27 Sep 2012

David v David on the Letterman Show

Three months ago, in the run up to the London Olympics, Boris Johnson descended on New York City with his rucksack and his unruly mop and set out and about charming the Big Apple with his crumpled repartee.

His most memorable appearance was on the Letterman show when David, the host, asked him how long he had been cutting his own hair. It was a funny moment, also in part because Letterman is the only man on American TV with crooked teeth and meticulously unkempt hair, albeit not much of it. Boris acquitted himself with the self-effacing charm and spluttered erudition that are his trademark. David Cameron must have been watching on YouTube at home thinking to himself. “I can do that too.”

And so that strange friendship-cum-rivalry between Boris and David, that flowered at Eton and matured at the Bullingdon Club in Oxford before scaling the pinnacle of the Tory party, found itself on the comfy chair in the Ed Sullivan Theatre on Broadway next to David Letterman, one of the most unpredictable, quirky and thus potentially dangerous talk masters of late night telly.

Where Boris has gone, David must go too. And so Downing Street volunteered the services of the Prime Minister for the show during his visit to the UN in New York. The David versus David encounter was always going to be a bit of a gamble. But, hey, how nasty can it get? Americans, even late night comedians, are respectful of men in high office, especially towards the Prime Ministers of their favourite country. Obama had been in the chair only the week before, handled with kid gloves. Cameron, by the way was shown that tape and felt reassured. Blair had been there twice as ex-prime minister. Now it was David’s turn, the first sitting Prime Minister on the Letterman, they trumpeted. Now that’s what I call history.

And respectful it was. There were no hardball questions about “plebs”, or toffs, or even David’s uneasy relations with Boris. There was just a little quiz, a small citizenship test administered by an American comedian, who himself seemed to know very little about Britain but had the advantage of an army of fact checkers and was just asking not answering.

Unfortunately this was one Prime Minister’s Questions that this Prime Minister had not expected.

“Who wrote Rule Britannia?” After some hesitation, he came up with: “Elgar.” Letterman prodded further. “Edward Elgar?” The Prime Minister didn’t know exactly, but it didn’t matter anyway because it was the wrong answer.

“What does Magna Carta mean?” David didn’t know. Didn’t he do Latin at Eton? Like a gentle but disillusioned history master the other David added: “It would be good if you knew that.” The PM was on shaky ground on where the Magna Carta was kept, but he blurted out the date – 1215 – like a school boy clinging to one historical fact for dear life. I know where you’re coming from, Dave.

The Prime Minister got a c minus for his quiz. He confessed – in jest – that the grilling might spell the end of his career, but after some initial squirming he recovered his composure and enough charm to lubricate the rest of the conversation. We spoke to the audience after the show as they spilled back onto Broadway. The almost universal verdict was that the Prime Minister was a hit, even though his grasp of basic British history was a little sketchy.

Americans are forgiving of human frailty, especially when the shortcomings are wrapped in self effacement, which let’s face it, is a British strength. But this country also takes it’s own history – perhaps because there is so much less of it – very seriously indeed. I asked a group of teachers from new Jersey who had just seen the show, what they would have made of an American President unable to answer questions about the Constitution on British TV. “Very bad!” they said in chorus. “Very, very bad.”

Divided by a common language? You bet, and by so much more.

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