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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8 reader comments

  1. Yorkshire Lass says:

    He really didn’t know the meaning of Magna Carta? I do and I didn’t go to a posh fee-paying school. What DO they teach them at Eton? Sounds like the fees were wasted then.

  2. Bridget Orr says:

    Does nobody know that Rule Britannia’s words were written by James Thomson? Arne was the composer. Mind you, Channel 4 is not alone – the Museum of London assigned the lyrics to William Cowper.

  3. Prentis Hancock says:

    Arne may have composed the music but the question was who wrote ‘Rule Britannia’ and that was James Thompson, the Scottish poet. Correction please!
    Prentis Hancock

  4. Sam says:

    It would be great to see a British person in the American public sphere that doesn’t confirm their stereotypical understanding that we are all bumbling idiots like Hugh Grant in “Notting Hill” or what ever that tripe film was. Or Jeremy Hunt looking like Mr Bean ringing a broken bell at the Olympics and then flailing around like a cack handed half wit. Of course our elites hold in to their symbols of social status and heritage that make us look dated because they are powerful and emotive symbols but they say nothing of the majority of the British population who are modern and forward looking. These Tories for me represent everything that should be left to wither about our national culture.

  5. StuartM says:

    Nice to see him preparing to follow Mt Blair’s footsteps i.e. step down or be thrown out and pursue a lucrative public speaking career in the US. However, at least Mr Blair had the decency to wait until he departed office before starting his new career. For the PM to so blatantly try and appeal to his future income (whilst being paid by the UK taxpayer) is in very poor taste. One would have expected his education would have taught him about manners.

  6. graham potter says:

    Too right Matt,bang on with your comments on common language.But my meagre observations,are both Nations are being lead by very television savvy arseholes who don’t know what they are dong,they make polices(or their advisers do on the hoof)We in my opinion in the Western World are up S**t Creek without the proverbial.

  7. Philip Edwards says:


    I couldn’t care less if the Head Boy knew his history or not, or what the Yanks thought of him.

    Of much more interest is that he’s a tory bent on filling the pockets of his public school chums at the expense of the rest of us.

    David Letterman?…….Pffffffffftttttt.

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