Saturday, February 18, 2006


Acting skills vital for Politicians

In today's Guardian Weekend magazine Anna Chancellor does the Q and A spot. She responds to the question 'Who do you despise most?' with 'Tony Blair-bad at acting'. Well, she's the professional so we have to take her judgement seriously but, according to Anthony Seldon's brilliant biography of the man(Blair, Free Press, 2005), Blair, at Fettes, starred as Mark Anthony in Julius Caesar and was even more stellar as the drink sodden Captain Stanhope in RC Sheriff's Journey's End. Maybe he would never have made it to RADA but, maybe politicicians do not have to be that good.

It does not follow, however, that they do not have to be any good at all. Politicians have to have certain thespian qualities to prosper and succeed to any degree. For example they have to: have the ability to face an audience without blanching- something which daunts most ordinary people; have a presence at meetings, in parliament and in committees; and they have to be able to express and project a variety of recognisable emotions in order to achieve their basic aim and function: to persuade people that they and their views should be supported. It helps if, like Blair, one has impressive physical stature and personable good looks.

Now in respect of persuasiveness, I would say Blair is possibly the finest political communicator in the world, at least in the western world of democratic politics. Compare him to George Bush and you see just how far ahead he is in terms of articulacy and the ability to project himself. But this depends to some extent on to whom one is seeking to project. Admittedly Bush is not a very impressive communicator to us Europeans but to his own constituency of Republican, moral majority, god-fearing mid-west Americans he is pitch perfect. For them he acts to the last raised eyebrow the kind of person they feel comfortable with in the White House.

Reagan, too, though never especially bright intellectually and given to taking two hours 'down time' every afternoon, had no peer at playing a particular kind of approximation to an American hero: modest, fair, relaxed, witty yet resolute and unyeilding. Of course he enjoyed a huge advantage through being a film star: in the US this confers a near heroic status from the outset. His Hollywood training enabled him to transform the speeches prepared for him by his clever aides into performances which held the interest and won over doubters. He was never an especially gifted actor but maybe, I suggest again, politicians do not have to be outstanding, just good enough. We are quite easily fooled it would seem.

Blair is certainly good enough. Even though we have learnt to see through that ersatz, blokish, ordinariness and to doubt his passionate sincerity on so many of those issues, we still somehow end up giving him the benefit of the doubt on most things: how else did we elect him for a third term last May? His ability to interpret his script so that it seems he is addressing individual voters while giving the impresssion of being an intelligent, concerned and decent guy, is a rare gift and one which I suspect Gordon Brown does not possess to anything like the same extent.

Does it follow that actors make excellent politicians? Not really. Andrew Faulds, the booming voiced MP who once so memorably played Carver Doone in a television series of Lorna Doone, never made it out of Labour's leftwing ghetto. And Glenda Jackson(who actually appeared with Faulds in The Music Lovers), made it into the junior ministerial ranks but somehow failed to cut the mustard even at that level. She now festers in the 'embittered former minister' part of Labour's persistent rebels. Maybe they were just too good at acting to become outstanding politicians?

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