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Last Updated: Saturday, 31 January, 2004, 09:16 GMT
Campbell takes centre stage

By Brian Wheeler
BBC News Online, in South Shields

As the fall-out from Lord Hutton's report continued in the capital, Tony Blair's former spin doctor travelled north for the first in a series of live performances.

Minutes before Alastair Campbell took to the stage on Friday night for the first in a series of one-man shows, news broke that BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan had handed in his resignation.

As a scene-setter for a piece of political theatre this was surely hard to beat.

But it was clear from the outset that the former Downing Street spin doctor was not going to let his epic row with the BBC overshadow his stage debut. Gilligan's name was strictly off-limits.

Campbell: A feisty performance
The event was billed as an "evening of reminiscences and stories from behind the scenes plus a chance to put your questions to one of British politics' key players" .

And that was precisely what the audience got.

The venue - presumably chosen to be as far removed from the Westminster bubble as possible and in the middle of New Labour's North East heartland - was the Customs House, a small South Shields arts centre.

The 420-seat auditorium is more used to playing host to the lower rungs of the show business ladder.

Forthcoming attractions include an evening with Barry Norman and an appearance by The Drifters, although, sadly for the journalists in the audience, not The Spinners.

Campbell gave a typically feisty and combative performance, although with a bit more charm and humour than we are used to seeing from his television appearances.

Gripping a lectern at the side of the compact stage, he treated the audience - including local MP and schools minister David Milliband and local celebrity Brendan Foster - to a canter through his early, boozy years, when he was, he admitted, "chippy, bolshie and a bit punchy".

Please don't sit there when I have just been cleared by Lord Hutton and call me a liar
Alastair Campbell
He touched briefly on his spell as a writer of soft porn for Forum magazine (begun for a bet with a friend over who could get into print first, apparently), before moving on to his Fleet Street career.

The audience included quite a few of Fleet Street's current crop, although Campbell joked he would only take questions from journalists who had paid for their tickets with their own money.

After a short interval the house lights were switched on and Campbell sat centre stage, fielding questions.

The hacks who had spent the interval gleefully jotting down the titles of the songs playing over the tannoy - including Things Can Only Get Better, and I'm Still Standing - found Campbell one step ahead of them.

"I promise I had no hand in the choice of music," he smiled.

BBC 'vital'

Then the impossible happened. The first question from the audience left him lost for words.

Did he think his obsessive nature was due to the fact that he had been an alcoholic. Was he, in fact, a "dry drunk"?

Campbell took a drink of water.

"I don't know. I am not 100% sure that I was an alcoholic," he said.

Booze had contributed to his nervous breakdown, he said, but unlike the questioner he had never enrolled with Alcoholics Anonymous.

After that it was plain sailing. There were several attempts to pin him down on Iraq, which were painstakingly rebutted.

He was also at pains to draw a line under his row with the BBC.

"I think the BBC is a vital part of this country. I have never been anything other than a supporter of its independence and I don't think I want to say anything else," he said to loud applause.

A Times journalist asked if he had any comment to make on Andrew Gilligan's resignation.

"I don't. No."

It was a load of spin
Ruth Leonard,
He didn't pull any punches when it came to his role in the row over the government's Iraq weapons dossiers.

"Please don't sit there when I have just been cleared by Lord Hutton and call me a liar," he told one questioner.

His true venom was reserved for the Daily Mail, as time and again he singled out the paper's editorial stance for criticism.

In fact, his main theme - apart from emphasising his loyalty to the Labour party and his ongoing friendship with Tony Blair - was the cynicism of the British press.

Careful words

There was, in truth, plenty of ammunition for the cynical British press to get their teeth into.

Now that Nelson Mandela had retired, he said, Tony Blair was probably the most popular and respected politician in the world.

There was clearly a tension between Campbell's efforts to be candid with the audience and his desire to avoid handing the press a free headline. He chose his words with great care throughout.

The biggest gaffe of the night - and the only time he threatened to go off message - was when he said George W Bush was "a lot cleverer than he looks".

He quickly back-pedalled, deftly turning it into a joke. "I didn't say that last sentence. That was unsaid."

In the theatre's bar afterwards, reaction was mixed.

"I think he came across as incredibly genuine and committed. I was surprised about how positive he was about the BBC," said Andrew Dixon, 45, who works in the arts.

Others were less convinced.

"I think it was just a performance. It didn't change my opinion of him at all. It was a load of spin," said 17-year-old A-level student Ruth Leonard.

The BBC's Jonathan Beale
"The hottest ticket in town"


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