Books: The Dreaming Swimmer — Incredible Two-headed Man |
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Incredible Two-headed Man

WHEN MY executive producer Richard Drewett and I transferred from ITV to the BBC in 1990, we took with us the exiguous footage of a prospective documentary we had shot on spec when I had hosted the Frank Sinatra concert that opened a luxury resort called Sanctuary Cove, near Surfers’ Paradise in Queensland. While our office was being set up at BBC Kensington House we camped in the editing rooms and painstakingly assembled ‘Clive James Finally Meets Frank Sinatra’. Short of options, we had to print shots twice and run some of them backwards. I wrote at least ten complete drafts of the commentary with strips of film hanging around me like drying kelp. Struggling to get the thing finished by the scheduled screening date, we were unsettled to discover that the news had been announced, and in a dangerously misleading form. The word was out that we had a full length, fifty-minute interview with Sinatra. Actually we had more like five minutes, which, although it was four minutes more than he had given anyone for years, was going to look pretty feeble unless something could be done to pre-empt the press. So I took up the Observer Magazine on its generous long-standing offer to print any feature I felt like. Without exactly telling them that I felt like a man swimming towards a raft in a sea full of circling fins, I constructed a cry for help masterfully disguised as a manifesto.

The story apparently had at least some of the effect desired: only a few of the listings editors and media diarists tried to accuse me of giving short change, and for a wonder nobody suggested that if I had asked the right questions Sinatra would have confessed to his long career as a Mafia button-man, handed me his gun and placed himself under arrest. But I had been too long in Fleet Street myself to imagine that there is any such thing as a sure-fire technique for squaring the press. It will be seen in one of the Radio Times pieces, and in several other places in this book, how I have tried to offset the impression of being someone personally at war with the Japanese nation. No journalist who has a column to fill, however, is going to let me off the hook. The story is too easy to write.

But if the press can’t be orchestrated to forgive sins, all the evidence suggests that the public can be persuaded to give the benefit of the doubt, at least until they see the actual programme. When we found out that the Observer piece had added a statistically significant chunk to the ratings, a bell rang. It rang louder when we realised that the listings editors — who are at their least responsible in the posh papers, strangely enough — couldn’t always be relied on to give us an even break, or even a mention. (The listings editor of the Independent once gave an off-putting summary of a programme of ours which he couldn’t have seen because we hadn’t yet finished it.) Complaints would have been pointless, because to argue about the merits of your forthcoming television programme in the press is to question the authority of the public, who will deliver the only verdict that matters.

Before they can judge your show, however, they have to see it, and that’s where publicity comes in. The only question is what kind of publicity it should be. The basic choice is between (a) cultivating the respect of those young media-mad invigilators who feel that they are protecting the sensibilities of a small audience or (b) getting out there where the dirt shows through the grass and whipping the big audience into the tent. I chose the latter course and now there is no way back, nor any defence except to say that whereas the consequences to a performer of identifying himself with the general public might play hob with the gravitas, if he believes himself separate he courts ruin.

[ See the programme HERE. ]