Paul Flowers on Newsnight last night. Image courtesy of the BBC.
There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repenteth, than a hundred who just keep on trucking. Yea, verily, Paul Flowers, The Crystal Methodist, has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But at the same time, as last night's edition of Newsnight proved, he is also looking a bit better now. There's a bit more colour in his cheeks. A bit less of the "3AM in a car in a dodgy part of town buying £300 worth of coke" to his gaze. That, of course, was the last time the nation saw him. Before he had to go into hiding. Before he became a character in the ongoing Decline And Fall Of Barmy Britain soap opera. It’s amazing what a bit of sympathetic lighting can do for a man.
Last night’s interview was set up as classic post-rehab TV. Its star had prepared meticulously. The open-neck shirt said: “I’m letting it all hang out since I got in touch with a deeper, truer me.” The short white down of beard said: “I’m recovering, and that is a psuedo-medical thing, which means that shaving goes out the window.” The glass of tap water, supped one question in, said: “I am ill, ill with addictionitis, and I need to stay well-hydrated.” His tones were soft, his laughter was the wry sort of a man who has "been through a lot", even if in the end his words still left him dangling somewhere between a plea for redemption and a Morrissey-like note of defiance towards his enemies. He had, he said, checked himself into "a very well-known hospital" for his addictions. Was that The Priory? Were we meant to assume that he spent four weeks on that particular celebrity naughty step? "I found it both cathartic and traumatic," he said. He had, he went on, worked through many of the issues in his life, and had come to a deeper understanding of who he was. "It helped me to look at the more deep-seated reasons why people resort to any sort of an addiction."
You’d hope it was The Priory. It’s nice to imagine this immaculate Uncle Monty paddling round the ping-pong table with various minor soap stars and boyband rejects. The Priory is still the first checkpoint on the road to redemption in our society. Most famously, for Kate Moss, who checked her career into rehab after it was caught doing coke with Pete Doherty’s pals. Famously, it worked. Within 18 months Kate’s career was much better, thanks, and had its own line in Topshop. "Supermodel takes cocaine shocker" gripped the nation’s stock of very naive people for what felt like months, but as soon as she’d medicalised her lifestyle choice, she’d neutralised the problem. The rest was just a waiting game ahead of the big "I’m Back" interview.
Yet despite taking the conventional route in, Paul Flowers seemed much less willing to let his time playing Connect 4 with Matt Cardle – class of December 2013, prescription pills – eat into his inbuilt ambivalence towards shutting up and taking your medicine.
"I am in company with every other human being for having my fragility exposed," he told Paxman. "Though most get through life without having this exposed so publicly."
"Most of us don't resort to drugs and rent boys," Paxman replied.
"How," said Flowers, "do you know?", and Paxman looked grazed by a reality bullet from a direction he hadn’t been expecting. That bit isn’t on the default script. The point is the opposite: to zoom in on the particulars of the repentant addict's circumstances. The creeps at the record label. The traumatic marriage split from Duncan James. The bad decision to appear on an ITV2 show about celebrity dogs. The idea of these staged TV apologies are that you find somewhere else for the guilt to live. But at no point are you meant to extend your sense of alienation and emptiness to the rest of British society. You're not meant to set up the idea that really, behind our normal British lives of driving an alright car and enjoying Homeland, we're all desperately needy jellyfish, blubbing around in the dark, trying to find solace.
But then again, this seemed to be someone who didn’t buy into the basic tar in the Judeo-Christian cigarette: "That terribly old-fashioned word, sin, is not one I would use." It seemed a bit weird coming from a Methodist minister, tbh, but Methodists probably aren’t what they used to be either, are they? They probably have direct debits instead of collection plates and put the hymns on an LCD screen now.
Flowers pointed out to Paxman that his mother had been dying. That he had been trying to buy 600 branches of Lloyds (but it had proved a bit fiddly). And he’d really cocked-up a Britannia Building Society takeover. And that’s how it happened: everything was stress, he’d done some stuff, but maybe he should’ve done some other stuff. Morality was too grand a word for this series of bad decisions.
And then, stab at contrition over, Flowers rocked back towards attack. The Mail On Sunday? Arses.
"I remember dear old Michael Foot describing it as the Forger's Gazette ... They make Vladimir Putin look like a bleeding heart liberal … Pure and utter fiction." The government regulators were toothless – apparently because they’d failed to stop a man like himself from taking the wheel at a £47billion business and sling-shotting it off a cliff. And then, Flowers inferred, there were more sinister forces lurking in the undergrowth. Pressure had come "from the very top" to buy Lloyds – The Chancellor had been "phoning every three days". As many of us are aware, it is very hard on the nerves to have the Chancellor phoning you up every three days asking whether you’ve considered buying part of a major high-street bank. And now Flowers was on the front-food, his tone had shifted, and he'd gone from penitence to trying to sell us the idea that he'd been set upon by a whole world full of pricks.
And one day, Flowers made deliciously clear, the pricks will have their comeuppance. Yes, sorrow will come to you in the end, George Osborne. And to you, Geordie Greig. At this, Paxman looked impressed. As he had earlier intimated via being a fruity yet tweedy crack-smoking man of the cloth, Paul Flowers’ confession was a far more feline, more nuanced and original piece of philosophy than the sort of "I love my wife" dross you’d get from the latest Tory wife-swapper or shit-smear Liberal.
To many who do not enjoy having Fleet Street’s morality drum thumped too loud in their ears, Flowers' twinks and drugs lifestyle had already elevated him to the status of minor folk hero; the George Michael of banking – always crashing that Land Rover into another hedgerow, never giving too much of a damn either way. Now, he had added to his laurels by elevating himself to the patron saint of TV confessors. It’s always heartening, isn’t it, to see a man already in late-life suddenly coming into his fullest bloom.
Previously – Noel Edmonds Actually Wants to Buy the BBC