A daily bulletin of news & opinion

2 October 2009

Last night the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, got a puncture while riding through East London. While the repair was being done, he stopped in the Queen Vic pub in Walford for a drink. As soon as Johnson stepped into the pub, locals recognised him and the landlady, Peggy Mitchell, personally served the mayor a pint of bitter while flirtatiously confessing that she so admired a man who gave his life over to the service of others and that she had herself thought of going into politics. “Lucky for me that your bike got a puncture, Mr Mayor” she Happy-Birthday-Mr-President-ed from behind the bar.

I know this not because I watched the news but because I watched EastEnders, a primetime soap opera on BBC1. Mr Johnson didn’t really get a puncture and neither the Queen Vic nor Walford really exist. In fact, last night the Mayor of London appeared in a primetime drama – as himself. EastEnders is watched by an average of more than 8 million viewers, (twice the average of ITV’s News at Ten) often scoring an almost 40 per cent audience share. It’s usually in the top two most-watched programmes on British TV.

Exactly. Who needs boring party political broadcasts, tedious interviews and bothersome debates? That’s so the last government; that’s so dull; that’s so Gordon bloody Brown. Far better – and a far leaner, meaner exercise in reaching your constituents – to just rock up to a fictional pub – as yourself – and charm the pants of the working man and woman and have 8 million people watch you do it. That, as they say in football, is a result.

It’s certainly a result for the Conservative party, for which Boris Johnson is an MP. In fact, to use a slogan from previous Conservative electioneering, it’s a “double whammy”. Earlier this week, under the headline “Labour’s Lost It”, The Sun, the most popular newspaper in the UK, withdrew its support from the Labour party and pledged its allegiance to the Conservatives. And then EastEnders. Although President Obama ploughed through a fawning guest-spot on the Letterman Show recently, what’s the mayoral precedent for TV cameos? Has Bloomberg been in NYPD Blue? Did Enrique Peñelosa shoot the breeze in Bogota’s most famous telenovela? Is Tokyo’s Governor Ishihara limbering-up for his gruelling appearance on Takeshi’s Castle?

The problem is, that acting yourself – as opposed simply to being yourself – is a tough gig. TV and film are littered with embarrassing cameos: Leonard Cohen in Miami Vice, Victoria Beckham in Ugly Betty, Chrissie Hynde singing “Smelly Cat” in Friends. All ensure a sharp intake of breath, a wince and the subconscious retraction of the reproductive organs.

But it calls to question the amount of acting that a politician has to do to be successful. Mr Johnson – or as the British media call him, “Boris” – is famous for being “Boris”: an Eton and Oxford educated journalist and politician with an unschooled, charmingly dishevelled, bufferish persona and an accent that makes Hugh Grant sound like a scaffolder. Johnson’s cameo as himself was difficult to read. Was he the motivated politician purposefully sitting outside his comfort zone to charm viewers-as-voters or was he just good old “Boris”?

In a way, the BBC are embracing product placement ahead of their commercial competitors but with a politician rather than a brand. And it’s dangerous ground for an under-fire broadcaster. On ITV next year Johnson can walk into Coronation Street‘s Rovers Return and order a pint of John Smith’s and a packet of Walker’s crisps with impunity. But for the moment, perhaps he should ride his bike around Westminster rather than Walford; there are plenty of cameras there but they’re CCTV not BBC TV.

In the meantime I’m looking forward to Gordon Brown’s primetime retaliation. Do you think he should he sing “Stand By Your Man” on the X-Factor?


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