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December 12, 2005

After Dark lives on - Dinner with Portillo on BBC4

Posted by Harry Phibbs

Dinner with Portillo
Presented by Michael Portillo
BBC4, Tuesdays, 8.30pm

Most panel discussions are dominated by the immediate news. One thinks of the group slanging matches on BBC TV's Newsnight, the usually slightly better humoured BBC TV Question Time, or Any Questions on BBC Radio 4. They tend to generate more heat than light. This programme is part of a slightly different tradition. It is intended to tackle broader themes with a less formal, less urgent - although not necessarily any less boisterous - tone. Channel 4's series Bremner, Bird and Fortune includes an excellent parody of a middle class dinner party ridden with hypocrisy and angst as guests parade their "social consciences" to each other. That gives more of the feel of the Portillo show.

Earlier examples of the genre include After Dark, a truly bizarre Channel 4 series where guests would discuss some topic like "Ireland" or "World Peace" or "Women" and then go on talking for as long as they liked. There would be commercial breaks but they would go on talking through them - the viewers would simply miss a few minutes of the discussion. The programme might finish at 2am or 3am in the morning. There was no fixed time. Sometimes guests would leave early if they got tired. They could get up and walk about - pour themselves a drink.

I am told that the After Dark, Dinner with Portillo type of discussion programme had earlier incarnations. One such programme had a memorable argument over racing, between Michael Foot (who thought it should be banned) and the Tory MP Gerald Nabarro (who was all for it). Foot asked:

You're not suggesting the horse enjoys it are you?
Nabarro boomed in reply:
Of course the horse enjoys it. What does the horse do when it loses its rider? It carries on and finishes the race.
The atmosphere on Dinner with Portillo tends to be a sober rather than drunken dinner party. When voices are raised Portillo tries to restrain rather than egg on. He takes himself, and television, very seriously. This may be irritating to some but at least he does some research and thinking beforehand and so throws in some articulate comments intended to stir a response.

For instance on the programme about Happiness, Portillo produced the startling fact that there are more counsellors than GPs employed in Britain. One of his guests, the Agony Aunt Virginia Ironside, something of an expert on counselling not least as a very large consumer of it over the years, has concluded that it is not only a huge waste of money but actually harmful. When she went in for counselling Virginia was spending 40 twice a week. The charges for counselling are now even higher. Virginia Ironside suggested that we were better off going to Church and putting a 1 coin in the collection.

More seasoned broadcasters don't tend to bother as much as Portillo. He seems to feel that the programme should seek to uncover some key truth on a given subject rather than provide a lively clash. Sometimes he seems to confuse a great truth being discovered with his guests happening to agree about some point.

The guiding principle determining the choice of guest is not so much their expertise but their diversity. Portillo regards as a strength that they would be people who would not be having dinner together under any other conceivable circumstances.

It is refreshing that guests are able to speak their mind rather than serving as spokesmen for a political party or pressure group. Zac Goldsmith is seeking to become a Tory MP but as a guest on the programme talking about the planet he was uncompromising. Pointing out that the ingredients for a shop bought sandwich would typically come from eight countries involving endless air miles, Zac Goldsmith declared:

When you go into a shop and buy a sandwich it is an environmental disaster.
In the recent series another programme featured Grayson Perry, the cross dressing modern artist, on a discussion of Britain's role in the world. Grayson Perry said of the British:
We are risk takers. We are not scared of being eccentric. We have this strong idea of the individual and are seen as creatively very advanced because of that.
Apart from this encouraging sign of patriotism from the arts world, Grayson then added:
I'm trying to lead a campaign for the come back of the gentleman. We have thrown out the baby with the bath water in this country. We threw out racism and sexism and imperialism and that kind of stuff but we also threw out the nice bloke.
Another sign that Portillo is not a normal broadcaster is that he allows digressions from the main subject. Indeed he often initiates them. Again, this isn't necessarily a criticism. Sometimes the digression can be quite interesting. For instance on the programme on Britain's role, Mary Kaldor, an LSE professor, made a remark about Margaret Thatcher being a "quasi man". Portillo was enraged. He replied:
This really makes me quite cross. She was our first woman Prime Minister. It is absurd that the Left try to discount that fact because she is a Conservative. She is a woman and I can tell you that as Prime Minister she was a very feminine woman.
Steady on, old boy.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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