When Twitter started trilling on Sunday with “Boris Johnson in car crash TV interview”, I dropped everything, croissant included, and high-tailed it to YouTube. It was vintage Johnson, Johnson premier cru – on the face of it taking a rinsing from Eddie Mair about past indiscretions, and yet once the harrumphing was done the abiding feeling was, “that was another wonderful piece of telly starring Boris Johnson.”
It was the exact same effect induced by Michael Cockerell’s film Boris Johnson: the Irresistible Rise last night on BBC Two. Regardless of what you think of Johnson’s politics or predilections, the man is TV gold. In the name of journalistic objectivity Cockerell’s film dutifully included musings from Boris’s sister Rachel, his father Stanley, former editors and school chums. Some of it was moderately revealing, but the money shot was the blond bombshell, live and unleashed.
Cockerell is undoubtedly a fine reporter; on this evidence he is also a wily film-maker. His coup was to get Boris sat in a bunker surrounded by three large screens. It was like a prolonged interrogation scene from Zero Dark Thirty, but instead of waterboarding, Cockerell induced mental agony by projecting footage of unpleasant Boris-baiting imagery such as that Bullingdon photo, or Rachel Johnson explaining how everything comes back to the fact that Boris was head boy at Eton and Cameron wasn’t.
Boris’s exasperated responses encapsulated precisely why his rise will indeed most likely prove irresistible. He would do that thing where he shakes his hands in front of him like he’s throttling a cow. The yellow moptop – a piece of branding far stronger than the Conservative green tree – remained exquisitely disarranged. And then the words, oh the words! No one talks like Johnson. Even if you don’t give a fig for the man or his ambition, fair reader, drink in the parlance. When surrounded, literally, by the incriminating Bullingdon photo Boris looked at his shoes and then came out with this: “Ah yes, I congratulate you on defying the censors and bringing this appalling image once again before public view. It is a truly shameful vignette of almost superhuman undergraduate arrogance and toffishness and twittishness. But you know,” – bumble, grovel, scratch, cough – “it was great fun at the time. Or was it? Actually the awful truth about all that business was… The abiding feeling was of deep, deep, deep self loathing.” Then he pointed at Cockerell with both hands, like he was passing him a spittoon.
Time and again you were reminded that his hyperbolic Boggle – from “inverted pyramid of piffle” to “the Geiger counter of olympo-mania is going to go zoink off the scale” – is inimitable. At a time when all other politicians are about as lapel-grabbing as the Emmerdale omnibus, he could make a fortune on pay per view. Which is why when he said, “This programme was such a bad idea,” he said it with a smile. Just as there is no such thing as a “car crash interview” when it features Boris, so there is no such thing as a bad programme with him in it.