Saturday, January 21, 2006 by

When he wasn’t otherwise occupied with the trifling business of reading the news, Reginald Bosanquet divided his time between playing tennis, holding court in the ITN bar and penning amorous poetry about Anna Ford. One memorable stanza ran:

“When I hear the name of Ford,
I always think of Anna;
But Henry, of the company name,
Thinks about a spanner”

During his career co-hosting News at Ten he also made the headlines for, amongst other exploits, becoming Patron of the All-England Bar Billiards Association and for breaking into his ex-wife’s flat, an offence which got him thrown off the judging panel for Dustman of the Year 1975.

But throughout his illustrious reign in the nation’s living rooms, one thing Reggie never ever did was express an opinion about politics. This most capricious and colourful of all newscasters would willingly volunteer his thoughts on just about every other topic going, but when it came to affairs of state, Reg’s lips were firmly sealed. It was off-limits. A no-go area. Retirement was the place for that kind of business, in the shape of a meandering memoir or impassioned polemic (in Reggie’s case – the splendidly-titled Let’s Get Through Wednesday – both, in equal and very large measure).

And so it has remained. Reporters and newsreaders alike exercise, and are expected to exercise, assiduous silence on anything to do with matters political until they have been variously put out to dry (Michael Buerk, Kate Adie), handed their pension (John Sergeant, John Cole) or now spend enough time out of the country it doesn’t matter (John Simpson). Heaven forbid any of their present day equivalents in the newscasting first 11 demonstrate so much as a raised eyebrow or curled lip by way of subjective punctuation. Indulging in a bit of flagrant authored brouhaha, meanwhile, would almost certainly merit the door for any front rank face.

Well, almost any. In recent years one person has somehow managed to win himself sole exception to such cast-iron self-evident vows of silence. What’s more, he is positively encouraged to speak out. He’s even, unlike any of those comparatively forthright individuals above, gone so far as to break the ultimate taboo and gossip, shamelessly, repeatedly, about his personal politics. Yet he continues to front the evening news on one of the country’s main TV channels. And now he’s even got this, his own on-air soapbox, tailor-made for letting rip on the most contentious subjects of the day.

Given how Jon Snow – for it is he – has worked to style himself as an establishment eccentric (the bicycling to work, the technicolour ties, the unflagging ambition to deliver the day’s headlines from seemingly anywhere in the world), watching him off-duty doing a kind of Yarwood-esque ” … and this is me” affair is unsettling in the extreme. Firstly, we’re not used to this kind of television in this country. In fact we’ve never really seen the like of it before, except in the form of the demented outbursts of Kent Brockman in The Simpsons whenever he interrupts the news to deliver ‘My Two Cents’:

“We’ve just received word of a high-speed desert chase. The suspects have been identified as Ruth Powers and Marge Simpson of Springfield. At the risk of editorialising, these women are guilty, and must be dealt with in a harsh and brutal fashion. Otherwise, their behaviour could incite other women leading to anarchy of biblical proportions. (Pause). It’s in Revelations, people!”

This is partly why Snowmail doesn’t really work. It’s too close to parody to treat with the degree of sincerity the format demands. The slot doesn’t help either, 7pm on a Saturday night being the most congested hour in the TV week. It’s also advertised as lasting 10 minutes, but in reality clocks in as less than three – scarcely enough time for Jon to develop a proper argument, but not long enough to pad out with purely whimsical anecdotage.

Then there’s the presentation. The whole thing looks hasty and undignified. Jon has to balance on a tiny chair in front of some discarded camera equipment, a sheaf of papers teetering on his knees, gaudy studio graphics winking in the background. This inconclusive ensemble robs further credibility from the programme, besides continually distracting you from what Jon’s saying.

Not that it’s difficult to lose concentration. Given he’s got less than 150 seconds, you’d think Jon would make a point of working hard to come up with something direct and pithy. Not so, judging by today’s effort. Rather, what we got was an ill-focused few paragraphs about “Britishness”, kicking off with a lazy Thought for the Day-style scene-setter (“I found myself the other day in the House of Lords …”), then a bit of idle wordplay (“Floodlit Pugin portals … stone-dead statutes”), some thinking out loud (“So this is Britishness?” Well you tell us, Jon!), and finally some meandering reminiscence that sounded like your granddad: “‘Sovereign’. Hmm, that word again. As a child it meant half a crown to me, and now – well, that’s the rub.”

It shouldn’t be this way. You’d expect this kind of programme to be wry, punchy, informed – the same values Channel 4 News embodies; indeed, those same values which Jon Snow has been able to colonise in a manner not possible to any other journalist working in TV, thanks to his imposing character and the unique levity he is afforded by his employers.

In short, if non-partisan editorialising was going to work anywhere on British telly, it’d be on Channel 4. Not so. Jon Snow’s hard-fought yet peculiarly easily-won reputation as the maverick in mainstream newscasting is not going to be cemented with this bit of extra-curricular activity. By way of breaking new ground in the history of broadcast news, Snowmail is marginally less consequential than a light bulb shattering above Jan Leeming’s head.

Besides, when it comes to historical legacies, what’s more deserving of being written about 25 years from now: a forgettable blather about the word “Britishness”, or Reginald Bosanquet’s one-off foray into 7″ winebar-funk? Take it away, Reggie!

“Dance ladies! That’s it! Oh, I like the movement, it’s nice…”


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