Mwheel Cockerell's reputation as a political journalist and documentary-maker is second to none, so Sunday evening's TV highlight, at east for the card-carrying politics junkie, was The Rivals, his parallel biopic of Michael Portillo and Gordon Brown on BBC 2. Panorama's inside view of an overworked NHS hospital was predictably depressing, though hardly the condemnation of the government we had been led to expect by the trailers. Viewers with a loathing of Tony Blair and all his works would have found Bremner; Bird and Fortune much more to their taste, for this week's edition was downright partisan in its trenchancy. A satirical show can legitimately concentrate its fire on the incumbent party, and certainly New Labour has provided plenty of ammunition, but even so the assault was withering. Channel 5's offering at the feast, meanwhile, did not appeal. Not even for you, dear reader, could I face an hour of Two Jags: The John Prescott Story, particularly on a channel with such a poor reputation for quality.
Sadly, though, The Rivals was not CocIcerell's best work. Blurred, sin-mo camera work and silly music were childish distractions from the narrative; and why that choice of music? Ennio Morricone's theme from The Good The Bad, and The Ugly was hard to relate to the subject. Assuming that one of those adjectives applies to both politicians, which of the others applies to which?
We were told that there are "surprising similarities" between the two men, but beyond the coincidence of family connections in the same Scottish town, where are the surprises? We already knew that they're both jolly bright, both want to be Prime Minister, and have both hit a major snake amongst the ladders to Number 10. In the end it was pretty dull stuff. The only surprises lay in the script, or possibly the editing of the film, for it appeared that Cockerell harbours a dismissive contempt for William Hague which is impossible to comprehend either in terms of the Tory leader's qualities or, more importantly, of the sceptical detachment one would expect from such an experienced journalist. For example, we were told that Michael Fortino "was made Shadow Chancellor", but not by whom, as though Cockerell couldn't bring himself to speak the name. The man who beat Gordon Brown to the top of his party was referred to frequently and throughout; but Tony Blair's counterpart was referred to only twice, both times as "Hague", and for the first time only in the 45th minute of a 50 minute programme.
Otherwise it was the usual mixture of interviews with friends and foes, and old footage of both men looking ludicrously young. There was an extra resonance for me, though, in the latter element, for earlier in the day I had seen my old chum and local Tory PPC, Ed Mans, getting in his 10 seconds on Carlton's local current affairs dehge It's Your Shout. The subject was whether the elections would be postponed, and Ed managed to land a couple of good points from the floor, to general approbation, before the microphone was passed elsewhere. What struck me most, however, was how young he looked. They say the camera adds 10 pounds, but it also seem to subtract 20 years, and it was unnerving to see a man I now know as a 38-year-old pillar of society looking like an undergraduate again. I hope I'll remember that if I ever find myself tuning in to Ed Mans: The Early Years on BBC 2, for in this, as in so much else, the camera ties. But at least I can vouch for the fact that Ed was once 18, and looked it. I suspect the truth about Brown and Portal° is that they never looked young, except on TV. Perhaps they've only succeeded as fast as they have in politics because they were never really young at all.