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TV review: the Salmond and Darling debate

They said this would be the most important debate in Scotland's history.

Oddly, Salmond opened it by referencing the Commonwealth Games, thereby instantly annoying most of us who hate to see a politician piggy-back on the achievements of others. He wisely moved on to asking why Scotland has food banks sitting alongside billion-pound nukes. This should have been easy territory for him yet, in this opening sequence, he seemed subdued. There was none of his usual boom and swagger. Perhaps this was the influence of his much-mocked life coach? It's known that Salmond's perceived smugness repels many voters, so perhaps he was advised to play it down - but not into blandness. Bland is the territory of Darling, surely?

No, not tonight. Darling actually had some vigour to him. In making his opening pitch he spoke directly to the camera which was an adventurous move for this usually prim politician. Although any buccaneering spirit wilted as he soon retreated behind his favourite 'best of both worlds' cliche, before foolishly declaring his arguments aren't about patriotism, thereby dismissing all of those who've arrived at a Yes vote based on intellect, not emotion or Braveheart face paints.

However, despite this wobble, Darling showed rare spirit. 'I didn't vote for him but I'm stuck with him!' he said, pointing at Salmond and turning the Yes campaign's strongest argument against them. 'Contemplate for one minute you might be wrong!' he shouted, drawing cheers from the crowd. Then he started playing at Paxman, asking repeatedly what Salmond's currency plan was. He was comfortable, easy and fluent here, with the first audience boos coming in for Salmond.

But just as Salmond kept floundering on currency, so Darling kept returning to it, suggesting it's his only hopeful way of denting the Yes campaign. By clinging to the topic he eventually weakened his performance.

Whilst Darling seemed suffused with a rare energy, Salmond often seemed feeble. He wasn't playing to his strengths tonight. He was milder, less abrasive, and resorted to feeble jokes about outer space and pandas. Was this an attempt to be witty, to have us all siding with him? If so, it just made the staid and serious Darling look statesmanlike. In contrast, Salmond was wandering out from his podium and quoting Burns. Was he trying to be folksy instead of smug? I detect the influence of the life coach again. No, he needs to ditch this approach and be his usual bombastic self, although at least he stayed clear of his kailyard talk of 'heebie jeebies' and being 'feart'.

Amidst the unusually mild Salmond and the even more unusually spirited Darling, the best moment came when Ponsonby told the audience to pipe down and show respect. How wonderful! The worst thing for the campaign would be an apathetic audience or, god forbid, a respectful one.

Despite Salmond's efforts, the life coach needn't worry. His lacklustre performance will determine nothing and neither will Darling's rare display of spirit and facial expression. We're not being asked to vote for these men, or their parties. Indeed, most of us will never meet this pair and so their performance means little. Most voters will meet, not politicians, but canvassers at the door and campaigners at the stall. They'll discuss the issues with friends and colleagues. The doorstep and the canteen and social media are where things will be thrashed out and decided. The main purpose of this TV debate was to spark another debate amongst ourselves. So thanks chaps, but we'll take it from here.

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