Frank Johnson

In their own way the Tories are perfectly normal. Consider Mr Norris

In their own way the Tories are perfectly normal. Consider Mr Norris

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In-between returning from being one of the Daily Telegraph’s representatives at the Bournemouth Labour conference, and setting off to be one at the Blackpool Conservative conference, the flu struck me. The doctor said that, among other things, I would have to avoid crowds for the next few days. I thought: that means I can at least go to the Conservative conference.

But apparently not. Even that modest gathering was not safe for me, nor from me. I had to follow the conference on television. Thus the mind went back to the first time I had ever done so. The realisation dawned that it was a Blackpool Conservative conference, and that this year was its 40th anniversary. It was, I suppose, the most famous Conservative conference in the party’s history. On its eve, it was announced from No. 10 that the Prime Minister, Macmillan, had been admitted to hospital ‘for an operation for prostatic obstruction’ — which I remember having to look up in the public library’s medical dictionary. In due course, a message from Macmillan was read from the platform. He was resigning. A new leader should now be found through ‘the customary processes of consultation’.

The conference instantly turned into something resembling an American presidential convention in the glorious days when it, rather than the dreary primaries, decided the candidate. I had been interested in politics for only about a year. I did not realise that this was the exception among Tory conferences. But in front of the TV set again, after 40 years, much had changed in television.

Part of my viewing was a stupendous Sky TV conference report each evening, which the great populist columnist of the day, the Sun’s Richard Littlejohn, presided over. In tone it resembled television half-time football discussions. The two subjects, politics and football, were occasionally linked. ‘Like me, you’re a Spurs season-ticket holder, and you know we’re not gonna win the league, don’t you?’ Mr Littlejohn told Mr Duncan Smith, who began his reply with, ‘Yeah, well...’

But the important point was that Mr Littlejohn’s tone helped Mr Duncan Smith to give a good interview. He came across as being as alive as Mr Littlejohn himself — or almost. Suddenly, he found himself telling his interviewer that he remembered Mr Littlejohn’s equivalents saying that Mrs Thatcher, in opposition, ‘had all the character of a privet hedge’. Surely he made that up. But it sounded convincing.

Next, two journalists — McGuire of the Guardian and Pierce of the Times — joined Mr Littlejohn. McGuire had the advantage of actually sounding like a footballer or manager, since he spoke Geordie. Of the sparsely attended conference, he observed, ‘It’s like the Mary Celeste ’eyah.’ Pierce went into a brilliant patter about that evening’s impending Tory gay disco, to be held for purposes of inclusivity even though there were hardly any Tory gays at the conference. At least not ones who were out, all agreed. They then seemed to develop a thesis that the Tories were not really normal. ‘But I saw ol’ knobber Norris walking along today,’ said Mr Littlejohn. At least, it seemed, he was normal. Like nearly all popularism, there was much truth in all this. And as with most social change during its long history, the Conservative party has nothing to fear from it once it gets the hang of it, as Mr Duncan Smith’s interview showed.

Lack of space prevented any mention, in my last two pieces on this page, of matters arising from my last piece here but three. That, in early August, was devoted to the proposition that the newly deceased Bob Hope was unfunny.

It also argued that Americans, on the whole, were unfunny; that when they were funny, it was unintentional. Exceptions were cited. They included President Reagan. However often he was unintentionally funny, he was intentionally funny much more. But in an anecdote intended to illustrate the excellence of his jokes, I attributed to him a role in Bringing Up Baby.

I meant, of course, Bedtime for Bonzo. The error arose not just from the number of alliterative Bs that the titles share, but from a superficial similarity of plot. In Bringing Up Baby Cary Grant has to bring up a leopard. In Bedtime for Bonzo Ronald Reagan has to bring up a chimpanzee. It should be emphasised, for the benefit of those readers who either do not know much about the American cinema or do not know much about American politics, or do not follow either, that Mr Reagan was not president at the time.

I regret to say that only one reader wrote to me to point out the mistake. Even the readers of The Spectator, it seems, now lack a basic knowledge of the classics. The more partisan would ask what more could be expected after six years of New Labour education policies. But the malaise goes beyond mere party.

In the week after the piece in question, the Letters page published a letter from a reader which accused me of anti-Americanism, and questioned my description of the long-deceased British comedian Max Miller, whom I contrasted with Hope, as ‘great’. The letter quoted one of Miller’s jokes. Distressingly in full, since it was notably dirty. Enough to say that ‘blocking her passage’ was, if the expression be forgiven in this context, its climax.

The ‘joke’ has often been attributed to Miller. It has even been said that he was banned from the old BBC wireless for telling it. One version even has him telling it at a royal command performance.

But there is no evidence that he did tell it, either at a royal command performance or at any other. The late Max Wall, himself a fine comedian, says in his autobiography, The Fool on the Hill, that Miller did not. Apart from anything else, it is a bad joke; not up to Miller’s standard. Records exist of Miller’s performances, now transferred to CD, at such great variety theatres of his day — the 20th century’s middle years — as the Holborn Empire and the Finsbury Park Empire. He dealt in innuendo. He was never, as we say today, in yer face.

What was a real Miller dirty joke like? Here is one that has been attributed to him, and which I would argue is a small masterpiece, though perhaps my correspondent would find it as awful as the one he quoted. Ideally, it should be delivered in fluent cockney.

‘’Ere’s a funny thing. Ah woz on the Tube the other day in the rush hour, and y’know wot it’s like, it’s very crowded and y’can’t move. So pushed right up against me woz this luverly young lady. Ah mean, right up against me. So crowded, we couldn’t see out at the stations. Suddenly, she sez to me, she sez, “Is this Cockfosters?” I sez to ’er, I sez, “Nah, madam, the name’s Miller, and unfortunately ahm getting’ orf at the next stop.”’

But I wonder if, in public, the great Miller ever really said it.