No matter how clever the producers, it really is impossible to replace the most compelling character on a good television show without missing a beat.
“Cheers” was still good when Kirstie Alley came on board, but it wasn’t the same without Shelley Long. Jon Lovitz is plenty funny, but “News Radio” was doomed when Phil Hartman was tragically killed. And, of course, there was Sandy Duncan’s near-criminal theft of “The Hogan Family” from its rightful matriarch, Valerie Harper.
And so it is that this morning marked a turning point for the worse for what has been one of the most underappreciated shows on television: C-Span’s “Prime Minister’s Question Time.”
For the past ten years, Tony Blair has been the heart and soul of this lively show, in which the Prime Minister directly engages his opponents – and even the occasional disgruntled member of his own Labour Party – in the British House of Commons for a half-hour each week. The nuances and intricacies of debates over more intensely-domestic topics are probably lost on the American viewing audience, but that hasn’t stopped “PMQT” from being a good watch.
The volleys from the Conservative side (and from the far left Liberal Democrats, and even sometimes from his own side), can be intense, vicious and devastatingly sarcastic. But no matter the subject, Blair, his ever-present binder in hand, has always been ready with a lighting-fast retort, masterfully ticking off the latest government statistics to support his government’s action and skillfully, sometimes even wickedly, turning the tables on his opponents. Through it all – both the questions and the answers – the backbenchers in the packed House of Commons loudly make their approval (and disapproval) known. And with the emergence in recent years of David Cameron, the ablest Conservative leader in some time, the back-and-forth could be dizzying, making “PMQT” the fastest half-hour on television.
But, alas, today was Blair’s final day on the job. His support for President Bush and the Iraq War, of course, makes this a happy occasion for many in Britain, even in his own party. But no matter, one thing is glaringly obvious: His successor, the dour and bloodless Gordon Brown, lacks Blair’s inherent knack for the parry-and-thrust theatrics of Question Time.
Those who rose early this morning (7:00 on the East Coast, noon in London) were able to catch Blair’s final House of Commons appearance. In his closing remarks, he spoke of the “tingling apprehension” he felt before each of his weekly sessions. Then he closed by saying, “I wish everyone – friend and foe – well. And that is it – the end.” His Labour colleagues then rocketed to their feet, but across the way, the Conservatives remained seated. Then Cameron stood and gestured for his colleagues to do the same. They obliged. Maybe, like many watching at home, Cameron realized that his Wednesdays just got a little more boring.