It's one of the politician's stock-in-trade lines - "The message we're getting from the doorsteps is ..." Doorstep campaigning is an essential part of running for election and it was something I started to do immediately after I decided to stand in the Euro Elections. Basically it means arming yourself with some leaflets that describe who you are and what you're doing and then going round knocking on doors. It wasn't something that fazed me - as a salesman I'm used to cold-calling on businesses and although I've never done door-to-door sales, the principle is the same. I was well-warned beforehand by a friend who's a party activist what to expect and she tried to tutor me.
"Have your spiel ready. You've got 5 seconds to catch their attention so come up with a snappy line like "Did you know the Tories are planning to eat your babies?".
It didn't turn out like that. I'd get as far as saying my name and I was an independent standing for election and usually that was enough - the householder was off in a tirade about this party or that politician etc. Over the five weeks I knocked on hundreds of doors in towns all over Scotland and I was only ever asked four or five times what my policies were. Contrary to what I'd been told to expect, very few people were rude. Mind you, I'm pretty good at "reading" people so if I sensed they were bored or irritated I cut things short and moved on.
So I'd say I have a pretty good idea of what people are concerned about right now. Which makes the statements I've seen on the telly from politicians all the more surprising. Somehow, every politician seems to hear exactly what's on their manifesto. Amazing really, given the different parties have totally opposite manifestos.
I did a piece with a TV crew and they wanted to film me doorstepping. The journalist and the camera woman seemed to be quite bored initially, but as we walked over to a housing estate we chatted. It turns out they'd been doing the same thing with all the candidates and it was getting a bit routine. As it happened, it turned out the camera woman and I had a mutual friend from my theatre days so we were soon blethering away. We did the doorstep interviews, (re-filming one when the guy's flatmate came down the stairs with his bathrobe flapping open exposing himself to the camera) and then started walking back.
Now I got the stories about the other candidates. One of them used the opportunity of doorstepping to continue his day job as a door to door salesman. After talking politics, he would give the householder a leaflet and free sample of his firm's products. Another well-known politician was out lending moral support to his candidate. This guy thought himself to be a media pro - whenever the camera was on him, the smile would snap on and he would talk in slogans but when the camera was off him he was a grumpy sod. It became a game between him and the camera crew with them always trying to catch him off guard.
And, they told me, none of them was getting a good reception on the doorsteps. Doors were being slammed in faces and language which couldn't possibly be aired was being used. They filmed one candidate handing out leaflets in a city centre, but the problem was they couldn't get a shot of any members of the public actually taking a leaflet. They ended up doing a close up shot which only showed a hand taking a leaflet - it was the reporter's hand.
Whilst I was in London, I met a friend of a friend who works for a PR company. He was a reporter and presenter for a London news channel a few years ago. He gave me loads of tips on how to handle interviews but then went on to describe some of the underhand things reporters do to unsettle politicians. A common one is, when the floor manager is giving the 5-4-3-2-1 countdown, the reporter will wait until the pause between 2 and 1 to say "Your flies are undone". When the studio cuts to them, the politician has his head down and his hands buried in his crotch. His favourite was one he'd used on a Govt Minister. This guy was a pro and totally unflappable, but as the floor manager did his countdown, the reporter said "I see your wife's been [email protected] young actors again". The look on the Minister's face as the camera cut to him was a picture.
None of that happened to me, but another thing he warned me about did. When you see a studio interview on the TV, quite often there's only one camera. Rather than swinging the camera back and forward, what they do is film an opening shot showing the interviewer and interviewee then they focus entirely on the interviewee. After he's gone, they'll then film the interviewer asking the questions. So, after the establishing shot, they set the camera up on me and we were off. Except, the interviewer got out a newspaper and started eating peanuts whilst I was talking. It's really difficult to talk about something when the other person is patently uninterested and ignoring you. Thankfully, because I'd been warned of this beforehand, I kept my eyeline on the top of his head throughout and although I never saw the piece myself, I'm told you couldn't tell anything was amiss when it was aired.
Knowing what goes on behind the scenes has suddenly made political interviews on the telly far more interesting.
Here's one to watch for. When the floor manager is giving the 5-4-3-2-1 countdown, she'll say 5-4 out loud then mime the 3-2-1 while holding up the correct number of fingers. It's quite common for the interviewee to be looking at her and they'll mouth the 3-2-1 silently, without realising they're doing it. I saw a chap on Newsnight do just that!