Books: Visions Before Midnight — Just call me 'Captain' |
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Just call me 'Captain'

And in a moment, Crossroads, and a new guest on Vera’s houseboat! But first, the show that came out of nowhere to establish itself overnight as the laugh riot of 1973 — Cudlipp and be Damned. Billed as BBC1’s Tuesday Documentary, this miracle of unrelieved adoration was in fact a pioneering amalgam of slack-jawed piety and sophisticated urban humour, yielding merriment by the crystal bucket.

A lawyer, Mr Ellis Birk, set the general tone of the programme, and the specific intensity of his own future contributions to it, by leading off with the ringing assertion that Hugh Cudlipp was ‘the greatest tabloid journalist of all time’. It was hard to still a wicked interior voice which insisted on pointing out that this was tantamount to calling a man the greatest manufacturer of potato-pistols who had ever lived, or the greatest salesman of sticky sweets in the history of dentistry. Nevertheless such a naughty itch required ruthlessly to be suppressed. Anyone aware of what tabloid journalism has become since the Mirror’s heyday, and of what tabloid journalism generally consisted of during the Mirror’s heyday, will hasten to assert that Cudlipp ran an outstanding newspaper of its type — he backed good causes and appealed to the best side of the common people. With that said, however, one doesn’t feel bound to convey the impression that Hugh Cudlipp is Proust. The programme did feel bound to convey that, and that he was Balzac, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Dostoevsky and Henry James.

One had written off as a coincidence the revelation that Mr Ellis Birk, chorus-master of the Hosannas, is currently employed by the organisation of which the uomo universale he so admires is the chief. But the number of such coincidences quickly mounted, as people figuring prominently on Cudlipp’s payroll rushed forward to say how wonderful he was. Marjorie Proops came on, deep in the throes of a transfigurative ecstasy, as though St Teresa had once again been pierced through and through by the spear of Christ. ‘He makes my adrenalin...’ But she couldn’t think of exactly what it was that Hugh Cudlipp made her adrenalin do. Boil? Curdle? One thing she was clear about: his merest summons engendered in her bosom — this she clutched — a delicious cocktail of excitement and fear.

The theme of fear was touched upon by all contributors. Plainly the idea that his striding advent among their toiling backs made even the most hardened of his bondsmen oscillate with trepidation was one that went down a bomb with the boss. That it had a similar appeal for Ivan the Terrible was not among the points raised. The concept being peddled was one of benevolent despotism, in which Hugh brought out the best in these marvellously talented people by putting the fear of God into them. Donald Zec had something to add on this point: an elaborate aria, exquisitely sung, of orgasmic power worship.

Lest Zec and the other dedicated minions had failed to get the message over with the force appropriate to the greatest tabloid journalist of all time, the greatest tabloid journalist of all time was asked for his opinion on his own capacity to inspire terror. Eroding a cigar with a mouth whose craggy structure betokened all the firmness of somebody who hasn’t been contradicted in several decades, he spake. ‘I see no reason for not expressing an opinion rather bluntly.’ Bootless to add that a paternalistic twinkle was not far from his eyes: though he loved his paper most, he loved his sweating children near as much. Bootless also to add — or at least Desmond Wilcox, the eerily quiescent linkman, found it so — that the average employee almost invariably finds himself with an excellent reason for not bluntly expressing his own opinion back. The reason being that whereas the employer can fire the employee, the employee is not in the same position with regard to the employer.

But Cudlipp, we could be assured, though he might be a hard taskmaster, or even a martinet, was no Bourbon. He was a man of the people, a socialist in the true sense — a socialist deep down where it counted, under the meaningless trappings of power and, well, wealth. A salary of £33,000 a year was mentioned, and it was not suggested that his television interests ran at a loss. Roll it together and it made quite a bundle. Doubly a wonder, then, that his democratic ease with ordinary mortals had never left him. His chauffeur calls him ‘Hugh’. Rank, we were told, isn’t important to him. On his yacht, for example, it is merely necessary to call him ‘Captain’. That’s the heartwarming thing about democratic leaders: all you have to do is call them something like ‘Your Excellency’ and they relax completely.

The day Cecil King got the chop was the saddest of Cudlipp’s life. Cudlipp said this himself, and his sincerity was patent. Ellis Birk, attaining by now the epigrammatic fluency of a Machiavelli clapping eyes for the first time on Cesare Borgia, said that nobody had ever suffered as Cudlipp suffered that day. Wilcox, rallying from his coma, tried to probe here — why was it that Cudlipp had not delivered the killing stroke in person? Because he could not bear to, out of the love he bore his old mentor. However much the circumstances cried out for the blow, Cudlipp could not plunge the knife into King’s chest. So he plunged it into King’s back. All the conspirators save only he, you see, did what they did in envy of great Caesar.

On New Year’s Eve Cudlipp will retire, but we could take it for granted — and if we couldn’t, we were reminded of it repeatedly — that his presence will still be felt. Considering his success in getting an entire BBC documentary consecrated exclusively to an oratorio in his praise, there was indeed good cause to think that his energies were ascending to a whole new plateau. It was the self-promotion coup of the year, and one strove in vain to think of anyone else who could have brought it off. On the Street of Adventure there is still only one true whizz-kid.

3 December, 1973

[ The original unedited version of this piece can be found in our Observer TV column chapter ]