How can an interviewer wrestle BNP leader Nick Griffin without, as the saying goes, everyone getting dirty and the pig enjoying it? Inevitably, lairy actor Keith Allen didn’t provide the answer where professional journalists have failed. But, while Keith Allen Meets Nick Griffin was a directionless splodge of bravado and ineptitude, it had specks of value.
Allen set out his credentials early on, showing us a clip of a song by his daughter that criticises the far right. His own impetus came from watching stuffy, stupid Question Time make a hash of its Nick Griffin special in 2010, ganging up on the bogeyman and turning him into a victim. The liberal media had ignored the subsequent trebling of the BNP vote.
With his innate ability to cut through bull in a gruff but right-on sort of way, Allen promised to “be the opposite of Question Time – I’ll be reasoned and logical, with no haranguing”. Griffin’s own words would hang him.
Apart from this mission statement, the opening minutes were taken up with Allen’s devil-may-care subversion of the documentary format. He replaced the stock footage that usually illustrates explanatory narration with a shot of him recording the narration itself. When Griffin tried to cancel at the last minute, Allen got the Eurostar to Brussels anyway, with a counter in the corner of the screen detailing how much budget this was riskily using up.
After some amusing kerfuffle in which Allen literally chased Griffin round the European Parliament building, suddenly there was Griffin in an atrium somewhere, squashed onto a sofa with Allen like an even less watchable version of This Week.
Glossing over Griffin’s jibe that the advance notes he’d been sent were “shallow junk”, Allen started questioning and, for a time, his roundabout approach worked. Prurient as it may have been for us to guzzle news of Griffin’s love for The Clash, English folk revivalist Peter Bellamy and Skrewdriver (just the early work), the peek at the BNP man’s personal make-up was rare and fascinating. He was halfway open.
Yet Allen seemed worried about humanising the enemy, as if the audience would forget what Griffin stands for. Contrary to his opening assertions, he hardly ever let the conversation run without reminding us which side he was on. When Griffin spoke about his education – one of two boys at a girls’ sixth form, followed by Cambridge, both as a member of the National Front – and recalled that all those girls “didn’t inform my politics, because I was already…”, Allen semi-seriously blurted: “… a NAZI!”
Bracingly unpleasant details, like the student Griffin’s reaction to boycotts protesting Barclays’ support for apartheid – he’d marched down to the Cambridge branch to open an account – fell out here and there, and we heard Griffin’s latest sinister thesis, which is that the Koran is an unbendingly evil conqueror’s handbook and all new mosques in Britain are built by Saudi fundamentalists. This happened when Allen stuck to his own brief and let Griffin talk. Assuming a democracy has to engage with Griffin, it was the right approach.
It would, however, have been vastly better carried out by someone less rock ‘n’ roll than Allen, someone lumbered with such lame attributes as knowledge and quick thinking who could unpick Griffin on the facts there and then rather than resorting, as Allen repeatedly did, to weakly barracking him in voiceover.
After an inexplicable interlude in which Griffin texted Allen a photo of himself and two henchmen having dinner – Allen decided the pic was “gay” – round two the next day brought us Griffin at his desk, the Daily Mail sidebar of shame glowing behind him on his office computer.
Allen had had the chance to read up a bit overnight, but made no headway at all on Islam in general or on Griffin’s more specific line of attack, Muslim paedophile rings. He was bowling long hops throughout. Why does Griffin serve as an MEP when he hates Brussels? To try to block laws BNP voters dislike. Isn’t it opportunism to call for troops to leave Afghanistan? If you’ve been saying it for years – not really, no. Time dribbled away.
A hurried, confused sign-off consisted of Allen recounting how, during an unaired third interview in a cafe, his crew feared being accused of a stunt when they saw a disabled couple at a nearby table, and moved them on. The later realisation that this was a stupid thing to do caused an epiphany about extremists’ ability to distort a debate even if they cannot win it – to make us pander and fret. By mistake, Allen’s hour-long lesson on how not to make a documentary had illustrated the point.