On the Record

Sunday, December 15, 2002 by

14 years after first venturing forth onto Sunday lunchtime screens, On the Record bowed out with the kind of finesse and insight it had so sorely lacked for most of its existence. A relaxed John Humphrys cued in a dozen themed clips packages, neatly presented to represent each of the 12 segments of the On the Record Big Ben “clock”. Intriguing, amusing, and imbued with a deep sense of nostalgia, the footage reeled back a decade and a half of British history, ticking off all the crucial and the not so obvious turning points with poise and care.

As you watched, inevitable feelings of warm recollection at archive footage – such as evocative extracts from the programme’s Gulf War coverage in January 1991, replete with a suitably subdued, purple-shaded studio set – mixed with marked wonder at how quickly so many political names of the 1990s have so utterly faded out of view. “Margaret Thatcher – remember her?” quipped Humphrys, but pictures taken from the end of her Premiership did felt weirdly remote from today as if from another lifetime.

A judicious sequencing of old and new material went on to construct a useful overview of the consistencies and the ruptures of recent UK political life, laying evidence of change and of continuity open for the viewer to make sense of as they saw fit. Here was Tony Blair saying one thing in 1994, here he was saying another eight years on: it was left to us to draw our own conclusions. A piece on the long-term fortunes of the Liberal Democrats traced events back to a by-election in Newbury in 1993, while fascinating clips of the contenders fighting to replace Mrs Thatcher in 1990 reminded you how some overwhelmingly ubiquitous characters (Douglas Hurd, John Major) are now almost vanished from public life, while others (Michael Heseltine) are still able to win headlines.

There was also room for a nicely put together round-up of more light-hearted business, which for On the Record meant a telephone going off during an interview with Heseltine at his house, and John Prescott vouching on air to it being “a damn good programme”. Then, as the final minutes ticked by, John Humphrys couldn’t help but sound a bit emotional – “More than that, a great privilege too … what we’ve tried to do is take politics seriously … thanks to you for being such a loyal audience.” Endings of any kind are by design always moving and quite arresting; so it was here, as the credits rolled, the laconic clay-mation crocodile – always one of the best things about the show – heaved itself onto its feet one final time, swallowed a fantastically long list of all the current production team, then slumped onto the ground again weeping swollen tears from its lazy eye.

It was undoubtedly a fine tribute, but the slick choice of clips and shrewd editing couldn’t help but give the impression that On the Record was consistently one of the best political discussion shows around, whereas in reality for as many points scored there were prejudices aired, and more often than not set piece interviews collapsed into unashamed hectoring. Looking back, there was always a rather presumptuous feel to proceedings, of the kind that presupposed an uninterrupted two-handed dialogue between presenter and politician obviously meant good television, and anyone who disagreed was a base, rather ignorant fool.

To assume that anything deserves to be on TV simply for what it is rather than for how it explores and exploits the medium of telly itself, and crucially how it can establish a rapport with viewers, is the kind of lumpen thinking that has its origins back with the grisly Weekend World. Perhaps the epitome of television for the sake of it, Weekend World was never about educating and enthusing viewers about politics; it was simply about poking sharp sticks in the eyes of a dozen of so TV executives to prove tedious points about how current affairs should be packaged on the small screen.

Only the most charismatic and imaginative of TV execs can get away with making programmes purely to piss off other TV execs, usually because they remember the bargaining power of the most important factor of all: the loyalty and respect of us, the viewers. The team behind Weekend World, however, appeared to revel in their programme’s lamentable ratings, as if believing that, in some kind of Orwellian fashion, the more the audience tuned out the more they were doing right.

Of course the series eventually turned Sunday lunchtimes on both the BBC and ITV into a wilderness of gainsaying and catcalling that was as outrageous as it was boring. On the Record to its credit was never quite as indigestible or ponderous as Weekend World, but did persist for way too long in tacitly endorsing the notion that to appear to be in anyway “populist” on a political news programme is tantamount to a terrible blasphemy.

Complicit in this assumption were not just the politicians themselves but media commentators who seemed to encourage a climate where the obvious and practical idea of moving the main evening news on BBC1 from 9pm to 10pm was in fact akin to pouring petrol onto a lighted cigarette butt in The British Library. Only now, 30 years after Weekend World began, does there appear to be enough of a momentum within the broadcasting industry to begin to break down some of the taboos surrounding the presentation of politics on mainstream TV.

Is it too late? Revamping a long running television programme only works if done with plenty of confidence and panache, and if the point of the overhaul is immediately and overwhelmingly obvious to viewers. The worst thing that can happen is that On the Record is succeeded by a show that’s On the Record without the long interviews but still with the same somewhat remorseless tone and atmosphere. It will be forever ironic – and instructive – that at the end of the day the most lively and enjoyable aspect to On the Record was its avuncular title music and credit sequence. They really should’ve done more with the crocodile.


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