Gordon Brown looked comfortable last night in his red tie and poppy, stood with his back against Oxford town hall’s blue stage. He certainly had no reason to feel unloved. Down the road, at 8pm Ian McKellen simultaneously took to the stage of the Oxford Union. But it would take more than a grey wizard and a student-friendly catchphrase (“You Shall Not Pass”) to deter this crowd, and the line for Brown stretched round just as many corners if not more than the queue for the veteran actor on St Michael’s Street.
Perhaps this shaped the tone of the evening. A slightly older than expected crowd laughed beer-barrel laughs like only men over a certain age can, as Brown delivered 50 minutes of stand-up worthy patter. Names were dropped with all the discretion and bombast of an illegal war: Clinton, Mandella, Oprah Winfrey, Elton John. Even Amy Winehouse had her own anecdote in a quip comparing her husband’s jail time to that of Mandella.
You could almost hear Brown’s speechwriter whispering in his ear “keep it light, make them laugh”.
But the act never fell. At 8.50pm, Brown broke for questions, inviting the audience - with some care - if they had any questions about his opinions on the future of the country. But the audience were on side tonight. No heckles were to be heard at this juncture; instead a parry of predictable questions about “how’s the best way for me to get involved”, an elderly gentleman who mumbled a long story that hardly resembled a statement never mind a question, and something to do with my new favourite port-manteaux: “brexistentalism”.
Which all fell together fairly nicely for Brown to craft his overarching statement of the night: that in light of the 2008 global crisis, he, Brown, should best be remembered as the premier anti-austerity poster-boy.
Well, we can dream.
Brown knew he got off easily tonight. “In Glasgow, if an audience likes you, they don’t clap”, he told Town Hall, “they let you live”. In Oxford on the other hand, Brown was greeted on stage like a war hero and left somewhat resembling an old friend.
Charisma, familiarity, or perhaps just the smudging effect of time, on this occasion it worked for Brown. What it, I couldn’t help but wonder, had gone like that last time?