full of holes as an ancient lace curtain, but that didn’t matter. The dialogue crackled (Lewis, on hearing good news: ‘So there is a God.’ Sidekick Hathaway: ‘If I’d been sure about that I’d never have joined the police.’)
Hathaway, played by Laurence Fox, is the true replacement for Morse — learned and sardonic, at home among all these dons-with-a-secret. (There’s never a ‘don-with-nothing-to-hide’.) And how many prime-time ITV dramas have quotes from Shelley in the first minute?