Boris Johnson: The Irresistible Rise; Wodehouse In Exile – TV review

Can this man really be mayor of London? And potentially a future … you know?

A flaxen haired five-year-old boy floats down a stream in a small inflatable boat. He seems ill equipped for the task; the boat isn’t pumped up properly and the boy doesn’t have a paddle, just a stick to steer with. It looks hopeless, like he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Uh oh, rapids ahead, surely he’ll topple and go under, that’ll be the end of the voyage. Here he goes, big wobble, whoa … oh, he came through somehow, grinning even, he’s enjoying it. And again, even more troubled waters survived, and again, until it seems that somehow this clown will, against all odds, complete his journey, arrive at the pool of plenty.

This nice clip of family home video, which comes at the beginning of Boris Johnson: The Irresistible Rise (BBC2), is echoed throughout the rest of Michael Cockerell’s revealing film. For little Boris’s improbable journey, read bigger Boris’s improbable journey. The rapids? How many do you want? Bullingdon twattishness, shoddy journalism, a sacking by the Times, Petronella Wyatt, plus Darius Guppy (surely that was what Michael Howard might have called political Niagara, the one that should have ended the trip and left Boris dead in the water). And the stick, by which he steers himself? Well, ask Petronella – or any of the others – what that might be. Max Hastings gave Boris some advice about that stick, told him to keep it zipped up. Did Boris take that advice? Pah! He waved it in the air, shouting “Buller buller buller”.

It’s nicely done. Cockerell might not give him the full Eddie Mair-over, but nor does he give him an easy ride. Nice touch, getting Boris to sit on a hard chair in front of not one but three giant screens (footage of himself and others talking about him), triple evidence it’s impossible to hide from. And to film him listening to that phone conversation with Guppy. “OK Dari, I’ve said I’ll do it [find out where a journalist who’s been bothering Guppy lives, so he can beat him up], I’ll do it, don’t worry.” Can this man really be mayor of London? And potentially a future … you know?

Cockerell presses him on that too, whether he wants to reach the pool of plenty and become PM. “I think it’s a very tough job being prime minister,” bumbles Boris. “Obviously, if the ball came loose from the back of the scrum, which it won’t of course, it would be a great, great thing to have a crack at.” More of a public yes than ever before, heaven help us. And more evidence that it’s all a game for him. With Dave too. “To a certain extent they’re both there in their short shorts in Eton sort of sparring with each other,” says the mayor’s former spin doctor, Guto Harri.

Some of the most interesting stuff is about his early years – the rivalry with sister Rachel, the self-portrait (good I think), not learning the lines of the school play, things his mother says. “I often thought that his being World King [what he said he was going to be] was a wish to make himself unhurtable, invincible,” she say. “Somehow safe from the pains of life, the pains of your mother disappearing for eight months [after a breakdown], the pains of your parents splitting up.” Is it possible there is a vulnerability in there somewhere?

It’s fabulous to watch – not just because of Cockerell’s fine work, but mainly because of the subject matter. How many other politicians could stuff an hour of television with so much joy-horror? Michael Gove? Theresa May? Ed Miliband? Don’t make me laugh.

“This programme was such a bad idea,” Boris says at one point. Was it? Almost certainly not. There’s plenty for both phile and phobe to grab on to. He’s hilarious, a witty omnibumbler. Or a perfectly choreographed act, driven by dangerous ambition and competitiveness learned on the Eton playing fields. My guess is that this is just another little patch of rough water (Mair too, an eddy) which Boris’s momentum will overcome. And he’ll float on until he is actually World King.

Speaking of bumblers, a lovely performance by Tim Pigott-Smith in the title role of Nigel Williams’s Wodehouse In Exile (BBC4). I’m afraid PGW doesn’t come out of it brilliantly. Maybe not a traitor, but so naive for not seeing that the Germans were using him as propaganda. I’m cross with him too for not wanting to know about the other less-cosy camps, for putting his hands over his ears and shouting “What ho” to drown out the bombs and the screams. Damn fool. The second half dragged a bit.

Plebs (ITV2) is like The Inbetweeners in ancient Rome. Very puerile. I’ve series linked it, obviously.

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