These days, Michael Parkinson's chat show is a fairly reviled institution, consisting largely of ultra-bland celebrity backslapping and shameless plugs for films, books and West End musicals. But last Saturday's show was an unusually grim hour's worth of 'entertainment', featuring Tony Blair looking as cheerful and at-ease as an Abu Ghraib inmate hearing someone shout 'Walkies!'
The most-reported aspect of the show was of course Tony's reference to God and the Iraq war, of which more in a moment. But most striking was the way the whole show had an air of the film 'Cabaret' about it. It was entertainment, but with something desperate and bad and depressing lurking not far beneath the surface. Indeed, there was actually something faintly sinister about the deranged laughter that greeted every lame quip by Blair as he tried to make light of his increasing unpopularity.
Most jarring was the showbiz setting for the interview. Instead of Mariah Carey bollocksing on harmlessly about her latest world tour, we had Blair looking like someone who had finally reached a moment of terrible self-revelation: a child being told by their best friend that they don't really like them, an unsuspecting cuckold discovering the truth, Richard Blackwood being forced to perform next to a laughometer.
Most of Blair's quips were pathetic, both in the sense of not being funny and actually being rather sad. Recalling Labour's 1997 election victory, Blair said: 'People used to like me then.' This isn't really a joke. Just a statement of fact. More painful was talk of God and Iraq. When asked about Iraq, Blair unwisely said: 'In the end, there is a judgement that, I think if you have faith about these things, you realise that judgement is made by other people... and if you believe in God, it's made by God as well.'
Blair didn't actually say 'God told me to do it!', as some elements of the media have suggested, and he did talk about doing the right thing 'according to your conscience'. But when you even start mentioning God and the Iraq war in the same breath, you start to sound a bit... how shall we put it? Utterly mental. Discussions of faith are, by their nature, metaphysical, and as such sit very unhappily with the Iraq war, the aftermath of which can be seen in all its very real, physical horror on TV every night. There's nothing mystical about the Iraq war: it was a decision made by a distinctly human cabal of right-wing American conservatives, and supported, for reasons which remain unclear, by Tony Blair. You can hope that God is there on the touchline, either giving his wholehearted support, or at least going 'Tsk - bit of a balls-up all round. Still, you did what you thought was right...' but it's just not true, is it? Really?
Does Blair literally believe that in a few decades from now, post-death, God will sit down with him and, Alan Sugar-style, appraise his Iraq performance? Even Blair looked terribly uncomfortable as he mentioned God. Maybe he realised he'd put his foot in it. Or maybe he was reflecting on the fact that God might not be very pleased with the decision to go to war. 'Well, it's been nice chatting, Tony, but I haven't got all eternity, so we'd better get on with the eternal damnation bit...'
The riddle of who Tony Blair really is and what he believes wasn't solved by the rest of his comments either. He managed to exhibit the strange, stagey falseness that has been his trademark for many years. He spent much of the show desperately trying to be liked, coming out with abysmal 'regular bloke' humour. Asked about embarrassing prime ministerial moments, he described giving a press conference in France, during which he was asked if there were any French policies he would like to copy. Getting his French a bit wrong, Blair managed to say 'I desire your prime minister in many different positions.' It's passably amusing, but we did a quick search for this incident and the only references that came Googling back were quotes from the Parkinson interview. Now, we wouldn't like to suggest that Blair is making things up or spicing up real events, but it wouldn't be the first time it's happened. Remember the 12 years he spent sleeping rough under a railway bridge with only a dog on a string and a bottle of White Lightning for company?
Blair went on to describe his oh-so-normal family life, his friendship with Gordon Brown and some other fluffy stuff, before signing off with an odd anecdote about his father-in-law, actor Tony Booth. Booth was visiting Blair's home just after he'd married Cherie, and asked if he could light a joint. On Parky, Blair quipped 'I was thinking "This is my father-in-law, surely this should be the other way around!"' Ho ho. He then added: 'I said no, incidentally.'
Oh Tony. He managed to sound like the sort of person who knows in their heart that they're not very popular, and tries far too hard to be liked, appearing utterly desperate and thus even more unlikeable. Not merely that, but also the kind of tedious square who won't do anything remotely naughty or spontaneous, but tries to impress by throwing a supposedly daring non-story about drugs into the conversation. If anything, 'I had a spliff and shot the breeze with my new father-in-law' is actually a much better - and quite charming - story.
It was a genuinely odd piece of television - really little more than a swansong for a prime minister who has managed to discredit himself with an unpopular war (not to mention lying about WMDs, a proven track record of gimmicky, unworkable policies and strange invocations of God). Worse, this could actually be the shape of entertainment to come, with Blair eyeing Parky's chair for when they both retire from their current jobs.'Tete a Tete with Tony', BBC 1, 10pm. God help us all.