The problem of producing a dictionary of body language is that it remains a rather nebulous form of communication and is therefore open to a multitude of interpretations. Yet Peter Collett tried to illuminate the dank world of body language, enabling the viewers to read the mind of anyone.
To compensate for this uncertainty, Collett set out to compose a vernacular of twitches, gestures and stances adopted by politicians, and he almost succeeded. Using the hopelessly mendacious Bill Clinton as a template, Collett showed how world leaders consciously adopt a number of mannerisms, or “tells”, to assume dominance in a meeting while also illuminating how they sporadically let their guard down to expose their real feelings.
For instance, Clinton was filmed attending a funeral of a friend. When he realised he was caught on camera, his expression changed from jovial to mournful, even wiping an illusory tear from his eye. While this was perceptive, Collett’s observation of George W Bush’s “power walk” was less enlightening, largely because Bush looked like a frail sapling who had deliberately bought a suit two sizes too big instead of a mighty oak.
But Collett was far more interested in the unconscious “tells” that betray a politician’s true emotions and exclaimed: “If politicians knew how they were exposing themselves they’d be horrified”. Tony Blair expresses anxiety by placing his hands in his pockets; Bush bites the inside of his mouth; while Clinton bites his lower lip.
If this programme was designed to teach a bunch of robots about mankind, then it might have worked, but the faults Collett picked out didn’t seem like weaknesses as they awarded these social automatons a sliver of humanity. So long as you ejected Collett’s subjective psychological meanderings the clips could be very funny.
Apparently all politicians follow a code of combat on handshakes and this was brilliantly demonstrated as Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton approached each other, arms bent like modern jousters aiming to knock the other from their stride. Also, Collett’s inflexible philosophy revealed the dominant world leader should always go through a door last. Blair was shown as he “suffered a defeat” in this game to Bush and French President Jacques Chirac, yet Blair didn’t seem defeated; moreover, it indicated a maturity beyond both Bush and Chirac.
For much of the time, Collett was an off-screen narrator. It was only when he wished to test his theories at the Labour Party Conference that he deigned to speak directly to camera. But perhaps he should have remained out of sight as his body language was as artificial as the politicians he was analysing. When describing how Gordon Brown’s lack of interest in Blair’s key note speech evinced a rivalry (he simply looked bored), Collett would open and shut his eyes in rhythm with him speaking to give his words more potency. Additionally, he moved his arms in stiff scything slashes as if beating away the flames of scepticism that he knew could engulf his fragile fields of reason, and ironically this more than anything damned his inconsistent dogma.