Mongoose v snake … this contest was as thrilling as I’ve seen



08:26 GMT, 28 November 2012

Rudyard Kipling wrote a Raj story about a mongoose fighting a cobra. I thought of that pulsating tale while watching BBC chairman Lord Patten thrash in the dust with Tory MP Philip Davies (Shipley).

One claw-pounced, fangs bared, while the other twisted. The first encountered coiling, suffocating resistance. The second counter-hissed, poison in every spurting drop of spittle. And so they continued almost until dusk’s drums beat and all became a blur of lashing flesh.

This was as thrilling a contest – actually quite nastily savage – as I have seen. It happened at yesterday’s Culture select committee meeting.

High-brow: BBC Trust chairman Lord Patten gave evidence at the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee yesterday

High-brow: BBC Trust chairman Lord Patten gave evidence at the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee yesterday

Your ’umble sketchwriter was sitting roughly 10ft away. I felt like one of those grannies at the Saturday wrestling in the 1970s, though we were not allowed to remove our false teeth and heckle the two jockstrapped combatants.

If we had been, whom would I have cheered Both Maybe neither. Mr Davies is a long-standing critic of the BBC, a Yorkshireman who would not grieve if the Beeb closed tomorrow. He may state his case incessantly but he is a tilter against Establishment inertia. That takes guts.

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Lord Patten defended the Corporation and its intellectual possibilities – obligations – with all the senior-common-room ennui one has come to cherish. He welcomed the chance to appear before the committee ‘not least because it allows me to renew my acquaintance with you, Mr Davies’. And with that his left eyebrow lifted itself off its chaise longue, perhaps a sixteenth of an inch, just enough to convey irony.

Dame Maggie Smith would never be able to play Lord Patten because she would overdo it. Poohbah Patten is a peachy piece of work, effortlessly high-brow in a way the BBC should be. You must admit this, no matter what you think of his pink-plumed oozings.

Beside Lord Patten perched the BBC’s acting director-general, Tim Davie, providing dramatic contrast. Lean Mr Davie has the insistent zinginess – by Jove he’s a positive thinker – of a tennis coach. I fear his hobbies may include jogging. His favourite verb was ‘deliver’, his favourite noun ‘delivery’. The day he left his previous career (in the fizzy drinks industry) to join the BBC was a loss to Messrs Parcelforce.

Squat Patten smouldered. A tremor in his fingers. He moved his lips barely as he croaked. A postprandial frog, bloated on bluebottles, might have been livelier.

Mongoose v snake: MP Philip Davies went head to head with Lord Patten

Mongoose v snake: MP Philip Davies went head to head with Lord Patten

We heard about the Jimmy Savile atrocities, BBC2 Newsnight’s goofs and a reshaping of Beeb’s organograms. ‘A lot of people get their thrills from a discussion of governance,’ said Lord Patten at one word a minute.

‘It’s always passed me by. But of
course we will go through the intellectual tortures of the damned
again.’ And he gave a little shrug, as though contemplating a minor
spillage of custard.

MPs Ben Bradshaw and Paul Farrelly laughed, gusting their adoration.
Not Mr Davies. To laugh is to be somehow complicit.

Why had Lord Patten given a TV
interview to Andrew Marr rather than the testier Andrew Neil Was that
because the Marr programme, said Mr Davies, was a place for ‘full
tossers’ Full tosses, surely. Lord Patten said full tosses could lure a
false sense of confidence.

referred to Mr Neil as a ‘former journalist’. The Paisley mauler will
nae like that. Why had Lord Patten not intervened in the BBC’s
editorial affairs ‘I just wonder if you’ve ever read the Charter,’ said
Lord P with modulated loathing. Later: ‘That’s an extraordinarily
unfair and I was almost going to say unworthy remark.’ Oooh, a beaut!

Where a less bold man might have retreated, Mr Davies persisted. He wanted details of Lord Patten’s diary. Lord Patten thought that ‘impertinent’. Mr Davies would next be seeking details of his lavatory movements. Mr Davies told Lord Patten not to be ‘patronising’.

Is it now marginally harder for Lord Patten to land a second term as chairman I think I call it a draw. Mongoose and snake – whichever is which – will both fight another day.