Many years ago Ian Fraser and I had a conversation about the qualities needed to be a successful television interviewer. Of course you needed to be reasonably intelligent, reasonably well informed, reasonably articulate, have a reasonably pleasant voice, be reasonably OK to look at and an extremely good listener. And then Ian added one further talent: ‘To succeed on television you have to be able to act yourself.’ The concept is also relevant to people being interviewed on television and we sometimes pass on Ian’s theory to our clients. The problem is partly that the nerves which affect most people, including the professionals, when appearing on television before an unseen audience of possibly hundreds of thousands of people, can strip you of many of the qualities you normally have in everyday life – confidence, fluency, animation, the ability to think on your feet, express yourself clearly, even, in extremis, to express yourself at all.
The successful television performer recognises this problem and makes a conscious and concentrated effort to restore those everyday qualities. To achieve this, he becomes an observer of the ‘actor’ playing himself, simultaneously monitoring and fine-tuning his performance on a second by second basis. There is an almost schizophrenic quality to the host/interviewer’s job in which one person – the actor – is totally engaged with his guest or audience while the other is ‘reading’ the guest’s response, thinking about the direction of the next question, calculating how much time he has left, preparing to introduce the next item and a host of other details that are essential to a successful performance. So I agree with Ian that, in order to succeed on television, you have to be able to ‘act yourself’, that every appearance is ‘a performance’. ‘Being’, as distinct from ‘acting’ oneself on television, is extremely difficult.
As these thought were rumbling around in my brain, it occurred to me that the Paul Henry we see on Breakfast might be someone who is actually just ‘being’ himself on television and that an indicator of this is the apparent absence of any self-monitoring or self-censoring process. What comes out of Paul’s mouth is Paul unmediated, unplugged, uncensored, the real McCoy. One the more elegant psychological paradigms I’ve come across is Transactional Analysis in which what goes on in our minds is seen as a series of interactions and often of struggles between the ‘Child’ in us who likes to play and can be well-behaved or naughty, the ‘Adult’, who is the voice of reason, and the ‘Parent’ who can be nurturing or highly critical. It seems to me that when he is on Breakfast, Paul is almost exclusively, if you’ll forgive the jargon, ‘in his Child’.
The programme is a playground for him and he is having an absolutely wonderful time. The main thing is to have fun and sometimes you can have the most fun by being naughty, perhaps by saying things your ‘Parent’ wouldn’t approve of. But hey, it’s your playground and your sandpit and you can do just about anything you like. Have a look at this episode in which Paul makes fun of the name of Delhi’s Chief Minister, Sheila Dikshit: What strikes me about this clip it that the fun Paul has in saying ‘Dick-Shit’ over and over again is infantile in the most literal and non-judgmental meaning of the term. He finds it funny in exactly the same way that a small child might find it funny to keep repeating a ‘naughty’ word like ‘poos’ or ‘wees’ or ‘bum’.
And he’s completely lost control of himself, ‘wetting himself laughing’, as my mother would have said. From an ‘Adult’ point of view this is not reasonable behaviour for the presenter of an early morning programme on state television. It is highly offensive and insulting to a very senior politician from another country. Newsreader Peter Williams, adopting the ‘Parent’ role, speaks quite sternly to naughty Paul, but to no effect. The Child is on the rampage. A quite different Paul appears when he is standing in for Mark Sainsbury on Close Up. There the Adult and the Parent seem to be running the show. Paul is rational, sometimes warm and supportive, sometimes hypercritical. The difference may be explained by the much larger audience for the 7 o’clock show and by the fact that this isn’t Paul’s personal playground.
It’s harder to be naughty here – too many people watching, most them not the same kids who like to play with you in the morning. If there’s a thesis in all this amateur psychobabble, it is that the Paul we see on Breakfast is actually the real Paul, expressing his real personality and real views, not someone putting on an act or performance for the sake of ratings or to attract attention. Of the constituent parts of the human personality, the Child in us is by far the most honest. Sometimes that honesty is attractive and amusing, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes Paul is a real funny kid, sometimes he’s a little horror. He’s had a real telling off this week, been sent to the naughty step and lost his pocket money for two weeks. When he’s allowed back in the playground, it will be interesting to see whether the Child or the Adult is running the show. No fun without one, no restraint without the other. Tricky, eh?