Here is an angry man, and an embarrassed man.
The angry man is Labour MP Tom Watson. The “miserable pipsqueak” is the coalition’s education secretary Michael Gove, squirming after it’d been revealed his department had made a right cock-up of announcing cuts in the schools building programme earlier in the week.
I watched all this with interest, because me and Michael Gove go back years. Once, he made me squirm on the telly. And – oooh, maybe a million people saw it. Well, maybe. Let me take you back to the heady summer of 1992. Slightly under the legal age for boozing, a little more than slightly unable to afford regular boozing, the 17-year-old me used to go to see a lot of TV shows being recorded. So when The Mary Whitehouse Experience‘s David Baddiel had a new project on Channel 4, A Stab In The Dark, a few of us ambled up to LWT to see it being made. If I remember rightly, it was roughly this weekend 18 years ago.
A Stab In The Dark was one of those attempts to create some late night, biting satire that never quite comes off. The shadow of That Was The Week That Was hung over its dark and moody set – it was a very knowing, early 1990s production – as Baddiel brought his angry, bleaker routines to the show. The Late Show‘s Tracey MacLeod did the culture bits, and the political bits were handled by Michael Gove, then a hotshot writer with The Times.
The show was so self-conscious, it filtered through to the audience – half of that laughter feels like the nervous tittering you get in a job interview. Despite his fogey-ish suit in this excerpt featuring him and Baddiel, Gove was just 24 when the series was made.
He certainly gave the impression of being a sharp and intelligent guy – but he wasn’t a natural in front of the camera like his two co-presenters, as you’ll see at the end of that clip. The programme we went to see featured a discussion about sex education – then-health secretary Virginia Bottomley, a rather prim figure in John Major’s government, had wanted to see changes to it, using a phrase which was something like “commonsense advice”.
I’ve got the episode on video – but got rid of my VCR a long while back. And frankly, I’m not sure I want to see the 17-year-old me on my new big-screen TV. Because after discussing Bottomley’s position and cracking some scripted gags, Gove then went through the audience asking what piece of sex education they could have received to enhance their sex lives. He traded quips with the pretty and posh girls in front of us, and then… the spotlight was on me. Ooops. What could I have learned which would have made my sex life better?
(Small problem. I was 17. Not really much happening in that department. Shit. Think… think…)
“Maybe they could have told me how to get rid of spots,” I replied, getting my first-ever laugh on television. Even the pretty, posh girls in front laughed. Phew. I think Gove asked me another question and then moved onto a friend of mine, but I forget what happened next and I think his contribution may have been cut. Gove moved on to a discussion with a guest – I think it was Jerry Hayes, another leading Tory and amiable media favourite of the day (whose own sex life was harshly dragged into the spotlight five years later.)
Show recorded, we all trooped back to an illicit watering hole somewhere in south-east London to watch ourselves on TV. Under those lights, I really could have done with some advice about spots as well. A Stab In The Dark bombed, and has been largely written out of the careers of all three presenters.
But I’ve that encounter with Michael Gove to thank for teaching me life’s old lesson of “when in an embarrassing situation crack a really bad joke”. I’m not sure it would have got him out of his awful mess this week, though.
But every time I see Gove on the TV, it reminds me of that night 18 years ago… and spot cream. Heaven help me if his political career goes any further…