It\’s the beard. And the mouth. Small and very oddly pinkish round the edge, it makes for every word a sort of urgent tragedy. Schiff is an actor, and plays Toby Ziegler in The West Wing. It would appear that the mannerisms of Ziegler are transmogrified clichÃ©s of the mannerisms of Schiff. This is very weird. It feels like we\’re watching Toby, seeing him right there in front of us. And he\’s wearing a hat. He\’s got himself a hat.
We two are right little West Wingers – skipping into the plush Randolph lobby clutching polystyrene coffee and Big Issues. Both of us are devout fans of the show, a giant of television drama and probably the second best TV show about politics ever made. The acting and script are particularly brilliant; Schiff, who has a central role, rolls off the candied, witty lines with incredible presence and poignancy. However, he\’s not so keen on the latest TV. Although ‘I haven\’t seen enough to make a judgement\’ in terms of quality, when it comes to TV generally he thinks the medium is dying. ‘I think you\’re seeing the fall of an empire that\’s mirroring the fall of its country\’s empire. I think it\’s lost itself in the panic to beat the internet, or to monetise the internet. Viewership has been in decline, we have 800 channels now. When I was a kid there were three networks, there were six channels on your TV. That was it. So we had all of these viewers around the country split three ways. Now they\’re split 800 ways. Everything is specialised, you have computers that can download content whenever they want.\’
But despite his apparent disdain for the values of American capitalism, he thinks the solution is to charge more. Should something like The West Wing be given away free on the internet? ‘I think they should quadruple the price and give me a piece of it. There is an argument to be made. It\’s killed the music industry. Now you can hear a song, and drop a buck on the internet, and you get a song. You don\’t have to buy twelve songs and listen to it consecutively, and then lift up the needle and make sure you don\’t scratch it. What I miss is the depth of the sound- which is including the squeak on the strings as the fingers move on the guitar. It\’s too perfect [nowadays] and human performance is beautiful by its very nature because it\’s imperfect. The more perfect you make it the more detached you get from the actual experience. That was really well said, you\’d better write that down.\’
The West Wing ran seven seasons and maintains its iron hand of interest over the British and American political classes. What\’s intriguing is that Schiff is quite regularly scathing about it. Although he agrees that ‘it captured a lot more of the reality than people realised\’, it is filled with fantasy- in particular ‘the real fantasy\’ of how people look. ‘I like it when everyone\’s not a doppelganger for Brad Pitt. I like British television because you see real faces on the screen, I actually prefer to see humans. The West Wing cast, some of the good-looking people were also human. But as they say in Hollywood, give me a good story, give me some beautiful people and I\’ll make a buck for ya. And that\’s what The West Wing did.\’Â But important as this is, the blur between truth and fiction has a deeper political significance. ‘The fantasy was that everyone in the room, in an Oval Office meeting with our staff was a good person. There\’s always a Rasputin in there, always somebody who\’s trying to manipulate things. Eight years of that we had recently, the President\’s own agenda irrelevant of what the American people wanted.\’
This brings us to the issue of the issues. ‘If you look at our record, it\’s realistically unimpressive, the Bartlet Administration.\’ McGhee pointed this out, and practically died of pleasure at the actor\’s reply. ‘You\’re the first person who\’s actually noticed that. People need to open their eyes a bit and look at our accomplishments. We\’ve put an Hispanic on the Supreme Court… can you name me a second thing that we\’ve accomplished? The peace in the Middle East, a summit like any other summit if you ask me. And then Toby solves social security, but we don\’t know what the solution is and I didn\’t know what the solution was when we were shooting it. Then I got a letter after it aired delivered to my trailer, saying \”thank you so much for tackling this very difficult issue, but here are ten points delineating why your plan won\’t work\”. Ten points. And signed at the bottom, \”Senator for New York Hilary Rodham Clinton\”! Insane. And she\’s writing me saying \”this is what you\’ve gotta fix\”. No that\’s what you\’ve gotta fix!\’
This shows just how far apart are the act and the reality.
Deavall admits how complicated it is, how it can so easily go over the viewer\’s head. Schiff agrees, and says he tried to get round this problem by working really hard on the policy. ‘I\’ve really made an effort to understand every level and layer of the issues\’. But sometimes it\’s just too difficult. ‘[With one episode] I decided I\’m going to do this episode as if it\’s in Greek, I\’m going to do it phonetically.\’ This is what many of the actors do, apparently- you simply decide that something\’s good or bad for your character, and respond appropriately. Even Martin Sheen, the best actor in the series and a political activist, doesn\’t try to do things the way he personally wants, as Schiff is only too keen to point out. ‘With Martin, he says, \”I\’m an actor, saying someone else\’s words and ideas, I\’m not going to play President Bartlet the way Martin Sheen wants it, I\’m going to play him the way Aaron Sorkin wants it.\” He\’s fulfilling a creative vision like no-one else could. But he\’s an actor first and that\’s what he would say.\’ The wider political issues are not considered at all. It\’s sad for a man like Schiff, a man of immense personal morality and warmth. It\’s easy to almost feel sorry for him – but as he would no doubt say, he\’s an actor. It was never meant to be otherwise.
Richard Schiff was speaking at the Lessons in Government Seminars at Brasenose College. To find out more about the Lessons in Government speakers, please search for ‘Lessons in Government\’ in Facebook.