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June 24, 2008

Portillo's Patter: An Audience with Michael Portillo

Posted by Jeremy Black

An Audience with Michael Portillo
Northcott Theatre, Exeter
23rd June 2008

My daughter did not wish to go, so I accompanied my wife to see An Audience with Michael Portillo at the Exeter Festival. This was very much a case of contrasting parts. In the second, Portillo answered a continual rush of questions with great success. He was open, to the point, pleasant and able to deal effortlessly with a great range of issues. Portillo was also fairly direct on his likes and dislikes. His account of dealing with Brown as Chancellor made the aggressive, if not infantile, personality features of the latter apparent. Johnson was presented as extremely ambitious and wishing to displace Cameron. Davis was seen as 70 per cent motivated by conviction, and Portillo had sent his campaign a cheque.

The first part, a pleasantly delivered speech, was more patchy. It included sections of great interest: his parents' politics, why he had become a Conservative, his (justified) view that the electoral system poses a greater challenge to a Conservative victory in the next election than is currently believed.

But Michael Portillo's presentation was weak.

Partly, it was a matter of jokes. There were at least two main ones. One was definitely unoriginal, neither was particularly funny, and both fell flat. He had misjudged the audience, and the general view of the interval was "better without". I've since been told that he tells jokes on other occasions that also all flat. Give them up Michael. Most public speaking is better off without the contrived, disjointed joke, and not least because, with social and cultural change, audiences are far more varied than they were twenty years ago. The standard repertoire of humour - with references to television and sport and drawing on assumptions about class, gender, nationality (the Scot, the Irishman et al) and sexuality - are an embarrassment to enough members of most audiences to suggest that it should be dumped.

There was also the pose of Michael as victim - you were all delighted to see me lose in 1997, all thought I needed a come-uppance, are inherently hostile - that was not only a bizarre misreading of the audience, but also a tedious and rather clanking device.

So lots of interest, engaging manner, dealt well with the initial flaws of the sound-system; but, like many speakers, needs a complete overhaul of his assumptions as how best to engage consistently successfully with an audience.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. He is the author - amongst much else - of The Slave Trade (2007), A Short History of Britain (2007), The Holocaust (2008), and The Curse of History (2008).


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