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Getting in the zone for my grilling by David Mitchell

Posted on 27 January 2011 | 10:01am

After Question Time a week ago, Loose Ends at the weekend, and a few random Newsnights, Skys and LBCs in between, tonight it’s the Big One.

I know I have been a bit media-active in recent days, but mainly that has been news-driven, rather than book-driven, with TB back at the Iraq Inquiry, and the phone-hacking story unravelling as I warned it would many months ago in interviews from a Lancashire hilltop on the day Burnley chairman Barry Kilby got married to Sonia.

I remember it well, not least for the amazing view, the lovely wedding party in a nice country hotel, and also for the rather menacing messages from News International after I had said my piece, and suggested the cops, the newspaper group and David Cameron get to the bottom of this before it engulfed them.

In truth I had agreed to very few interviews to promote the book, but one was for the new Channel 4 show, 10 O’clock Live, in which I am to be ‘grilled’ by David Mitchell. Horror of horrors, apparently it really is live too. Why can’t they fake it like everyone else does?

It has had a big build-up, with posters all over town, lots of trailing, and plenty of comparisons with Jon Stewart’s Daily Show (I felt similar anxiety when I did that one, three years ago, but in the end I think it went fine – nice guy, razor sharp, Mitchell has a lot to live up to.)

The reviews for 10 O’clock Live were very mixed, and some were downright bad, but as ever I thought it best to rely on my own judgement rather than that of self-important couch potatoes and watched the first one on Play It Again Sam TV yesterday.

I know that the cynics among you will say this is just me trying to butter them up and get in their good books, so that instead of grilling me, David Mitchell asks me about how much our dog loves me, (a lot) what did I get Fiona for her birthday, (a lot) how much have I done for charity this week, (a bit) and maybe a Crimewatch-style Appeal to get my stolen bikes back … but I LIKED IT.

Of course I couldn’t watch it go out live, because I was travelling back from Burnley where Question Time was recorded (industry secret … it is recorded an hour or two before it goes out which is why David Dimbleby wouldn’t let me tweet live!) Indeed, to show I am not totally creeping to Mitch and Co, I thought you might like to see this story – for those who can’t be bothered to click on it, it basically says Question Time trounced 10 O’Clock Live in the ratings. I guess that’s why they want me on, he added modestly.

As to why I liked it, well it WAS live and it FELT live. Some of Jimmy Carr’s news clips were top drawer, Charlie Brooker’s take on Sarah Palin was predictable but superb, and I enjoyed the spoof/real discussion slot on bankers’ bonuses. I also thought that as a quartet, (the fourth is Lauren Laverne), they sort of gelled, which is about the best you can do first time out. I mean some of the early Beatles clips are as much Tranmere as Liverpool (or should that be the other way round these days?)

As for the Mitchell interview slot it was with with David Willetts – and fair play to him doing the first one. Willetts is not a bad bloke, because he is one of the few Tories who admits that school selection at 11 is a bad bad thing and bad bad bad for social mobility (which is why he lost the education portfolio to Michael ‘I was crap at sport so let’s ban school sport and I was jolly good at reciting Kings and Queens so let’s put that in the curriculum ahead of anything that might help kids in the real world’ Gove.)

Willetts decided to play Ernie Wise to Mitchell’s Eric Morecambe (I know the programme is aimed at youth but I have to set my own comedy bearings here). It sort of worked. Mitchell had a couple too many claplines dressed up as questions, but I liked the way Willetts just absorbed the applause against him, then went back to his serious point. I might do that. Then again I might go into Tucker mode and batter him … oops, sorry, temporary lapse, normal service will now be resumed … Gosh he is clever isn’t he? … Anyway, any advice from anyone under 35 is welcome.

I’ve been asked a lot this week how, given I have a bit of a temper (albeit mellowing with age – 53 is the new 53), I managed not to lose it with George Galloway when he was spraying around a few accusations, not least comparisons with Goebbels on afore-mentioned Question Time.

As luck would have it, the night before I was at a Labour fundraiser and among others Sir Ian McKellen, Richard Wilson and David Tennent were there. We chatted about acting techniques to appear calm when (stage fright was discussed) you are not that calm. The best tip was to imagine that if someone was having a go at you, the words were not coming from that person – in this case not-so-gorgeous George – but from a little old lady with white hair having an argument with you at a bus stop.

It worked. I am now off to google images of David Mitchell, or Basil Brush as he may be by the time I have decided my tactics for the evening.

Meanwhile my anxiety levels have gone up, as two of my children have asked if they can come to the show. That usually means either that we are meeting celebs that I have never heard of (Miley Cyrus was the last example of this) .. or that they intend to have a good laugh at my expense and remind me of it for several years to come.

Either way, today is a day for rest, recuperation, and getting inside Mitchell’s head. Cue theme from Rocky … jab, jab, cross, jab, uppercut, hook, cross, jab, cross, jab … time for a rubdown … see you later. Don’t put my kids where I can see them laughing at Mitchell’s jokes …

  • ambrosian

    I thought this over-hyped show was an absolute turkey last week. And there’s no reason to fear David Mitchell. He’s just a posh, smug and glib entertainer. If he were genuinely clever he’d be doing something more useful like finding a cure for cancer.

  • I wouldn’t take anyone along unless they are over 18! 🙂
    it’s a good thing your surname isn’t ‘Hunt’. That ‘joke’ was used last week, very strongly!
    Good luck!

  • Robert


    Channel David Frost (but avoid Emil Savundra for heavens sake!)

    Channel TWTWTW.

    Channel sophisticated cuttting edge 1960’s humour in black and white enveloped with equally sophisticated, for its day, clouds of cigarette smoke.

    Channel the near destruction of a Tory government by fairly right wing Oxbridge wit.

    You’ll do fine!

  • Jacquie R

    As David Mitchell is certain to be looking at your blog today, this is for him, not you, AC.

    Hi David
    Alastair did some great work in Downing Street but also things that people like me, on the centre left, disagreed with, sometimes violently. But times and situations change. He’s still a cocky bastard, of course, but his heart is in the right place. He does a lot of unrewarded work for others and, politically, he enlightens us and is an important voice for social justice. Please be nice to him tonight – well, less nasty than you might have been otherwise. Thanks.
    Jacquie R

  • James Irwin

    I actually thought you did a great job of winding George G up last week with your persistent interjections. Excellent work.

    David Mitchell will attempt to paint you as some kind of evil Tucker-esque figure – and what’s wrong with that? You can counter that with the approach you took whilst at TB’s side in Government, you achieved a very great deal.

    You’ll need a short, snappy answer to the dossier question. Your line on QT was good but you won’t have time to get all that info out there without the top line being that the AG did not initially agree.

    But you will have thought of all of this already, I’m certain. So it just remains for me to say good luck, and enjoy it.

  • One other thing – the show itself was just ok. Too much laughter from the in-studio audience. Perhaps a strange criticism of a satire show but I found it interrupted the flow too much.

  • Outsider

    I wouldn’t bother googling for images, I suggest you go for youtube clips and check out his very quick witted responses. I wouldn’t dismiss him that lightly.

  • Maple

    Play the resilient and dignified straight man. Make him do the entertaining.

    They all looked nervous as hell last week. It was uncomfortable.

    No prizes for guessing the cheap shots, easy laughs and conspiracy theories that’ll come out in the guise of questions, each of which will be received with enthusiastic applause and approving hoots from the audience before you even get to answer.

    Worst thing you could do is try and engage in comedic banter.

    With their home court advantage, you’ll come across like the creepy uncle in a Hawaiian shirt at Christmas trying to mix it up at the kids’ table.

    Not pretty.

  • John Kennedy

    Still think you should give serious consideration running for the post/position of Mayor of London 2016, cheers John the Cabby.

  • Robert

    On the NOTW telephone hacking business…..

    If you G**gle BT Audit Committee or just about any self respecting PLC Audit Committee the search comes up with reams on who within the business is responsible for overseeing probity in its operations. Usually a bunch of respectable and hardworking bods who are full of integrity. (No – I am NOT being sarcastic.)

    And what happens in a G**gl* search of News International Audit Committee? Not a lot. Doesn’t look like there is one – if there is then G**gl* doesn’t find it very easily.

    If the government wants to allow Mr Murdoch to buy the balance of BSkyB and keep its hands clean then perhaps it should insist on rather better transparent corporate governance from News International.

    How about an Audit Committee for starters, like other responsible PLCs operating in the UK?

  • Baidoun1

    In the interview you talked about the lack of women’s rights in Iraq before we invaded. This must surely have been a mistake. Iraq was not an Islamist state. Did you mean Afghanistan? A google search immediately proves you wrong. Try this one's_rights

  • Itsatwap

    A grilling? I think not. That was a pathetic effort by David Mitchell. He let you get away with two astonishing pieces of dishonesty.

    1. You said that the infant mortality rate was 300% higher under Saddam. You failed to mention that the main reason for this, according to the World Health Organisation, was the sanctions on basic medicines and foodstuffs that had been in force for over 10 years, advocated by, amongst others, YOU.

    2. Saddam’s links with terrorism. I’ve got to credit you here, it must have taken some guts to wheel this old chestnut out again. Mitchell needs shooting for letting you get away with that.

    Mitchell’s summing up of Blair as a man who’d simply made an unpopular decision revealed where he stood and why you got such an easy ride, IMO.

  • ANON

    Mitchell let you off easy for some reason, I dunno if you were as smug as the last guy but you pissed me off pretty effectively…

  • carl.o

    A great performance tonight Alastair, really enjoyable as well as informative, you need to do more shows like this.

  • Iain

    Hi,just watched the show….verdict …….Mr Mitchell looked way out his depth and visibly nervous…….or was that down to live TV. Prob not as he enjoyed taking a few pops at the prof later on. What a hero.


  • Mike in Brisbane

    Pardon my levity, but OMG! Gandalf AND Dr Who at a Labour Party function!! How can we not win EVERY election?

  • ambrosian

    After that, I think we can say Paxman’s job is safe! It must have felt like being licked into submission by a Chihuahua.
    On a more serious point, are you aware of the level of persecution, torture and murder of gay men under the new Iraqui regime? Whatever their legal status under Saddam, the old regime mostly left them alone. What is happening today is horrific but largely ignored by our media and government. And it rather undermines claims of a huge improvement in human rights.

  • Jacquie R

    One day later
    PS David
    With apologies to the Lovin Spoonful, you didn’t have to be SO nice!

  • Chris D

    David Mitchell is a lot better as a comedian than he is as an interviewer, he let you get away with so much.

    “It’s been worth all the deaths…?”

    “I believe so”

    At what point would it be not worth it? 1 million? 5 million?

    Blaming alQuaeda and the Iranians for the predictable chaos following the invasion is like setting fire to a house and blaming the flames.

  • KL

    Much to my surprise ‘De Standaard’ (The Standard) published a quote (in Dutch) from the diary on page 2 of its literary supplement: “I was always struck at these meetings how much ministers looked to me for the ideas and the execution”. Straight from The Guardian I suppose, but what surprised me most was the cliché caption (translated): “Alastair Campbell, former spin doctor of Tony Blair and self-declared genius, has just published the second volume of his diaries of the Blair era.” Not a word about the quality/relevance of both books of course…

  • Eve Kay

    I just watched this interview and sadly David Mitchell was not up to his usual intelligence and witty digging. David you let this stinker off the hook. As per usual Campbell did not answer questions properly. The reasons for the war were FABRICATED. he dodged with a generality. There were no WMD’s. And who started the Iraq and Iran War – the yanks. They told Saddam to invade – he was their man who they got bored of when geopolitcal needs changed at the end of the Cold War. Stop spinning! It’s making the rest of us vomit at your gob smacking deceit and self righteousness.

  • Ehtch

    Alastair, you did well pal. And all the hosts did as well. You might have been a positive catalyst to them in week two, I am sure I saw it, even in Laverne. They have picked up a tone.

    I said last week, within a month/six weeks, the in-crowd will be falling over their innane gossip to see it then, as it wil show.

    Thought Mitchell and you had a damned good balanced chat, allowing him to throw in the required joke gallery clapping caused jokes. But I spotted you making the crowd laugh after one of your quipes, and it was good, or did I dream it?

    Anyway, whose on there next week?…..

  • Dave Simons

    I’d prefer to hear what the women of Iraq say about their rights rather than what is said on ‘sourcewatch’, but nevertheless I think this good point should be answered, and the one posted by ‘Itsatwap’ about high infant mortality rates being caused by sanctions. My opinion about the 2003 Iraq invasion remains that it was a big mistake which has its origin in New Labour’s feelings of humiliation by Thatcher after the 1982 Falklands war.

  • Robert

    Correction – the correct G**gl* search is Newscorp Audit Committee which, er, leads to the Charter document for Newscorp’s audit committee.

    Essentially operating at the top echelon of the group, I assume, in the USA.

    Interesting reading, setting out as it does the oversight of the corporate audit department which, one presumes, are the people working through the e-mails at NOTW.

  • Ehtch

    I’m sure David Mitchells bladder let go on the floor neeting you Alastair. I am sure I saw it in his eyes. That or a pants full of sudden diarrhoa for David.

  • Nick

    1. Perhaps he failed to mention that because the sanctions didn’t apply to medicine or food? Which may be one of the reasons why the child mortality rate FELL in the northern areas not controlled by Saddam?