Esther McVey and the Tories’ new normal that’s deeply odd

Esther McVey has baffled Twitter users with her latest video post. Photograph: Twitter.

Esther McVey has baffled Twitter users with her latest video post. Photograph: Twitter. - Credit: Archant

MITCH BENN says he is disturbed by Conservative politicians attempting to act normal.

You may have run into the term 'Uncanny Valley'; it's an expression primarily used in the fields of robotics and computer animation. It refers to that uniquely uncomfortable phenomenon whereby the more human something looks, the more disturbing the fact that it's detectably not human is.

Observation of this effect actually gave rise to a complete rethink of the way the animation industry was headed a little over a decade ago: in the 2000s, you may remember, the trend in animated movies was towards creating ever more 'photo-realistic' digital renderings of human characters (often mapped over motion-captured performances by real actors whose likenesses would then be transplanted onto their computer-generated counterparts).

After a few movies in which this produced the unsettling effect of watching a screenful of reanimated corpses (one thinks in particular of the genuinely creepy 2009 version of A Christmas Carol starring Jim Carrey in multiple roles) the industry moved towards using computers to create 3D renderings of obviously 'drawn' characters, such as seen in Frozen and the like. These looked human enough to be relatable but since they were still 'cartoon' characters the fact that they were visibly artificial didn't creep audiences out.

The 'photo-realistic humans' end of things has since been relegated to video game 'cut scenes', the occasional de-ageing of actors to play their younger selves in flashback scenes (as has been deployed a few times by Marvel movies with varying success) or in recreating deceased actors to appear in adverts and cameos – the 2016 Star Wars film Rogue One features an extended guest appearance by the long-since late Peter Cushing, recreating his villain role from the 1977 original movie, or rather it features Holby City star Guy Henry with Cushing's CG-regenerated face mapped over his own.


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There's also a political context in which the term 'Uncanny Valley' crops up, and it's a similar usage to the one outlined above: something almost, but not quite human, trying to pass for human and coming over as deeply strange.

Specifically, it's when Conservative politicians try to act like regular people. Neither David Lynch nor Salvador Dali, in all their fevered imaginings, ever came up with anything so unfathomably weird as Tories Acting Normal.

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I don't know if you've seen Esther McVey's 'driving' video – it's actually an advert for the staycations episode of her podcast Blue Collar Conversations which is a fantastically patronising concept in and of itself, but that's for another time – but it's 40 seconds of McVey in front of green-screened rolling roads, grinning manically and waggling a patently-not-attached-to-anything steering wheel.

Now obviously this is just a bit of home-made fun, so we won't harp on about its visible cheapness – my own YouTube videos embrace a similar aesthetic (largely because I've no alternative) – but the effect is, just, well... odd. For all her TV presenter pedigree McVey doesn't possess what you'd call easy charm.

But it's always thus whenever high-ranking Tory politicians try to act normal. One thinks of Rishi Sunak's tweet of a few weeks ago, in which he celebrated the reopening of pubs by posting a photo of himself giving the thumbs up to what appeared to be a shop selling antique kitchenware.

We don't have to believe that Sunak frequents pubs – they've been my workplace for 30 years so I don't spend much free time in them myself – but it would help if he actually seemed to know what a pub is.

Or indeed of any of the smiling pieces-to-camera from home that ministers have done during lockdown, rictus-grinned and stiff as boards in front of carefully selected and arranged shelves of Good Improving Books.

Nor is this unique to this country – I'm reminded of Donald Trump Jr., the spoilt princeling's spoilt princeling – posing for his 'man of the great outdoors' photo shoot in visibly box-fresh denims and flannels and utterly unblemished boots, sitting on a log, gazing forlornly into the middle distance and looking less at ease in the woods than anyone since Hansel and Gretel.

Is it partisan of me to say that this is a right-wing phenomenon? When Tony Blair used to wander out of Number 10 carrying a mug of tea, it looked like he'd actually just wandered out of Number 10 carrying a mug of tea; when Boris Johnson tried something similar in front of his pre-PM house it looked and felt like theatre. And Gordon Brown, bless him, never tried to look any more comfortable or at ease with himself than he was so I've no idea whether he could have pulled it off.

Tories – you are not like us. That's why people vote for you. Not being like us is basically your job. Stop trying to convince us otherwise and get on with trying to convince us you're not selling the country for parts (best of luck with that one).

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