When Hard Times blow in, the Beeb does Dickens

Nov 28, 2008
Antonia Quirke

As the drama of the financial crisis unfolds, Antonia Quirke casts Emily Maitlis as Nancy while Paxman hams it up

Is it just me, or is the global financial crisis bringing out the Victorian boulevardier in people? "The proposed rate of income tax doesn't seem to make any sense at all," said someone in a phone-in on Capital FM just now, with a flourish. "And that's just a tiny droplet in the brimming bucket of all our debt."

When someone was being interviewed the other day on BBC News 24 about the pre-budget report, they said, "We're not sure what the Conservatives would do. They're not yet lifting the trouser leg and showing us the shin."

"Ah!" mused presenter Jon Sopel, in response. "I suppose that the Conservatives feel that Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown have their pick-axes and shovels out trying to dig elephant traps for them to fall into, and are rather reluctant to be amenable to such a thing…" Really he ought to have been waving around a cheroot.

Everyone on the BBC this week made me think of Dickens, even Mervyn KingI can honestly say, mind you, that I have never seen Jon Sopel looking so grim. Heavy bags under the eyes, skin caked and cracked, these days he calls to mind the opium-smoking Nemo in Bleak House. In fact everyone on the BBC this week has made me think of Dickens, right down to the many clips of the Bank of England Governor Mervyn King at his desk with his thick round glasses and upholstered waist, looking very much like the young Ebenezer Scrooge's one-time employer Mr Fezziwig (although a little less keen to give equal portions of stuffing.)

Emily Maitlis, for example, had more than a touch of Oliver's Nancy on Tuesday - a little too much rouge, music-hall-inspired black bodice/white blouse combo, and huge chavvy gold bracelet that Bill Sykes might have bought her to apologise for the black eye over the weekend.

Newsnight has a storytellerish feel. The editor has a subtly theatrical eye

And then there's the cadaver-featured weatherman David Corbett, shamelessly working the crowd. "The low pressure you feel oozing across the country tonight manifests itself as yet more cold," he said recently, reducing his voice to a whisper. "Like a great big eiderdown being drawn over us. Like a great thick blanket!" And then he waved his arms in a tremendous ta-da which turned into an actual cartoon shudder. He could have been reading to rapt children the chapter in A Christmas Carol when the ghost of Jacob Marley ascends Scrooge's cellar steps on a freezing night, dragging behind him his cash-boxes and purses, and the "guilty governments" of the world, chained together.

And rarely has Newsnight felt more storytellerishly controlled. This new editor Peter Rippon has a subtly theatrical eye. On Wednesday Paxman lead a discussion about how to get banks to lend again. "Peter McNamara – why aren't banks lending?" he asked the former chairman of Alliance and Leicester.

"A couple of factors really," said McNamara, and launched into a long and unbelievably boring, but possibly terrifying, monologue ("… not enough of their own to lend… can't lend effectively between themselves … small and medium-sized businesses are net lenders to the banking system themselves…").

And all the time the camera didn't pull out once for a single reaction shot from the other guests, was just seemingly paralysed by the bad news, as the country prayed for an advert break, or at the very least a brief cut to a picture of police Assistant Commissioner Tarique Ghaffur to cheer us up (is that not the world's worst comb-over? Oh, show it again!). Or even an interview down the line with one of those people who are quite enjoying being captured by Somalian pirates.

The programme invited us to draw up a chair and listen as he cleaned his rifle

"So," interrupted Paxman suddenly, rousing us from our stupour, and the camera pulled back, delightedly on cue. "Basically, the businesses themselves aren't trading well enough to be saving, so they are borrowing instead." He inclined his head to consider his precis of the situation, his sherbert-lime-green tie supremely raconteurish.

And all his gestures for the next few moments were utterly of the English stage in that they were this close to ham, which is his standard modus operandi, I know, I know, but I swear it was as if the whole programme was inviting us to draw up a chair and listen as he cleaned his rifle for the big scene that closes the second act.

But then Paxman just said "Ah", indulgently, and brought things right down to a pleasantly anxious hum instead. "… NOW we're beginning to understand…"

PS Paxman as King Lear, anyone?

PPS Funny how the phrase 'credit crunch' has dropped out of the lexicon entirely, like an inappropriately fond nickname for a toddler who, overnight, turned into an old boot.

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