IT IS a classic comedy scenario. The uptight, impeccably articulate authoritarian unwittingly ingests some mind-altering substance, and we all laugh as the dignified veneer melts away and the character becomes a puddle of jabbering, hippy clichés. If the experience of the late Labour MP Christopher Mayhew is anything to go by, this version of a psychedelic trip could hardly be less accurate.
Filmed in 1955 for a BBC documentary that was not released for a further 30 years, Mayhew took LSD and described the effects to his audience. “I am moving . . . from one time to another time and back,” he declared, in the same measured RP that he would have used to question the Government’s balance of payments figures. His mind might have been fried, but his demeanour was cool as a cucumber.
It was in the same grave tones that Matthew Sweet and his guests discussed the history and efficacy of LSD in Free Thinking (Radio 3, Tuesday of last week). The playwright Leo Butler took some under controlled laboratory conditions as research for his latest work; David Nutt was the neuropsychopharmacologist in charge, and is fearless in the face of established prejudices around drugs. The team was completed by two philosophers.
That was never going to happen; not when Nutt claims to have proved Aldous Huxley right and discovered “the reducing valve” that supposedly manages consciousness in such a way that our lazy brains can work efficiently with minimum energy. In the wake of such a gigantic claim, a promising dicussion of how the ineffable nature of such experiences might undermine all such traditional analysis was abandoned. The materialists and philosophers did, however, agree on one point: LSD has proven beneficial effects on alcohol addiction.
It would be a courageous politician indeed who espoused such a treatment. And, nowadays, there are a vanishingly small number of public figures willing to fly such a provocative kite. Not so in the old days, the panellists on Archive on 4: Any Questions? is 70 (Radio 4, Saturday) lamented. There was no humour, no freedom to extemporise any more, Matthew Parris suggested; and his fellow old-timers, David Blunkett, Bonnie Greer, and Ann Widdecombe grunted in support.
The Any Questions archive provides a different kind of political history: one that charts the changing presentational culture of politicians, from a time when the old Etonian Lord Boothby, in 1962, could say (with tongue firmly in cheek) that he owed his success to merit alone, to the present day, when you cannot even use the metaphor “calling off the dogs” without being accused of some nebulous chauvinism.
Today, the hardest part for panellists on Any Questions is the final, lighthearted question. Who knows what lorry-load of ordure awaits the politician who attempts a joke and, instead of raising a laugh, enrages the entire Twittersphere?