Will the Lords come to regret their TV gamble?
The BBC’s new documentary, Meet the Lords, will give the public a better grasp of the workings of the second chamber – warts and all
The House, a fly on the wall documentary in 1996 exposing power struggles and diva fits over six excruciating weeks, was generally considered a huge success for the BBC and a disaster not for the Commons or Lords but the Royal Opera House.
Inviting a crew behind the scenes at the grand Covent Garden music emporium didn’t go exactly to plan for the venue’s squirming senior managers as viewers enjoyed the washing of dirty linen in public instead of the hoped for tribute to the dedication, professionalism and expertise of the boss class.
Who came off best may be gauged from the contrasting reactions: Television peers awarded the docusoap a BAFTA and an Emmy and the venue’s new chair two years later refused permission for a follow-up episode to be recorded on the premises.
Throwing open the doors to give the public a peep into the workings of an institution brings risks as well as rewards though any organisation worth its salt should be able to withstand the scrutiny of daylight, justifying its existence.
Inside the Commons a couple of years ago was a gamble, broadcaster Michael Cockerell an acute observer skilled at luring subjects into opening up. And it was a wager which largely paid off for MPs. The expenses scandal seriously undermined confidence in the nation’s elected representatives. The country for a brief period felt on the verge of a revolutionary uprising. So showing voters who MPs are, what they do, how the chamber works and the way laws are made, sort of, was a half-decent repair job.
The other end of Parliament’s thrown the dice with Meet the Lords, the BBC three-parter that’s the political equivalent of Strictly meets Downton. Screening the programmes when Brexit eyes are on the Upper Chamber is a happy coincidence, attracting a few extra viewers.
The series is off to a lively, controversial start with the Lord Speaker accusing the BBC of “sexing up” what goes on, Lord Fowler upset predecessor Baroness D’Souza was shown recounting how she knew of a peer who kept a taxi waiting outside Parliament so he could dash inside to sign on for the daily £300 tax-free allowance before vanishing.
Lord Fowler, a former journalist on The Times, neatly posed the who-what-when-where-why questions I would’ve thought his colleague was better placed to answer than the BBC and I readily accept most peers work hard, don’t live in stately homes with silver staircases and are more likely to arrive by car or Tube than taxi or chauffeured limo.
Equally I suspect Lord Tyler’s quip “It is the best day-care centre for the elderly in London” will be challenged by rival premises in London with Care Quality Commission glowing inspection reports.
Old enough to recall seeing the goundbreaking BBC documentary Royal Family when it was broadcast in “cough” 1969, I don’t recall the Queen inviting cameras into her homes undermining the monarchy. The institution was arguably enhanced, even if this young republican wasn’t converted.
Reading last week’s newspaper reports before Monday’s BBC2 debut of Meet the Lords, I wondered if Peers would regret the small box venture. Not now. I reckon this will be a relative success – warts and all.
Most people had little or no idea who peers are, never mind what they do. By the end of the series they should have a better grasp. And that’s not a bad result.
Opinions on whether the second chamber should be elected or appointed, or a combination of both, are unlikely to alter significantly. Grin and bear it is my advice to any peers watching.
Kevin Maguire is Daily Mirror associate editor
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.