A skeleton has emerged from the environment secretary’s closet in the form of an odd early 90s Channel 4 programme
Remember when Michael Gove stole the rubbish from the front gardens of Sting, David Attenborough and Anita Roddick and rifled through their contents? Or when he compared Prince Charles to Hitler?
Chances are you don’t. Because very few people remember A Stab in the Dark, a short-lived and ill-judged 1992 late night show of topical monologues and discussion screened by Channel 4 and hosted by David Baddiel, Tracey MacLeod and – yes! – future environment secretary and Conservative leadership hopeful Michael Gove.
I’d never heard of it until this week, when it was mentioned – described as “the televisual skeleton in Gove’s cupboard” – by a letter writer to The Times. And happily, although it has never been repeated, in 2016, following the Brexit referendum, Channel 4 quietly added it to its All4 streaming platform. So last night I watched a couple of episodes.
And what a show it is. It’s worth mentioning, for the young folk, that early 90s Channel 4 was not the beast it is today. While now its evening fare is baking, reality and watching other people watching television, in 1992 it was not uncommon for an hour-long lecture by Tony Benn (accompanying factsheet available via self-addressed envelope) to be followed by a cartoon version of Viz’s Billy the Fish. Michael Gove rifles through David Attenborough’s rubbish, on a roof for some reason
But even by these standards A Stab in the Dark is odd. Filmed in a dark, metal-heavy studio that’s presumably meant to resemble a futuristic prison but actually just looks like it’s been borrowed from GamesMaster, Baddiel stands in a box in the middle with MacLeod and Gove either side (why is Baddiel in a box? I don’t know). Then, for half an hour, they take it in turns to deliver earnest and usually angry monologues to camera about whatever issues have antagonised them this week. This can be AIDS awareness campaigns, the Maastricht Treaty or, in the case of MacLeod, the “naked piece of cultural imperialism” which is the release of Wayne’s World. These are then interspersed with outside broadcasts such as vox-pops or wildly incongruous interviews by Gove with political figures.
At just 24, Gove already looks like a future Tory MP, bringing to mind the Alan Bennett quote on people often ending up doing what the mirror tells them they are suited for. What’s odd is that his Scottish accent is much more pronounced than it is today, all rolling Rs. And if you’ve ever wanted to hear Michael Gove talk about hardcore animal pornography or refer to a senior policewoman’s breasts as “front bumps” then this is almost definitely the best place you’re ever likely to.
At one point, Gove – decidedly more cynical about green affairs than today – nicks the rubbish from the front gardens of celebrity environmentalists David Attenborough, Sting (always referred to as Mr Sting) and Anita Roddick to rifle through with a Friends of the Earth volunteer in a bid to uncover hypocrisy. This is almost certainly illegal, and given there is no statute of limitations on such matters, he better hope no pesky political rival ever reports it. Attenborough has been purchasing pre-packaged M&S Parma ham and canned wine (!) and Roddick has discarded a pair of sunglasses and a full, unopened bag of muesli, while Mr Sting has chucked away an entire chicken. Gove is unimpressed. Just Michael Gove here, comparing Prince Charles to Hitler
Elsewhere he burns his bridges with the royals. In a segment on Prince Charles’ environmental views, or “ramblings”, as he says (“he does go on”), he compares the future king to Hitler, “like Charles, a hater of metropolitan life and a lover of the countryside”. He then follows this up with: “There is one difference, however. When Adolf’s wife tried to commit suicide, she succeeded.” Yes, you read that right. All of which should make any future meetings between a Prime Minister Gove and King Charles III interesting.
And there’s an ill-tempered interview with Peter Bottomley, a former Northern Ireland minister who, irritated with Gove’s repeated claims of the government making concessions to the IRA, says “I’m very tempted to kneecap you. Just kick you gently there”. Which, even in jest, is an odd thing to say in an interview on Northern Ireland.
A Stab in the Dark is a mess, an odd mix of high-end philosophising and prankish humour (there’s a genuinely funny voxpop in which Baddiel offers punters a variety of weapons and ask which they would use when taking revenge against a slight). There’s no wonder it wasn’t recommissioned for a second series with both Baddiel and MacLeod dismissing it as a failure.
But it is the only place you’ll ever see Michael Gove hold aloft a picture of the female form so David Baddiel can illustrate with a stick where the clitoris is. So in some small way it serves a function.
A Stab in the Dark can be seen in full on All4