Time to Cry

In early 2017 I gave a brief paper at the symposium “Politicians and Other Performers” organised by my colleagues in Theatre and Drama at Birkbeck, Louise Owen and Fintan Walsh. I am not a scholar of performance but I wanted to think about an increasing tendency towards public displays of emotion by British politicians. It seemed to me that emotional displays were increasingly commonly deployed as part of the media armoury of prominent political figures and I wanted to begin to sketch a history of this. Highlighted themes for the symposium included “authenticity and sincerity” so the topic seemed appropriate.

What had prompted this line of thought was seeing Nigel Farage crying in a BBC news segment in which he visited Brussels. His tear-streaked face had been lit by the sun as he stood among the graves of the war dead, and spoke of his great interest in bravery, his own experiences of fear, and his upset for his children, who had been bullied for having the name Farage (implying that he too had received similar treatment as a child).

The effect of this was not to elicit sympathy from me. I had little doubt that Farage felt sorry for himself, and his children, and felt emotional about the War dead, but I found the production of tears in a BBC interview hard to swallow. A bit of research turned up another instance of Farage weeping, this time for still cameras, at the Tower of London Remembrance Day poppy memorial. The then-Ukip leader described the installation as “awe-inspiring” and helpfully directed his tear-filled eyes at the camera.

I remembered distinctly the weekend in 2010 when the notoriously emotionally strangled Gordon Brown cried in interview with Piers Morgan when asked about the death of his daughter in infancy.

Brown further told Morgan that he was an “open book,” a claim which was at odds with what we’d all seen. No one put it better than Gordon Burn in his book Born Yesterday: The News as a Novel, which narrated the events of 2006. Burn described Brown as “an analogue politician in a digital age […] Watching Brown struggling to uncloud his countenance became the recurring bad sight of the year: a car-crash moment waiting to happen at each and every photo-op.”

Again, it was difficult to doubt the sincerity of Brown’s emotions in his interview – bereavement is always traumatic, losing an infant horrific, and Brown, however stoic or repressed, is a human being. What was clear, though was that this was a managed interview, that he’d elected to “go there” for the cameras. The emotions were authentic, and also performed.

Two days later Alastair Campbell became choked when quizzed by Andrew Marr about the Iraq inquiry. Perhaps Campbell was showing solidarity with his boss, muddying the water, sending the message that it’s perfectly normal even for big beasts to become emotional. The effect, though, of seeing two men whose reputations had been based upon their swift rage and over a decade of obsessive media management, submitting to tears in the artificial surroundings of the TV studio, gave the distinct impression of performance emoting, managed for display.

Campbell responded to this on his blog. I present this without comment:

GB will not have enjoyed opening himself up in the way it sounds like he did. But there is no harm at all in people seeing that when all is said and done, he is flesh and blood the same as everyone else. I had a bit of an unplanned ‘moment’ myself this morning, which judging by the volume of traffic online seems to have been noticed. I thought hardly anyone watched those Sunday political shows any more. With a new novel out – Maya, which I may have mentioned here a few times already – I had agreed to do Andrew Marr on the BBC and Adam Boulton on Sky, and I knew of course I could not expect them to restrict the interviews to me talking about what a rollicking good read my novel was (even if the reviews are saying exactly that).

The Independent newspaper had canvassed responses to Brown’s tears from members of the public. James Thomas, 27, a teacher at Wellington College, a noted private school, responded to the emotions as if leaving a tripadvisor review: “It was the first time I’d ever regarded the man as a human being, capable of emotions, which was pleasant to see. It was very moving when he spoke about the death of his child, and looked over at his wife on the verge of tears.”

Michael Wager, a customer services consultant from Cheltenham, offered a more media critical view: “Given that Brown has not fielded questions about his family and private life in the past, it is strange that he agreed to face them this time. I don’t think his tears were contrived, but it came across like this was driven by his PR team.”

In a search for the ground zero of this in British politics I landed between microphones and a church-yard, in Sedgefield, in county Durham, just over three months after his election and at a seminal moment for Tony Blair. Standing before the cameras of the national press, aware that he was addressing the world, Blair gave his response to the news of the death in a car crash of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Watching this performance today, the distance we’ve travelled is all-too apparent. Blair is consummate: he’s learnt the bones of the script but is speaking around it, from the – projected – heart. He even manages to control a near-choke in his voice. He hits the right notes, opening with his feelings, full of pregnant pauses. If you listen to the audio alone, it’s perfect, and when you add in the facial expressions, the range of brow-furrows and blinks, it is slightly too actorly to be vicarly, but he is certainly leading the service. I can imagine this being used as a training piece: “See what he does at two minutes fifteen. Straight to camera.”

When I gave this paper, I routed in two directions. As an obsessive reader of J.G. Ballard I am always drawn to the lines from his introduction to the French edition of Crash, which have served as something of a summary statement not only of his own practice, but also of the points at which it intersected with more theoretical approaches to life in a heavily mediated world.

I think that the balance between fiction and reality has changed significantly in the past decade. Increasingly their roles are reversed. We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind – mass merchandising, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising, the instant translation of science and technology into popular imagery, the increasing blurring and intermingling of identities within the realm of consumer goods, the preempting of any free or imaginative response to experience by the television screen. We live inside an enormous novel.

Farage is like a cartoon version of a Ballard character, or perhaps one imagined by an advertising executive specialising in Tesco xmas ads. Ballard would surely have disdained the crass, shire populism of this pub bore; on the other hand, he’s an arch media performer and conforms to a more idiosyncratic Ballardian archetype: the downed pilot.

For me, this is the key moment in Farage’s career: the moment he is born again after a near-death experience, bloodied but more determined.

The other route I went in was to think about the kinds of techniques that allow for the emotion to be accessible to performers, so I read a bit about Stanislavski, drilling into his reading in psychology. The most intriguing response was from an attendee who suggested I look at Ivan Pavlov’s influence on Stanislavski.

Which, I guess, brings me round to the reason for this post: the latest iteration of televised crying from a male politician. Matt Hancock on the Good Morning sofa is a fitting addition to the canon.

Hancock, the Pooterish head-boy on whose ill-prepared shoulders landed the health crisis of a generation, seems torn between laughing at the fact that a patient called William Shakespeare from Warwick has been located – the idea of the porosity of the fiction-reality border made flesh in a nominative call-to-national-pride – and weeping with relief for himself: “So many people…” But mainly me. He doesn’t manage to produce any visible tears – only emotionally-labile professionals like Farage can pull off that trick – but he has the gestures.

A patient called William Shakespeare from Warwick has been located – the idea of the porosity of the fiction-reality border made flesh in a nominative call-to-national-pride.

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