TV Review – US Elections 2012, Michael Palin’s Brazil, Secret State

Notes From the Bubble

“Welcome to Washington.” It’s all about bubbles. On US political comedian Bill Maher’s show Real Time (too esoteric to be shown over here), he has a regular segment called Dispatches from the Bubble where he regularly castigates some out-to-lunch Conservative caught not knowing anything outside his own little pocket universe.

The BBC seem to be living in something similar. David Dimbleby hosted their US Elections 2012 (BBC1) coverage with his usual patrician smoothness, although he seemed certain he’d be in for a very long night. “The indications are that it’s neck and neck,” David said. This was something right wing pundits had been saying a lot, in the hope that nobody noticed that polls and statisticians had Obama 2-3 points up, and was certain to win

“It’s that tight,” says Dimbleby’s sidekick Katty Kay. All old blokes on BBC political coverage have to have a younger female sidekick, preferably called ‘Katty’. As with a visit to the British Museum, they were surrounded by Americans. Sadly, the moustache of doom John Bolton excused himself from reprising his role of resident cockeyed lunatic from four years ago. He was no doubt telling another network to fire their reporters.

Whilst mentioning the Florida debacle of 12 years ago (“Fingers crossed we don’t get any of that tonight,” said Dimbleby unconvincingly), the fact that Romney was campaigning on voting day was waved away. “This can be interpreted in many ways.” Or it could be interpreted in one way: desperate. John Zogby, a pollster who knew his numbers and which way they were leaning, warned darkly that whilst someone will win, the loser may not concede. “Lawyers mean trouble.” Dimbleby cheered up.

With only 50 states announcing results (unlike the 650 here), it meant there was a lot of time to fill. A Republican named Kurt kept referring to President Romney. He was in a whole different bubble of his own. A pundit called Stan Greenberg confidently said, “Every leader of a Western democracy has lost since the Crash, except Merkel and your leader.” Dimbleby didn’t bother to point out that our leader hasn’t ran for re-election yet.

The two American pundits – Democrat and Republican – yelped like two foxes rutting and never said anything worth hearing. There were correspondents all across the US. Clive Myrie was in a bar in Ohio. Jon Sopel was in a much nicer bar in Virginia, talking to much nicer patrons. “It’s going to be a long night I think,” said the requisite whiny voiced American woman. The Miami correspondent, Laura Trevelyan, was outside a bar for a change. “This is what all eyes are on tonight.”

No they weren’t, for as Zogby and Nate Silver and all the other statisticians had proven, if Romney couldn’t win Ohio, he didn’t have a chance. And Obama was already up in Ohio. Zogby was “seeing no surprises.” Dimbleby, his journalistic instincts baffled by what was supposed to be a close race, told him he’s not supposed to see no surprises. Zogby blinked. “I would suggest that there will be an Obama electoral college victory,” he said carefully.

It wouldn’t be coverage of an election on the BBC without the odd cock-up. Emily Maitlis’s giant iPad went on the fritz and told her that Obama was ahead 50 points in a state where rednecks mate with goldfish. Zogby’s mic fell off whilst getting particularly excited about a statistic (a minion crawled across the floor, unobtrusively getting in shot).

Dimbleby can’t get through to a bilious US Ambassador, despite his large face filling the widescreen. After several attempts, Dimbleby finally manages to show a Romney attack ad, which talks darkly of building jeeps in China. They’ll be making iPhones there next. John Simpson calls in from Beijing, looking oddly like Deborah Meaden.

Then, just after 2am, Pennsylvania went to Obama by a big margin. Romney had ambitions of winning the state, but the size of it going the other way meant events were inevitably heading towards Obama. Now it was just a matter of waiting until Ohio confirmed it. A Republican analysed the result: “They were the Hillary Clinton voters. They were the last voters in and the first voters out.” Dimbleby looked baffled.

He might have more help if he moved outside the bubble of the studio. Elections past would have featured the odd rah-rah clip from US television to put a better perspective on things, but here it was just the studio and the reporters in the bars. A Democratic strategist pointed out, “We’re not looking at Florida, we don’t think it’ll matter.” Dimbleby was slowly getting it.

Nile Gardiner, a British foreign policy advisor for Romney, was, even at this stage, still “cautiously optimistic” for Romney. He said Romney will, “shine on the world stage,” to the odd snigger from the panel. “The future of conservatism in America is extremely strong.” It’s just the present that’s weak. Most of the panel were openly laughing now, as Dimbleby kindly reminds the delusional fool that reality was not on his side.

Gone 4am and British people are propping open their eyelids. California’s large goop of votes goes to Obama without anyone much paying attention. North Carolina is finally called for Romney. If it had been called four hours ago, it might have meant something. Finally at 4:15, supporters at Obama HQ hear some news and start cheering and waving flags. Hesitantly, the BBC analysed this. “There are… American Television networks… calling… Ohio… and the election… for Obama. Though we’re not yet.” Put us out of our misery!

Dimbleby was baffled that it might be all over. In British elections, he’s used to staying up all night and through the morning. This election was called 15 minutes later than Obama’s landslide four years ago. At 4:24, the BBC finally agrees with everyone else and calls Ohio for Obama. Dimbleby’s robotic presenting software kicks in and he moves smoothly centre stage. “A victory they suspected about a month ago they might not get.” How about five hours ago David?

With the ructions going on at the BBC at the moment, it probably wasn’t a good idea to do such an insular programme about such a world-affecting event. Clearly, they didn’t have the money to do anything beyond one studio in Washington and a few field, sorry bar, reporters. But couldn’t they have made a deal with an American network to provide some American coverage of what is a very American event?

Instead, they prefer to spend the money on fluffy nonsense. Once upon a time Michael Palin was in a dark film called Brazil, where he was the bad guy. Now he’s the star of Michael Palin’s Brazil (BBC1) and he’s very much the nice guy. When Palin started on his travelogues 25 years ago, they were very much in the spirit of adventure affectionately satirised in Palin’s Ripping Yarns. His later travelogues feature him just turning up somewhere and being terribly nice to them. Non-adventure time.

He’s become an old sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus: Alan Whicker, the man who walks around desperately looking for someone to interview. This week he finally made it to Rio, and asked harmless questions of the city’s mayor about how they’re going to handle both the World Cup (2014) and the Olympics (2016). It came across like a promotional video for North Malden. Which was also a Monty Python sketch.

Secret State (Channel 4) was all about British politics. Unlike The Thick Of It, it wasn’t supposed to be a comedy although it was frequently hilarious in an unintentional way. Gabriel Byrne played the Deputy Prime Minister with a terrible English accent and even worse hair. Imagine Kenneth Clarke at his flowing worst and add root boost and a severe blow dry. He discovered that the Blair-esque Prime Minister has died in a plane crash and has to immediately deal with the hawks in his party who want the top job.

Hilariously, these hawks are played by Charles Dance and Sylvestra le Touzel, the former more associated with coming to power on the back of a shitting horse in Game of Thrones, the latter more associated with bringing Stewart’s career to an end in the last episode of, er, The Thick of It. Apart from these associations, it can’t helped be noticed that all these people are far too old for today’s politics. But Byrne suddenly develops a backbone and tilts for the big job himself, despite being twice Ed Miliband’s age. Dance is particularly dismissive. “The Sultan’s fucking eunuch? Come on!”

That line might have been acceptable coming out of Malcolm Tucker, but everything else is deadly serious. It’s centred on an explosion at a school after all. But any political drama needs humour, otherwise it’s hard to take seriously.

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