According to rumour, half the Cabinet are being groomed for failure in this election year by an American woman from the world of lip gloss and buttonholes.
Mary Spillane is an image consultant. The title itself epitomises the fin de siecle malaise that prefers surface to substance. Time was when what is now called image was inseparable from a stuffy outmoded concept called character. Indeed, one evolved naturally from the other.
Then came the American belief that image could be constructed separately, as if in a test tube, and grafted on to an individual. The technique relies for its success on the dull-wittedness of a television audience for whom instant impressions are all that matters.
It’s a cynical business. Master the body language, change the hairstyle, modulate the voice, use eye contact, smile a lot and, though a humbug you may start and a humbug remain, you will fool most of the people most of the time.
Not surprisingly, image creation was seized upon by the politicians, and with justification: anyone bearing the gifts of artifice and pretence is talking the language of politics and guaranteed a hearing by those who aspire to office.
But it doesn’t stop there. There are countless others beyond the grubby world of politics who crave an image and will pay well for a bespoke item. They include business people, lawyers, the kind of doctors who wear bow ties, and the whole rag, tag and bobtail of fame-seekers whose only accomplishment is to have recognised that in a meretricious televisual age a modest measure of reclame can carry you a very long way.
Good luck to them, say I. As one who has long since ceased to have anything other than contempt for politicians, and who can, with a little care, avoid seeing or hearing Julia Carling, David Mellor, Vinnie Jones or any of the others who have seen their notoriety turned into the fool’s gold of celebrity (can it be long before Nicola Horlick is offered a chat show of her own?), I am happy to leave Miss Spillane and her clients to deserve each other.
However, when she intrudes upon a world that does interest me, Miss Spillane can no longer be ignored. Last week, she offered single-handedly to transform the fortunes of the England cricket team.
“I could turn them round in two days and, given time, make them winners on the field and off it… The English Cricket Board need only pick up the phone.”
Miss Spillane has lived in this country for 15 years. During that time she may have acquired an understanding of cricket. She may know a long hop from a long leg and be able to tell at a glance the ball that goes on with the arm. She may have spent many a bewitching hour at the boundary, spellbound by the unfolding drama wrought by the flickering figures on the field. If so, she will be the first American to have done so since John Paul Getty Junior, to whom English cricket owes a great debt of gratitude.
On the other hand, she may have seen a few seconds of television footage. That, after all, is her universe.
If so – and not surprisingly, since for her all of meaning may be captured in an image so fleeting as to make a mayfly’s life an eternity – she does not hesitate to pass judgment, albeit in a muddled fashion.
She tells us, for instance, that Britain is a third-rate country. “Not at the helm, not pushing back frontiers, not top tier internationally.” She moves on to urge England’s cricketers to adopt the three Ps: passion, pleasure and pride.
Powerful stuff, this image. It can take a band of hapless no-hopers and cause to well within them the blazing passion of playing for a nation that is all but defunct.
Michael Atherton, she points out, was educated at Manchester Grammar School and Cambridge. “That’s his problem. The worst background possible. Arrogant, aloof, stubborn…”
But she likes John Crawley. “Same educational, privileged background as Atherton but is prepared to listen and enjoys his job. Am I seeing a future England captain?”
And are we being fed a load of baloney? How can a good school and Cambridge University be at once a fearful liability and a blithe irrelevance?
But, as she seems keen to prove by example, what comes out of a person’s mouth isn’t of much importance. “Viewers have a three-second attention span and 55 per cent of the impact when we see them on TV comes down to how they look and behave. A further 38 per cent is voice quality, looks, demeanour. Only seven per cent are (sic) the words flowing from their mouths.”
Only an American, and perhaps only an image consultant, could take a complex game played over five days and reduce it to a three-second blip of light aimed at the sponge-soggy crania of a viewing public.
Since Miss Spillane gave voice, England’s cricketers have performed better. No doubt she would be quick to point out that the improvement was on an easy batting strip and against a weak attack, and that the New York Yankees could have done the job between makeovers. But it’s a start. Now that Atherton’s footwork has improved, he must quickly turn his attention to teeth flossing.