By Paul Goodman
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What did we learn from Michael Cockerell’s documentary about the Mayor of London – Boris Johnson: The Irresistable Rise – which most of us we hadn’t picked up already? We were shown some footage we hadn’t seen before: Childe Boris floating down a stream in an inflatable raft, during the pre-lapsarian age of innocence before the era of health and safety. Some enchanting interview clips of his mother, Charlotte Johnson Wahl, flickered briefly across the screen. We were granted a glimpse of a slimmer, younger, less stammer-prone Boris in his Oxford Union days. More old film. But were there any new insights?
Cockerell is an experienced maker of political documentaries with a standard technique – namely, of putting his subjects in front of videos that are either of or about themselves. The aim is to allow the viewer to see them spooked by their own image: to embarrass them into blurting out, in some unstoppable moment of self-realisation, the truth about themselves. The iron fist of this ruthless procedure is concealed in a velvet glove. Cockerall has a manner so aimiable as to lull those subjects – not to mention the viewer – into a sense of false security. So it is that Boris was ambushed by both the Darius Guppy tape and that Bullingdon photograph.
But the lesson of Cockerell’s film, considered alongside Eddie Mair’s interview yesterday, is that while Boris is vulnernable to direct hostility, he is can defuse anything that’s hurled at him with even a hint of affection. So it was that he laughed off the Guppy tape as “a load of old cobblers” and fended away Cockerell’s enquiries about Prime Ministerial ambitions with a jolly hockey sticks figure of speech about balls coming loose at the back of scrums (a mixed sporting metaphor, but you know what I mean). True, his interviewer’s quiet persistence got more out of Boris than most previous interrogators, but after yesterday’s Mair maul it was all a bit of a Cockerell cuddle.
One aspect of being Boris that Cockerell captured very well is the sense of being caught up in a family game. On the one hand, the Mayor waved personal ambition away, or half-heartedly tried to; on the other, Stanley Johnson (father) and Rachel Johnson (sister) urged him on: in a moment that will do nothing to calm Downing Street’s nerves, Stanley called on his son to return to the Commons as soon as possible. David Cameron popped up now and again: more old film was used to set him against his rival. But the shrewdest observer of all, I thought, was Ken Livingstone: “he makes people feel good about themselves”, said the old reptile-lover.
And then, later, he put his finger on a potentially fatal flaw. Boris, he said, “wants to be loved even by the people he’s destroying”. Cockerell’s film reminded us of that yearning for affection by showing Boris at sea without it – in an angry London street in the aftermath of the 2011 riots. The Mayor of London’s powers are so ill-grasped that he is usually shielded from public outrage. The Prime Minister, however, is a lighting-conductor for a nation’s emotions. My guess is that Mair’s interview won’t be remembered for long (though for longer, I suspect, than Cockerell’s gently-paced film). But it was a foretaste of what’s in store for Boris if he ever reaches the top.