Jeremy Paxman: ‘It’s impossible to exaggerate the public’s contempt for politicians’

The former Newsnight presenter tells us what what he learnt from performing at the Edinburgh Fringe

imagenotavailable1

It’s the expectant faces that terrify. You can’t see a mass television audience. But a couple of hundred people in a room are rather unavoidable. Horribly visible. Sitting there with that “OK, make us laugh, then” expression on their faces, while the corrosive knowledge gnaws away in the pit of your stomach that they’ve paid money to be there.

Advertisement

I’ve never wanted to act, and at the age of 64 was in no rush to break the survival tactic of a lifetime. My last appearance on stage was as the village undertaker in a school production of Under Milk Wood. I had to shuffle on from the wings, declare “I am Evans the Death” and then quit the stage. That was more then enough for me. I have met many actors over the years, and, while some of them are luminously entertaining, far too many are precious and self-regarding, taking the speaking of words written for them by someone else as if it were as important as being a heart surgeon.

So the only reason for taking a show to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe was just to see if I could do it. I believe you should do things in life that frighten you. The alternative is to live as a compost heap. This is the sort of stupid explanation people give for bungee jumping, or sticking their heads into the bars of an iron fence and waiting for the fire brigade to cut them free. So for 11 nights I went on stage, and by the fourth appearance I was almost looking forward to the shabby alcove that called itself a dressing room. There’s something intoxicating about Edinburgh during the Festival, when it take five times as long as usual to walk down the Royal Mile, because there are so many young people pelting you with flyers for their shows. But it was something more than the atmosphere.

I’d discovered that appearing on a stage isn’t quite what it seems – a room full of people passively watching someone with more vanity than common sense pratting about. It’s a two-way thing: there’s an energy in a live audience you just don’t find anywhere else. There’s the obvious pleasure of making people laugh. But there’s something telling, too, about the anecdotes that don’t tickle or touch them.

So, apart from conquering a fear, what did I learn from the audiences who turned up to see my show, PAXO? That it is almost impossible to exaggerate the public’s contempt for politicians. But – contradictory as it sounds – that they believe in voting and still have faith in the possibility of improvement. They dislike dogma and they’re worldly enough to understand that Rome wasn’t built in a day. They’re tolerant and pretty unshockable, and more amused than angry. There is something that these people need, a way of being reconnected with the political process they so despair of. And humour is part of the answer.

Unfortunately, the great Tom Lehrer declared satire to be dead when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973. Where is the Spitting Image of today? The David Owen/David Steel puppets during the time of the Liberal-SDP Alliance were funny enough. Imagine the sport the show could have with Cameron and Clegg. But I don’t care whether it’s puppets or cartoons or real people. Just give us some decent satire. Wit is not the same as saying you don’t fancy the Home Secretary or making jokes about farting. 

Advertisement

As for the business of doing things that scare you, well the experience of having one’s name in lights still frightens me a bit – even the energy-saving bulbs of the Edinburgh Fringe. At the last couple of performances, people in the audience asked if I’d be bringing a show  to Edinburgh next year. I thought not – though it was nice to be asked. But you never know.