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Wednesday, 30 September, 1998, 11:08 GMT 12:08 UK
Theatrical Tony plays to the audience
Tony Blair delivering his speech
Friends, countrymen, citizens of Blackpool...
He made them laugh, he probably made some of them cry. But did he convince them?

Tony Blair is regarded by many as the master of the political set piece and his speech to this year's Labour party conference was a chance to see if he can still command audiences as he did during the 1997 General Election campaign.

BBC News Online asked theatre director Mark Wing-Davey, formerly Zaphod Beeblebrox of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy fame, to cast his critical eye over the performance.

Mr Wing-Davey, who recently directed Light Shining in Buckinghamshire at the Royal National Theatre, a play focusing on political debate, said he would have no hesitation in hiring Mr Blair as an actor.

Director Mark Wing-Davey
Wing-Davey: "Blair's style is hard for many actors"
"It was a masterful performance," he said. "Rhetorically what he was able to do was change rhythm and give the impression that he was inventing stuff.

"He managed to get a balance between a rather friendly religious revivalist preacher and a serious statesman, a balance that is very hard to hit."

Mr Wing-Davey said the prime minister has started badly when his first joke fell flat, but he succeeded in portraying himself as a man of the people.

"He began by using hesitation," said Mr Wing Davey.

"And by using words such as bloke, friends rather than comrades, part of the technique is to say 'Look, I'm one of you guys, I understand how the ordinary people live' and that is reflected in the speech pattern.

"The other side of this is to say 'I'm a speechmaker, I deal with statesmen'.

"Our sense of being manipulated by the speech was not as great as it could have been."

While actor Tony impressed with his delivery, the setting was enough to leave a theatre professional corpsing in horror.

Tony Blair delivering his speech
Statesman and mate down the pub
Mr Wing-Davey described the multi-coloured lights backdrop as a "Saturday Night Fever disco dance floor" while imperial purple lighting and neck tie was condemned as a cliché.

But the real art of the political speech is in recognising that you are performing to two audiences, said Mr Wing-Davey.

"It is rather like a situation comedy with a studio audience," he said.

"You are playing both to the audience in the hall and to the wider audience that is the nation.

"He would play to applause by slowing down the text and that would be an unconscious cue to applaud.

"But every now and again he made the change so that people would applaud spontaneously so that he could not finish what he said."

Alliteration such as "From Kyoto to Kosovo" should have been left out but other language was quite revealing of Tony Blair the man.

Members of the cabinet applauding
In his hands: The cabinet applaud the PM
"It was fascinating that he used religious metaphors such as spirit and body. That sense of his own religious beliefs was quite present in a way that other politicians would feel quite nervous about.

"It chimes with Bunyon, the sense of life as a struggle and a pilgrimage, he does not have a holier than thou attitude, he works towards the demotic."

The prime minister's body language also hit the right note.

"An interesting example was when he was talking about the House of Lords and said: 'And they call that democracy'.

"There was an over-arm pub gesture, a man of the people saying 'I'm telling you mate'. It suited the text."

So could we imagine seeing Mr Blair treading the boards with the Royal Shakespeare Company after he leaves office?

Tony Blair during his Blackpool speech
Fancy a change of career Tony?
"Were one playing Henry V one could have a few lessons from Tony Blair," said Mr Wing-Davey.

"When Henry finally succeeds, he succeeds because he has become more in touch with the people and the soldiers who have been on the battlefield.

"And what Tony Blair does is pre-empt those complainings. He says, I know people are going to say this, I know people will feel that.

"And the sense is that the Tories were out of touch, they did not understand the man or woman in the street, they spoke like they did not understand what the world was like.

"Tony Blair's great strength is that he has developed a way of speaking that makes him seem like he understands what the world is like.

"It is a hard thing for actors to do, let alone a prime minister.

"The danger is that what seems to work will become a mannerism and that is, of course, the poisoned chalice of office."

Mr Wing-Davey's next production, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, starts in October at the Nottingham Playhouse.

BBC News
Wing-Davey: "Actors playing Henry V could learn from Tony Blair"
BBC News
Wing-Davey: "It was a masterful performance"
BBC News
Wing-Davey: "The religous imagery chimes with Bunyon"

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