Books: The Blaze of Obscurity — 1. Out of the Frying Pan |
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The Blaze of Obscurity — 1. Out of the Frying Pan


As you grow older, you are forcibly reminded of your essential personality more and more often, and especially when you are lost in reverie. When I am living alone with my work at my flat in London, I breakfast off a pot of coffee and two slices of unadorned toast. The aim is to control my weight, and it works: my weight remains controlled at about fifty pounds above the level that my doctor recommends as the maximum for continued life. But even though the plan goes reasonably well on the whole, it goes wrong enough in detail to remind me that there is a defective mind doing the planning. Somewhere between every fourth and fifth breakfast, on average, I leave the toast toasting in the toaster while I go to my desk in the next room for a quick fiddle with that paragraph that got stuck in a tangle at three o’clock in the morning. After a few hours’ sleep my mind is now clear enough to make further fiddling look beneficial. How about making a regular sentence out of that bit in brackets? And then what about putting this bit before that bit instead of after . . .

I am still fiddling when I notice that there is something strange about the air around me. It has turned bluish grey, as if it had been piped in from the Battle of Jutland. Back in the kitchen, I lever two jet-black slices of carbon out of the toaster while noticing that my whole apartment is full of a strangely delicate pastel mist, like a film set dressed by Ridley Scott in his Blade Runner period. Still in my ratty dressing gown, I start a process of opening windows and waving the smoke through them with a wet tea towel. With any luck the place will look less like the aftermath of a powder-cloud avalanche by the time my assistant Cecile Menon shows up and realizes all over again that she has been hired to help a man beyond help. You will ask why I don’t buy an automatic toaster, and the answer is that I have, several times, but they all broke. I have a cupboard full of their corpses, each preserved in case the plug should come in handy. Here is yet more proof that I remain, as I approach the last lap of my life, someone who, left to himself, would die of exposure even on a warm day. On the tropical island with everything, I would choke on a coconut. There was once a terrible song that started ‘People who need people’. Barbra Streisand used to sing it. As far as I remember, the next line wasn’t ‘Are to be avoided’. It should have been. In the concourse of the great railway stations you can pick us out by the way we stand in front of the automatic ticket machines and look around for advice. All too often we take it from each other, with predictable results.

Even as a freelance journalist I had depended on editorial supervision, lest my unrestrained enthusiasm lead me into the law courts and the publication I was attached to into bankruptcy. For my last year at the Observer I had the excellent John Lucas available to oversee my latest thousand-word effort on a Friday morning. Indeed he wasn’t just available, he was unavoidable: Terence Kilmartin, the revered arts editor who figured so prominently as my reliable mentor in the previous volume of these unreliable memoirs, insisted that my copy was always to be combed for time-bombs as well as booby traps. Terry’s caution might have been inspired by pressure from the management floor, where it had not been forgotten that I had cost the paper £10,000 by using a single wrong word about a TV director. Such is the long shadow of a British libel case that I can’t say what that wrong word was even now.

Now, in 1982, I was saying goodbye to Fleet Street and going into television full time. In Fleet Street I had been a freelance, all right, but there was always backup within reach, only a few desks away. In television, the backup is right there in the room with you. As I completed the transfer of my main effort from the old Observer building at the north end of Blackfriars Bridge to LWT’s stubby skyscraper across the river on the South Bank, I entered the experience of the previously freebooting Rudolph Rasendyll when he was sworn in to fulfil the duties of King of Ruritania, while the real king, his look-alike, began a new career as the Prisoner of Zenda. Suddenly I was surrounded. I had been absolutely alone when writing in my Barbican flat, and pretty well alone even when writing in the Observer’s open-plan office. When writing at home in Cambridge I could lock myself away until some member of my family turned up to ask why a pair of my used socks had been found in the refrigerator. Now I was never alone except in the toilet, where I soon found that locking myself into a cubicle was not much protection from hearing myself talked about by young men standing at the urinals. (‘Jesus, he’s looking rough.’ ‘And it’s only Monday.’) The Clive James on Television half-hour show was not only still running, it was about to be up-gunned to the status of a full hour Sunday night prime-time spectacular, starring myself seriously positioned behind a desk instead of perched in a white plastic egg-cup chair.

I rapidly discovered the television rule of thumb by which twice as long on screen computes to four times as long in the office. If you’re on screen for an hour a week and writing your own stuff, you can kiss your home life goodbye for four days out of any seven. Richard Drewett, in charge of my support personnel, told me to get used to the idea that it wouldn’t be only four days, it would be five: four days to accomplish what we were currently doing, and another day to prepare for what we would do next. The emphasis was on the ‘we’, not the ‘I’. There was a whole open-plan office full of beavering producers, assistant producers and researchers. There was another open-plan office next door full of clerical staff. All these people were dedicated to making me look clever. All of them expected, as part of their reward, that I would be on the case even if I had nothing to contribute except my opinion that we would need to see a shorter version of the Bavarian Folk-dance National Championship finals before we decided whether it would hold the screen. At twenty minutes, there was just no judging, except to say that the sad-looking youth in the felt cap who kept hopping forward with hands on hips was potentially funny. ‘Hoi!’ his companions cried lustily, and then they cried ‘Hoi!’ again. But he said nothing. He just hopped. He couldn’t hop and ‘Hoi!’ at the same time. I could always say that he hadn’t had time to memorize the script.

Thus I was inducted early into a principle about television that was to affect my life for the next two decades: you have to be there. As Talleyrand once said, he who is absent is wrong. At this point, if I were still writing a television script every week, I would say that I don’t mean Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, master diplomat: I mean Frank Talleyrand, who shared my desk in class 2B at Kogarah Infants’ School, and who was frequently hauled up in front of the class for playing truant. You may recognize the layout of the joke. Yes, I had my standard patterns ready. But they still needed a new variation every time. Though I was proud of every sentence that did the trick, after twenty years of it I was eventually to grow exhausted.

Exhaustion, however, will be a subject for later on. For now, you have to imagine me being relatively young — in my merest early forties — and entirely keen. It was, after all, the madly glamorous medium of television. Intelligent, civilized people were willing to give their lives to it, instead of to some more respectable activity, such as running the country. Richard, for example, could have been an Establishment figure had he so wished. He had the well-schooled background. He had the perfect manners. He was elegant from top to toe. Except, perhaps, for his feet. When he was in the army, an accident to one of them had necessitated an operation, which was botched, and therefore had to be repeated several times over the course of years, with a new bungle each time. The resulting bad foot put paid to his legitimate hopes as a driver of fast cars in competition, although he still owned a stable of them and didn’t seem to drive very slowly to anyone in the passenger seat of his road car, a silver 6-Series BMW. Somehow, while thus crippled, he even managed to set the record in his class in the Shelsley Walsh hill climb, driving a Lotus-Ford V8 that could be heard in the next county. Few people in television knew that he was a driver, and few people in motor-sport knew that he was in television. He could also play several musical instruments to a high standard, but only other musicians knew it.

Richard was one of those few people who can do almost everything, and one of the even fewer who don’t tell you. He made a point of not drawing attention to himself, but there could be no doubt that the bad foot might have been designed to frustrate such an aim. The bad foot could not tolerate any downward pressure for more than twenty minutes, so he wore white plimsolls with the top of one of them cut away. Since he was otherwise impeccably dapper from his pale, tightly drawn features on downwards — pain accounted for the pallor — the anomalous footwear was an attention-getter. A gentleman of the old school, he neither apologized nor explained, and, England being England, various bigwigs and mandarins would have dealings with him for years on end without ever enquiring as to why a man who could have modelled for Savile Row was wearing joke shoes. The same bigwigs and mandarins, if someone had fallen naked past the window of their top-floor boardroom while they were taking tea together, would have done nothing to change the topic of their conversation. Still the Kid from Kogarah, I blundered straight in and asked him for the details. To the extent that he could, he opened up. Underneath, however, he remained uptight. The old country was still the old country and its gentry were still unforthcoming. As an Aussie who forthcame without being asked, I had found that there was a small but interesting percentage of the local upper orders who rather enjoyed being jolted out of their reticence. But reticence was still the rule. This especially applied to the gentry’s immediate cousins, the executive upper middle class. Richard was one of these. In an earlier incarnation he would have helped to administer India, taken his holidays at Simla and acquired a bad reputation among his contemporaries for giving the time of day to that fellow Kipling. But here he was, in television. Blighty was continuing to loosen up.

The 1960s, a brief historical period to which the media had almost instantly attributed its own zeitgeist, had been only partly responsible for this transformation. A deep urge to rattle the furniture could be traced all the way back to the fin de siècle, when Lord Alfred Douglas had got off with the leading playwright of the day and, even less forgivably, had contracted a fatal urge to write poetry of his own. Before World War I, the absurdly well-bred young Lady Diana Manners was shooting heroin in quantities that would have impressed Keith Richards, and later on, in her next incarnation as Lady Diana Cooper, she could be seen on stage and in the movies, even if she never did very much beyond looking aristocratic. In the 1920s the poisonously snobbish young genius Evelyn Waugh, whose dearest wish was to rub waistcoats with the armigerous, did not rule out Fleet Street as a road to his desires. It had never been a clear case of the yobs taking over. There had always been an element of the nobs lusting for the lowlife buzz. But there was a limit to how far they would agree to be ridiculous.

The limit was passed in the rock music of the late 1970s, when even such a wonderfully lyrical band as Led Zeppelin had looked so silly in action that only the blind could stop laughing. Though I had never seen them live, I remembered them well, because late one night I had tuned in to a television pop show in the hope of seeing Pan’s People letting their hair down and I had been confronted with Robert Plant instead. He was a bit of a comedown after Dee Dee Wilde. If Dee Dee had been so scantily clad there would have been cause for celebration. But Robert Plant had only a thin chest to bare and seemed, at first, to be doing most of the celebrating all by himself. Brushing his locks impatiently out of his eyes like Janis Joplin in full frenzy, he flounced, stamped and pouted in an ecstasy of self-adoration, for which the bulge in his tight trousers might possibly have been the focus, if a focus can be something so flagrant. He looked as if he was smuggling a gun. Also he was doing an advanced version of that terrible thing where the singer keeps snatching his face away from the microphone after each short phrase, as if in fear of divine punishment for having created so much beauty. Thirty years later he would make one of the most enchanting rock albums ever, but at the time I had no means of knowing that, clairvoyance definitely not being among my gifts. I could tell he had a voice, but I could hardly hear for looking.

I thought that I had never seen anything quite so preposterously soaked in the rancid oil of self-regard. But then there came a shot of the audience and it turned out there were thousands of young people present who thought the world of him. My first rational conclusion, after the paroxysm of revulsion, was that the musical component of popular culture was beginning to forget its own history as fast as it was made. Surely such a cruel caricature of Mick Jagger was based on the misapprehension that Mick Jagger had not already been a caricature when he pioneered this mad business of kissing the air as if it were full of imaginary mirrors? Jagger had done a good job of synthesizing the whole poncing, pouting, sexually ambiguous tradition since Piers Gaveston cocked his bottom for Edward II, but wasn’t all that sort of, well, over? Now I realize that the foundations were being laid for what the eighties, the decade on which I was embarked, would call either glam rock or heavy metal or perhaps something else. Something called post-punk was in there too, still finding new forms of nastiness that would push the boundaries beyond those set by the distance to which Johnny Rotten could project a gobbet of phlegm. Glam post-punk heavy metal. Punk metal post-heavy glam. I forget the terminology now, because I hated everything about it that I could not manage to avoid seeing. If my memory serves me at all, the fundamental signs of glam rock were platform boots, lipstick for men and guitars with two tails, like scorpions. Heavy metal was mainly signified by leather pants and a level of noise that left Operation Rolling Thunder sounding like the adagio of the Schubert C-sharp minor quintet. The uproar hammered to death any music that might happen to be trapped inside it. To be in on glam rock, heavy metal or any of their noxious hybrids, you had to be interested primarily in money. The toffs, on the whole, had other things in mind.

As an ideal of true creative glamour, television better fitted their specifications. It was bohemian, but not very. The ambitious young among the gentler classes could find a home in it without, as it were, leaving home. From somewhere in that direction, Richard Drewett had arrived early among the camera cables and the lighting gantries. He was looking for something. Already he had found some of it — he produced all the first Parkinson programmes — but he remained trapped by his skill at meeting the elevated requirements of BBC2’s Late Night Line-Up, a respectable minority enterprise that took the arts seriously. Richard was more interested in taking mainstream entertainment seriously, but he needed a front-man. Eventually he decided that I might fill the bill. As I recounted near the end of North Face of Soho, we made our first documentary special together, about the Paris fashion shows, while still getting acquainted. His diligence during the editing of the footage had convinced me that he wasn’t kidding when he said that I would have to give up my lofty ideas about just pasting a voice-over on the finished product. If I wanted to take a proper part in getting all this stuff into shape, I would first have to climb into it up to my neck. Although the prospect of adding such a commitment to the full week I would have to put into the studio show was worse than daunting, I didn’t offer much resistance. After all, it was television, the new rock and roll, the in thing. It wouldn’t be like shovelling wet cow dung on a windswept hillside.